Last Wednesday morning—mere hours after my extraordinary day trip to Gimont-Cahuzac—Ashley and I pried ourselves out of the warm comfort of our beds and caught the 8 a.m. bus to Tarbes. From there we would make the 15-minute journey to Lourdes and add our number to the town’s nearly 6,000,000 annual visitors.
Lourdes has two striking landmarks:
The Château Fort de Lourdes—an old fortified castle towering above the city on a rocky outcrop (currently home to the Musée Pyrénéen).
And the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes—a massive religious complex centered around la grotte (the reputed site of a series of mid-19th-century Marian apparitions to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous).
The latter makes Lourdes the second most visited Christian pilgrimage site in Europe after Rome.
I found Lourdes to be a strange combination of small French town and major tourist/religious attraction.
It boasts only 15,000 residents but more than 250 hotels (most of which were closed during our off-season visit, making Ashley and me feel like we were in a shut-down resort town).
Arrows are painted on the old winding streets and cobbled sidewalks to guide visitors to the major Bernadette-related sites.
Nearly identical souvenir shops become more dense (and more expensive) as you approach the grotto, all peddling the same wares: prayer cards, rosaries, empty Our Lady of Lourdes bottles begging to be filled with Lourdes water.
And the candles lit in prayer don’t burn within them. Instead they’re assembled outside, shielded from the wind by metal shelters arranged in a plaza of flickering flames.
The sacred water no longer flows freely from its source in the grotto. Instead it’s collected and diverted to a bath complex where pilgrims can plunge into the cool, clear water, and also to a series of taps for filling the aforementioned bottles—often to epic proportions.
The tangible sanctity of the place and the burning devotion of its visitors clashes uncomfortably with mass-produced saint figurines bedazzled with Swarovski crystal, signs for the wax museum, and posters advertising the twice daily showing of Je m’appelle Bernadette at the Christian movie theater.
I felt intrusive and out of place. I felt like an anthropologist studying a fascinating alien phenomenon. Critical of the kitsch. But awed by the sheer force of a faith that isn’t mine.
Click here for more photos from Lourdes.