The mid-afternoon autumnal sun was shining down on St. Foy Abbey, Conques, in the Aveyron, France, from our high viewpoint, it appeared bathed in golden light. The imposing abbey stood proud in the centre of the small village, the triple spires towering over the tiled roofs, and narrow, cobbled side streets. The cobbles worn smooth, and flat by the footfalls of many thousands of weary pilgrims climbing the steep alleys over several centuries.
From our viewpoint on a hill high above the village, we could see an intrepid stonemason repairing tiles on the roof of the abbey. Though he was also shy, and eagle-eyed, as once he realised we were taking pictures, he hurriedly hid behind the largest spire.
Several minutes later, we stood beneath the impressive spires, which cast long shadows from a typical autumnal low sun, sneaking just over the surrounding hills. We followed the roads, falling away steeply towards the abbey, souvenir shops lining the route, and quaint stone houses built into the hill. As we passed, the signs of a couple of taverns swung silently in the gentle breeze.
The Romanesque abbey, and medieval village of Conques are a popular place to pause for pilgrims on the Saint-Jacques-de-Composte, or Santiago de Compostela and trekkers on the Via Podiensis, GR 65. Both are great ways of seeing some of the Aveyron countryside, and there were still plenty of visitors, even this late in the year. Modern-day pilgrims armed with digital cameras, smartphones, and trekking poles, dressed in Gore-Tex jackets, approach shoes, and carrying colourful, technical daypacks.
In fact it seems likely many use smartphone GPS, or an app to navigate their pilgrimage.
Couples, and small groups strained their necks. looking upwards toward the highest spires, peering through half-slanted eyes at the carvings of the Tympanum above the huge entrance doors of the abbey. Larger groups on guided tours seemed to pour out of open doorways, their guides directing them to any points of interest, providing a narrative of historical facts. The small village appears like a bustling town square, with visitors streaming into the abbey courtyard from all points of the compass.
Inside, our group was fortunate to take an early tour of the upper balconies, exploring the stone passages, and watching the visitors far below from our privileged vantage point. This seemed slightly voyeuristic, secretly spying on those lighting precious candles, praying silently, while others used smartphones, and cameras to record their spiritual journey.
There is genuine treasure stored here, precious gemstones, intricate gold statues, and ornate tapestries displayed in “The Treasury”. The relics of of Sainte Foy, brought here from Agen in 883, marking the abbey, and village as an important waypoint for pilgrims following the Saint-Jacques-de-Composte. There are two rooms, displaying the superb craftsmanship of the medieval artisans, jewellers, and goldsmiths.
These could be French crown jewels found in the Aveyron, equally beautiful, comparably impressive, more accessible than those in the Tower of London, and reason enough to make a pilgrimage.
There was still time in the late afternoon sunshine to explore the labyrinthine alleyways of the village, wandering along the cobbled streets, stumbling across unexpected courtyards, and high stone walls, but all eventually leading back to the abbey. The coffee shops, and taverns were tempting, but the day was almost over, as was our short visit, and there still seemed plenty to discover.
As the sun slowly dipped below the surrounding hills, and we made our way back to the transport, others were also drifting away, while the villagers were still going about their business. Seeing one of the monks making his way hurriedly towards the abbey, seemed a fitting climax to our visit to this small village with an impressive abbey, along a pilgrim’s way.