Feed your body and soul in Conques – Meanderings through France n° 201
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Conques is a superb village east of Cahors and Bergerac in southwest France. Set in a remote semi-mountainous region, half hidden in deep forests this preserved village is since the 9th century a holy place of Christendom. It can also be the perfect place to forget everything about your good resolutions and give in to food temptations. Who could blame you in your quest for spiritual and material food?
Conques, an inspiring village
Getting to Conques will take you up and down winding roads to finally through a picturesque area where deep gorges have been dug by two rivers, the Lot and the Dourdou. Conques is an amazingly well preserved medieval village where little has change through the centuries. Nearing the village you will see it the same way as the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela did one thousand years ago. The tall silhouette of the abbey church still stands like a lighthouse set in the middle of an ocean of trees with its stone walls taking a golden shade under the sun light.
After leaving your car in one of the large car parks opened at the village entrance start your journey back in time. No cars are allowed in the streets and you will see the village in the same way pilgrims have seen it for centuries. The medieval ramparts, fortified gateways and towers are still there, as well as the many fountains, the ancient bread oven, the houses specifically built to dry chestnuts, roman and Renaissance chapels, the small workshops, the “Humières” castle, the convent and the monastery guesthouse that still welcomes pilgrims. Built with diverse material such as blue schist, red sand stone, bronze limestone and slate roofs, they all have been miraculously preserved and spared from any stupid restoration.
You will irresistibly be drawn to the church. The Ste Foy abbey church is a gem of Roman architecture. The pediment tympanum is a rare description of the Last Judgement sculpted in the 12th century and depicts in an explicit way the sad fate of the poor damned on one side and the joys of eternal life in heaven on the other. In the middle souls are weighed in order to assess the weigh of their sins, and if you watch carefully you will see the Devil trying to tilt the balance in his favour! Originally painted in bright colours it must have been a vivid and terrible lesson given to our ancestors’ simple minds. An unknown medieval sculptor made these 29 scenes and 124 characters and his work still is often shown in example in history of art books.
Even if you’re not religious you will feel the spirituality that radiates from this abbey. Its sober arches are impressively high but beautifully emphasized by the light going through the stained-glass windows created by Pierre Soulages from 1987 till 1994. Pierre Soulages is worldwide famous for his paintings, especially his “Outrenoir”, (Ultrablack). He was born in another town of Aveyron, Rodez, but he says that his artistic vocation was born in Conques when he was only 14 years old. It took him seven years with the help of a master glazier, Jean-Dominique Fleury, to invent the unique translucent glass that gives Mr Soulages’ stained-glass windows their incredible iridescent quality. The glass colours and the light getting into the church always change according to seasons or time of day. You may go to Ste Foy Church as many times as you like, it will never be exactly the same thanks to this unique illumination.
Unlike many churches the galleries of Conques’ abbey are open to the public giving a close access to the capitals sculpted on top of the high arches and to the floods of light going through Soulages’ stained-glass windows. Guided tours in English are organised every day and you will thus discover many examples of the medieval artists’ skill. In the former monk’s refectory you can see the Abbey’s Treasury, a true jewel of Conques’ heritage. Built up along the centuries with the donations of pilgrims and penitents, it is today the largest collection of French religious reliquaries and liturgical objects. The masterpiece of the Treasury undoubtedly is the extraordinary Ste Foy Reliquary covered with gold, precious stones, cameos and intaglios. Medieval and renaissance gold and silver crosses, reliquaries, statues, chalices… complete this unique collection. Some of them are still used during religious ceremonies. The Ste Foy Reliquary is carried by four men, through Conques’ streets every year in October for the feast of Ste Foy, a young Christian girl martyred in 303. (6, 7 and 8 October 2019)
Marcillac, a small yet quality PDO area
The Marcillac Protected Designation of Origin is only 185 ha wide and produces red and rosés wines, as well as a few white ones. Vines have been grown in the area since the 9th century on the steep hillsides along the Ady River going from Conques to Rodez (the town where you can visit the great Soulages Museum). In this semi-mountainous region winters are harsh while summers are hot and sunny. This could make it difficult to grow vine but the Ady Valley has a milder microclimate creating perfect conditions for quality grape harvests. The main grape variety is a local one called mansois, with a little addition of Cabernet franc or Merlot. Marcillac red wines have a strong body with a dark red colour with blue and purple undertones. They have rich and powerful aromas of red berries, blackcurrant, raspberry or sloe mixed with a spicy and peppery touch.
Many wine makers welcome tourists in their winery and enjoy sharing their passion even with novices. A wine road has recently been created to help you find your way from one estate to the other. On your way you can stop at the “Domaine du Verdus” (the Verdus Estate), that Aline Solignac and Philippe Rousseau bring back to life since 2015. These two are hard workers and totally devoted to their land and vines.
The estate has been in Aline’s family for generations but had fallen into neglect for years. They have courageously cleared their land and replanted young vines including a long forgotten local white grape variety called Saint-Côme. They are among the very few wine makers making white Marcillac. One may wonder why since this variety grows very well here and produces a delicious wine with apple, peach and pear aromas. They make organic wines with full respect for the soil, the vines and consumers.
Their first vintages are full of promise and worth discovering. As the vines age Aline and Philippe will only improve the richness and complexity of their wines. Aline also grows vegetables that she sells to local chefs and on village markets. Grown in the same spirit of respect for mother-nature her production is super-healthy and we enjoyed her great green asparagus with one of Philippe’s wines, a white one, named “Roussellou”. Simple and tasty! Le Verdus” is located in Saint- Cyprien-sur-Dourdou close to Conques. Phone number +33 (0)6 83 36 05 17
Tasty local food
There are so many good produce in Conques area that you will easily find something to your taste. Goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s cheese, charcuterie (ham, salami or local friton made with fried pork or duck), foie gras, cheese soup, the iconic aligot made with mashed potatoes and creamy fresh cheese, stuffed cabbage, saffron, kid in sorrel sauce… it’s an endless list of mouth watering temptations! If you’re interested in unusual products you can visit an ostrich farm located in Senergues (11km away from Conques). The farm is located on a high plateau where you will also meet the beautiful local red cows. It truly is fun to watch these big birds romping in the middle of the French green countryside. They are very curious animals and will be pleased to get acquainted! The Vigouroux family has been taking care of these birds of sturdy character for over twenty years and will tell you everything you want to know about them. In the farm’s shop you will find handbags, belts or wallets made in the incredible leather made with their skin as well as many different patés made with their tasty lean meat.
Where to stay?
“Le Moulin de Conques” (Conques’ Mill) is a beautiful old mill on the bank of the Dourdou River. The Busset family will warmly welcome you in this 4-star hotel that has only 8 rooms and one suite with beautiful views over the river. Hervé Busset is the chef of the restaurant and has rightfully earned a Michelin star. Diner is served on the outside terrace or in the lovely dining room and you will enjoy a memorable diner. Inspired by nature Hervé loves to use wild plants that he himself picks up in the woods and meadows surrounding the hotel. Let him guide you and discover a wonderful innovating cuisine.
More at www.moulindecambelong.com/fr/
Conques and its surrounding definitely is a land of plenty. Well hidden at the end of small roads, lost in the middle of chestnut woods you will discover real treasures that will satisfy both your soul and your body!
More information: http://www.tourisme-conques.fr/en/index.php
More about beautiful Aveyron: http://www.tourisme-aveyron.com/index_en.php
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes