Day tripping: Pilgrimage to Lourdes

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).

Château Fort de Lourdes

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).

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

La Grotte, Lourdes

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).

Hotels, hotels, hotels

Arrows are painted on the old winding streets and cobbled sidewalks to guide visitors to the major Bernadette-related sites.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANearly 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd when you finally arrive at the scene you are greeted by a color-coded map reminiscent of Disneyland’s and detailing the layout of the sanctuary’s 22 distinct places of worship.

Sanctuary map, LourdesConstructed after Bernadette’s visions and atop the grotto, the principal churches are modern—their gold accents gleaming even under the weak February sun.

Rosary Basilica, Lourdes

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.

Prayer candles, Lourdes

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.



  1. This is truly a very fascinating place! I appreciate your links to some of the facts and history relating to Bernadette and her visions. I had always heard of Lourdes and its miraculous springs and grotto, and the many pilgrims, but had no specific facts or images. The photos are wonderful and very illuminating.

    1. It was definitely one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. I actually did most of my research about the facts and the history behind Lourdes after I got back home. It was weird to have traveled there kind of just on a whim, not fully understanding the significance of the place while I was there, only to learn about it while editing my photos afterward.

  2. I visited Lourdes back in late October, and walked away with very much the same opinion. It was a strange place to be when I felt no religious attachment to the place. When I was there it was full of people, many of whom were really suffering. I felt like I an intruder.

    1. I actually read your post the week before my housemate decided she wanted to go for the day. I definitely agree with Rick Steves about the tackiest souvenirs ;).

      If I felt as intrusive as I did with hardly anyone there in February, it must have been even more strange to have been there in October with so many more people around. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the peak of summer…

  3. […] week after my sojourn in Pau and mere days after my mid-week excursions to Gimont-Cahuzac and Lourdes, I headed to Albi with my friend […]

  4. […] Stay tuned for upcoming day trips to Gimont-Cahuzac and Lourdes. […]

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