Location: Not a village of Haut Quercy, but well worth visiting, Conques lies About 100km south east of
Martel, in the gorge of the Dourdou River in the north of the departement of Aveyron.
The trip there takes about two hours by car and is perfect for a day's outing.
Early in the 11th century the Book of Miracles of Saint Foy, a great literary work written by Bernard, the head of the Angers' episcopal college, revealed the existence of an 'important town, built on the hill above the monastery'. This was Conques, already a regional trading centre, encouraged by the local monks and by the pilgrims that passed through on the routes to Santiago de Compostela from Puy-en-Velay and Rodez to the east.
The monks could not provide sufficient food and accommodation for the great numbers of pilgrims and a pofitable trade in hospitability in private houses or hostels was created. The monks installed tenants on the lands received as donations. Redistributing a part of the pilgrims' offerings, they attracted numerous down-and-outs and beggars were legion in Conques. At the same time, the existence of a monastic school is testified with its library and typescript workshop. In the second half of the 12th century, a number of near simultaneous construction projects including the abbey-church, the cloister, the monastic buildings and the city walls, produced a considerable call for manpower, swelling the population even more and bringing the town to its biggest and most successful ever.
In 1341 Conques still boasted 730 homes, with about 3000 inhabitants, a real urban town with city walls, municipal institutions and trading activities. And at the end of the Middle Ages its regional market and annual fair replaced the dwindling pilgrim trade.
But hard times came in the 16th century with a fire that destroyed part of the village, followed by famine, epidemics of the plague and failed harvests. By the middle of the 18th century there were less than 1000 inhabitants. By the eve of the Revolution there were only 630, mainly wine growers, farm workers and beggars, living in great poverty. Following the Revolution, religious orders were abolished and the village lost the canons who had undertaken the church's maintenance at their own expense. . The golden treasures of the abbey were hidden by inhabitants in their houses or in chestnut drying sheds around the area and when Bonaparte restored the religious peace all the objects were scrupulously returned. But the new authorities simply could not afford the expenses the canons had borne and, through lack of money, merely deplored the sad neglected state of the edifice from then on. By the 19th century Conques had dwindled to a small village.
In danger of falling down through lack of maintenance, the abbey-church was rescued at the last minute from 1837 thanks to the action of the first Historical Monuments Inspector, the writer Prosper Mérimée. In 1873, after the settling of an order of Premonstrant Fathers in Conques, a great rehabilitation programme was implemented. For 150 years the Historical Monuments service has continued the work to safeguard this heritage in collaboration with local councillors.
Nowadays the crowd of tourists has now taken over from pilgrims in the church square or round the golden majesty of Saint Foy. The abbey-church and the cloister, which hold so many treasures, fit perfectly into an exceptional mediaeval village which has kept its authenticity through its cobbled streets, roman fountains and its bread oven which sits in a marvellous setting. The houses with wooden sides covered by high roofs in silver schist, the old pilgrims' hospice and the Humière castle all crowd round the church, creating a whole picture. So, like the pilgrims en route to Compostela, modern tourists have can still go through the town's gates in the old wall. Beyond the Barry Gate - beyond the village - you can go down the Rue Charlemagne, lined with old houses, up to the humpback bridge over the Dourdou. By the Vinzelle Gate, where the road led off to Figeac, you can walk up to the top of the city walls.