Leaving our misty valley view in Autoire, we first stopped at services at nearby Gramat to fill up with fresh water. It was the time of year taps were beginning to be turned off, for fear of freezing, so we filled up when we could. A quick supermarket stop and we were all fully set, so we headed out along the pretty country roads towards Rocamadour.
We arrived at the large car-park at the top of the hill, by the terminal of the funicular that carries visitors down the mountain. After a little deliberation on whether the aire was actually open, we parked up alone in the huge gravel area by the closed campsites and readied ourselves for exploring. We first walked to the château, then the cross at the top of the cliff, before starting down the stone paths leading to the medieval town. The winding hairpin route was slippery with the build-up of wet fallen leaves and we had to be rather careful, so made slow progress. Each corner turn had an icon for pilgrims to view or rest at as they passed, and one expansive plateau between two paths housed an area of intricately carved columns with decorative statuary, all seemingly created out of the cliff face.
Dropping down quickly under the cover of yellowed trees, we soon arrived at the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary and its complex maze of ancillary buildings, all built on or into the cliff face. This was a 12th century Benedictine community precariously perched on the face of the cliff, about halfway up, with the community village below. We could just see the Alzou river, flowing between limestone cliffs over 120 metres high, between the red-amber foliage of the blanket of overhanging valley trees. Long, straight runs of carved stone steps led us on, ever downwards. When we reached the village at the bottom of the cliff, it was almost entirely empty, the early hour and the dour weather having scared off all but the most dedicated tourists. We walked the length of the narrow, winding main street, far enough to see the tall château, built to help defend the sanctuary, balanced on the high plateau of the rocky cliff behind.
GR6 – walk
More dull drizzle welcomed us on Sunday morning, lightly tapping on Benny’s roof. After a slow start to see if the inclement weather would clear, we noticed a slight brightening and finally decided to get on with our day and go explore beyond Rocamadour town. With our walking boots and waterproofs on, we headed off feeling sure we would spend a good portion of the day getting wet. We enjoyed re-visiting the beautiful tree-lined hairpin decent past the château and down towards the medieval town. We passed through the stone tunnel and the grounds of the sanctuary church complex built up against the rock face, before descending the main stone stairway to reach the edge of town. From here we headed west out of town on the well-marked Grand Randonnee 6, or GR6 for short. This dedicated walking route was to be our main companion for the day, through the beautiful valley forests.
Our spirits were lifted by the beauty of the autumnal leaves on the many trees lining the valley floor and sides of this limestone gorge. Our route along the gorge’s valley floor curved in harmony with our neighbour, the meandering L’Alzou river. We followed an easy trail through intensely beautiful scenery, even when viewed through the persistent drizzle. This led us first to a deep sink hole, named le Gouffre de Cabouy, where several dry-suited divers were preparing to descend into the passageways below. This over-ground limestone gorge covers a network of many underground caverns and connected stretches of labyrinthine tunnels. We continued around the edges of the blue pool and onwards to our planned destination of le Gouffre de Saint Sauveur, a stunning swim spot recommended in our Wild Swimming France book.
The promise of crystal clear, azure water on a warm sunny summer day was conjured up easily in our minds, but on this damp November day, although pretty with the autumn colours of the surrounding woodland blanketing its high cauldron backdrop, the pool was slightly lacklustre in comparison to the one of our imaginations. The surface was partially covered with algae and fallen leaves, so neither the depth of colour nor visibility was pristine. There were canyon divers here too, their presence foretold by giveaway bubbles, and we sat and ate some snacks as we waited for them to slowly resurface from the blue depths. Once they had waddled out in their fins and returned to their cars, we had the pool entirely to ourselves, and Nicky prepared herself for a dip. I opted out for once, becoming the designated towel-holder and cameraman as Nicky wriggled into her swimsuit and rash vest and slowly eased her feet along the gradually sloping sandy bottom to reach the blue water of the deeper part of the pool.
Nicky reports: So many times we’ve visited a place in winter months and have agreed how lovely the place would be in the summer; here was no exception. Yet visual beauty was only one way to seduce your senses. After a summer of enjoying many Scandinavian swims, whether wetsuit or birthday suit, quick dip or lengthy training swim, it had been a long while since we had been immersed. When swimming skins on a cool, wet November day you anticipate the biting temperature of the water grabbing your skin and enveloping you in a tightly-hugging chill. This somewhat sadistic feeling is ultimately invigorating, refreshing and pleasurable all at once, a nerve-tingling thrill and a sensory overload. It’s even more special when coupled with a deep natural pool in rural French countryside, surrounded by overhanging autumnal trees, reached by a lovely, lingering 7km hike. All other thoughts in your mind are banished as the enlivening feeling from the cold water accompanies you in a tranquil cocooning haven; a special moment.
With Nicky dried off and suitably re-clothed, we returned by the same path back to Rocamadour. The winter scenery continued to impress through a dull light drizzle that turned into a heavy deluge seconds after we made it back to Benny. Happy to have made something of an otherwise washout of a day we snuggled cosily inside, content with our efforts, and enjoyed many cups of warming tea. It would have been so easy to stay in and miss out on creating this wonderful memory.