Conques is one of the great villages of southwest France. It occupies a spectacular position on the flanks of the steep, densely wooded gorge of the little River Dourdou, a tributary of the Lot. It was its abbey that brought Conques into existence, after a hermit called Dadon settled here around 800 AD and founded a community of Benedictine monks, one of whom is said to have pilfered the relics of the martyred girl, Sainte-Foy, from the monastery at Agen. Known for her ability to cure blindness and liberate captives, Sainte Foy’s presence brought the pilgrims flocking, earning the abbey a prime place on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

The village is very small, largely depopulated and mainly contained within medieval walls, parts of which still survive, along with three of its gates. The houses date mainly from the late Middle Ages, and the whole ensemble of cobbled lanes and stairways is a pleasure to stroll through. At the village’s centre, dominating the landscape, stands the Romanesque Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy, begun in the eleventh century, whose giant pointed towers are echoed in those of the medieval houses clustered tightly around it. Its plain, fortress-like facade rises on a small cobbled square beside the tourist office and pilgrims’ fountain, the slightly shiny silver-grey schist prettily offset by the greenery and flowers of the terraced gardens.

In startling contrast to this plainness is the elaborately sculpted Last Judgement in the twelfth-century tympanum above the door, which admonishes all who see it to eschew vice and espouse virtue. The treasury was a crucial destination for pilgrims on the Santiago de Compestela route; the main goal was to see Sainte-Foy’s relics displayed in the choir, encircled by a lovely wrought-iron screen. A piece of skull in the reliquary has been authenticated and the church was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1998. There is some fine carving on the capitals, especially in the triforium arches; to see them, climb to the organ loft, which gives you a superb perspective on the whole interior.

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