Set in a gorge above the River Alzou, a tributary of the River Dordogne, in the Lot Department of South West France, lies the small cliff top village of Rocamadour. Rocamadour attracts pilgrims from all over the world and has done for centuries – famous pilgrims from history include Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II of England; Kings Louis IX, Louis XI & Charles IV of France. In summer, this little village in the middle of nowhere, is jammed packed with visitors. Apart from its stunning location, Rocamadour is known for its Cite Religieuse complex of religious buildings, accessed via the Grand Escalier Staircase. The complex includes the Chapelle Notre Dame, with its Black Madonna statue and the Romanesque – Gothic Basilica of St Sauveur.
In August, Rocamadour’s campsites (of which there are many), are invaded also by music lovers – the Festival de Rocamadour include chamber music, orchestral music and soloists.
Interesting though the village is, for families with children, the prospect of climbing the steep stone stairways viewing ancient buildings in the August heat isn’t really appealing. BUT, Rocamadour to me and my family isn’t really the village – we head to the north east corner of the village to a magical place we first discovered in 2006. This place is La Foret de Singes (Monkey Forest), a park where around 150 Barbary Macaques (aka Magots) live and roam free in a forest environment.
The Barbary Macaques are an endangered species, originating from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The idea of the park is to provide the apes with natural living conditions as close to their native conditions as possible in order to preserve the species and once numbers increase and they are no longer endangered, they will be ultimately reintroduced into the Atlas Mountains.
Raising public awareness about threats to the species is another aim. Entering the park there are strict regulations for visitors – both for the safety of the visitor and the apes. The park is well secured… there are gates to enter in and out of the forest itself .. but other than that, no other zoo like feature exists. Regulations include not going too close the apes, especially the babies as the parents could consider the visitors as a threat; the young apes are prone to taking food out of people’s pockets/bags and hats off heads – the young ones are braver and will approach you to take food off your outstretched hands. You can get bags of popcorn at the entrance so you can feed the apes you come across as you follow the paths through the forest – and there are also set feeding time areas where the rangers feed the apes whilst explaining (mostly in French) their work, the apes and the conservation aims.
Wandering through the forest, some places reminded me of scenes from Disney’s Lion King – I was expecting Simba the lion to appear on a rock and roar!
The highlight of the day for us all was being able to feed the apes, although on our first trip my eldest son was very wary and was too scared to participate – but the others were a lot braver and enjoyed the experience. Outside the gated area is a shop with the inevitable shelves lined with soft cuddly Barbary Apes; and a cafe where you can get a well deserved ice cream – or have a picnic indulging in freshly made baguettes with the local goats milk cheese, “Rocamadour”, which was awarded AOC status in 1996!
As a family, we’ve always visited in the height of the season in August – the roads to get into Rocamadour are often congested but away from the centre, as you head to the forest the traffic is fairly light and the park itself, although busy, does not feel crowded even at lunchtime. If you get a chance, just along the road is the Dinosaur Park – a cleverly laid out park winding down a hillside featuring some fabulous dinosaur statues – very pushchair/wheelchair friendly and wasn’t crowded whenever we’ve visited, either.
The La Foret de Singes was opened in 1974 – it has other parklands in the “group” in Europe where you can experience the work of the Barbary Macaques conservation associations. These are: La Montagne des Singes (France); Affenberg Salem (Germany); Trentham Monkey Forest (England).
If you wish to visit the forest, it is open March – November.
All photographs are by Linda Hobden.