Conques Abbey: Romanesque, Romantic and Starkly Modern
Summer 2020… we went on a somewhat different holiday. Conques Abbey was a station of our little road trips to get to know Occitaine a little better.
We had not seen my in-laws for nearly a year, and as soon as travelling rules were relaxed and we managed to take a few days off work, we took an all day, four-flight adventure to visit my father in law. Previously, a budget airline flight to Toulouse, which were cheap and plentiful, and travelling was a breeze, but not now as the airport in Blagnac (which is mainly a huge Airbus Airfield) was pretty much shut down. While we kept close to the house most of the time, I pleaded with my husband to go on a little trip.
Part of my carefully laid plan was to visit the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Foy and its Pierre Soulages-designed windows in what I believed to be a perfect marriage of ancient and modern. The previous year I had seen the designs in the Musee Soulages in Rodez. At first I wondered “what is this room full of clear stripey church windows?”. Enter Conques Abbey. Enchanted by the other works of Soulages, I wanted to see them in situ.
But how did Conques Abbey get its modern windows?
The Conques Abbey Window Project
The Abbey of Sainte Foy in Conques is a romanesque church completed in the 12th Century. Apart from the Western Entrance, where a tympanum depicting the Last Judgement is carved into stone, the church has very few decorations. It was at some point part of a Benedictine Monastery and a pilgrim church en route to Santiago de Compostela, and part of the Chemin de St Jaques / Way of St. James.
After the Benedictine Monks were moved out in the 16th Century and the church torched by Protestant troops, the abbey became neglected. Its precarious position on a hillside added to it being slowly destroyed by erosion and neglect.
After the French Revolution it was further neglected and partially destroyed. Historic pictures from the mid-1800s show a partially collapsed roof and apse. The whole church was at risk of collapsing, and plans were made to completely demolish the building.
Prosper Merimee (who wrote “Carmen”), in his role as Inspector of French monuments at the time, saved the church and many other historical buildings from demolition in the 1830s and had the church listed. After a lengthy renovation, new stained glass windows were inserted in the 1950s, but soon were criticised for being too colourful for a former Benedictine Abbey.
They were eventually replaced by Soulages’ pared-down clean windows. Today just over 100 windows of the abbey bear the Soulages design. So here is another great church without a congregation, one of the most important works of romanesque architecture, and a wonderful place to visit if you are travelling between Lyon and Toulouse. Even in the 2020 virus-laden summer it got quite busy, although exclusively with French tourists.
Approaching Conques Abbey
Wherever you come from, Conques is way of of anything. We drove from Estaing, another scenic village on the Way of St James, along a very scenic gorges of the Lot river, and headed to Villefranche-en-Rouerge on our way back home (Gaillac). The most straightforward route is probably taking the D840 from Rodez, but French country roads are quite spacious and signposting is really good.
We parked just below the village and headed into the village and Conques Abbey which I am afraid to say, is a tourist attraction in its entirety. But it also means you can amble peacefully up the nicely paved road, and those less able to walk have no problems with wheelchairs.
On the shortish, roughly 500m walk you get glimpses of what I can only describe as Grimm fairy tale views of Conques Abbey and the village surrounding it. The small square in front has bathrooms, postcard shops, a selection of souvenir shops and cafes but is domineered by the abbey. So, let’s go in!
A sign of the time was the somewhat altered Holy Water – in true 2020 fashion.
I was relieved to find most visitors were enjoying the sun outside rather than visiting the Conques Abbey. It was very empty and very, well… bare, ascetic.
And in this atmosphere, the almost over simplified windows fitted perfectly. A wonderful marriage of romanesque style and modernity. Pierre Soulages, a citizen of nearby Rodez, is currently 102 years old and he has been active for well over 60 years, and the windows are considered a late work, having been completed in the 1990s. They are made in traditional lead technique from specialist opaque German glass, which is highly light-permeable, leaving the stark interior extremely well lit. This is quite unusual for Romanesque churches and their relatively small windows, but maximising light put this to a great effect in Conques, where there are long, uniterrupted lines and a lot of light.
Not many further adornments are needed, but they could not help but pop a very colourful Catholic statuette here and there.
Here you can see quite well the difference from original elevations, along with some statues, and the bits that have been reconstructed, basically from the lower set of windows upwards.
Unless you are a history of architecture fanatic, I would say half an hour is plenty to view the interior of the abbey. There is a separate museum holding the treasury, mostly precious metal shrines and other medieval reliquary, among them the statue of St. Foy whom the abbey is dedicated to. We didn’t go, choosing instead a bit of a walk up into the village.
Surrounding the abbey is a lovely medieval village with half-timbered houses, little gardens and ankle-breaking cobblestone streets.
And guess, what cars are not allowed, so this makes for some very peaceful walking, as about 90% of visitors stop at the abbey, or maybe follow the street round the abbey, but hardly any one bothers to climb up.
I did see some nice gardening inspiration for not-very-fertile grounds. Did I even spot a banana plant in there?
After we descended from our little walk up into the village, we joined the somewhat busier road, back to the car park, to start our drive along windy roads back to our base in Gaillac.
There is a lot we did not see, or rather, not photographed – the remnants of the medieval ramparts, the pilgrim bridge, the ancient bread oven of the village… but definitely I was able to fulfil a wish, seeing those fabulous Soulages windows for myself!
The Route to Compostela
Last not least, Conques Abbey is a major station of the St. James Way to Santiago de Compostela. Through France, five major route head towards the Pyrenees, where they meet and continue as the Camino Frances in Northern Spain. Conques is on the “Via podiensis” (Chemin du Puy, GR65) which runs right through the medieval village. Via podiensis has the highest concentration of religious and architectural monuments, with an espoecially high concentration at the relatively short section between Espalion and Cahors, which, at about 140km, with a maximum 400m height difference and some beautiful walking through the Lot Valley and is actually walkable in an average-sized holiday.
Practicalities and Small Print
We were on a family visit, so all is our own itinerary and our own money, although we could stayed with my in-laws for most of the period we were in France.
The local tourist office has a very good website about Conques Abbey .
Getting to Conques
Here’s the tricky thing: you need a car. We were lucky enough to take my father in laws bashed up Renault to tour the Aubrac and amble through the Lot Valley, as there really is no public transport convenient for tourists. The nearest train stations of Viviez-Decazeville and Aubin are about 10km away and on the train line to Rodez, from where you have regular (if slow) connections to Toulouse and Paris.
Where to Stay
We only stayed in an okay hotel in Aubrac, so I cannot recommend a place near Conques Abbey. Most accommodations are self catering or “Gites d’Etape”, pilgrim hostels. Since you need your own transport, I suggest staying in the charming cities of either Rodez or Figeac. Rodez is the larger of the two and has a cathedral, two excellent museums and a range of nice hotels, such as the Hotel Mercure (architectural gem) or the Hotel Midi (cheap and very good). Figeac is smaller, sleepy but very pretty, and has the excellent Musee Champollion (Museum of script and written language).