European Escapades

Lourdes, It’s Just Not Cricket

09

Apr

2010

Our first glimps of the Pyrenees
Our first glimpse of the Pyrenees

Well with our time just outside of Biarritz in the rain, it was agreed sadly that we wouldn’t go to visit the town on such a damp overcast day. It was like being back in Blighty and I have always had fond thoughts for Biarritz and how it would be on my first actual visit to the town and the area. So rather than spoil the image I have of Biarritz in my head, we decided to turn left and go to Lourdes instead, also hoping that the weather would brighten up by the time we got there. Frances wanted to see the town anyway and she was hoping to get there for Good Friday. So her wish was granted as we packed up the campervan and headed for Lourdes. We took the D817 which followed the motorway all the way to Pau, before we cut off onto the D938 heading to Lourdes. As we moved South-east along our chosen route we started to see glimpses of what was to come, as the snowy mountain tips of the Pyrenees started appearing on the horizon for the first time.

Our chance meeting of the World Harmony Run
Our chance meeting of the World Harmony Run

I have never been to anywhere in France where I could see the Pyrenees before and the majestic mountains seemed to be calling like a siren to me. As we drove parallel to them, we would lose sight of the range for a few minutes and then, when they returned into view, through the trees they seemed to have edged closer to us. You could see Frances looking at them very quietly, as she contemplated our eventual trip over the mountain range itself. She could mull over them, because for now it was the famous Lourdes we were heading for. As we passed the village of ‘Betharram’ we spotted a number of runners bearing a torch like they do in the Olympics and intrigued we stopped a little ahead of the runners to find out what they were up to. It seems they were part of a world event called the World Harmony Run and we had caught them on the leg from ‘Oloron to Lourdes’. The World Harmony Run was founded in 1987 and is a global torch relay, seeking to strengthen international friendship and understanding. As a symbol of harmony, runners carry a flaming torch, passing it from hand to hand, travelling through over 100 nations around the globe. The website is packed full of information and pictures if you are interested to know more.

Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

The first thing we see as we enter Lourdes itself is the ‘Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes’ with the large grounds or Meadow along which now reside the water walk and are a series of nine stations at which there is a small Lourdes water font. The other prominent feature ahead of us, rising up from a rocky escarpment in the centre of the town is the fortified castle. We stop and talk to an elderly couple, to get directions to a aires de camping or the like. Seems the only one they know about is the ‘Le Clerc’ supermarket in the north of town. We have since discovered a nice camping car parking area just outside of the town centre as you head to the Funicular. If you don’t know what a Funicular is, then checkout out next blog where we tell you all about it. The couple are English and they are here it seems every year as they complain to us about having to pay for parking along the wall of the shrine complex this year. They told the local parking attendant they were disabled, as if this was an excuse for not paying like everyone else for the privilege of being so near the complex. They said he just shrugged his shoulders and told them everyone pays. Think I agree with the parking attendant on this one personally. Although I have noticed France is particularly good at providing free parking areas, not like our wasteful scavengers on UK councils, but then I don’t really know the way local government is funded in France. Not by car parking charges I am certain of that. We head off for provisions at the said ‘Le Clerc’ supermarket and note the large number of campervans parked on one side of the car park. They cannot all be here shopping so I guess some do stay here for the day or night. We don’t fancy a supermarket car park, so although it’s not in our ACSI book we decide to head up to the nearest campsite to see what it was like.

With a view like this from your window, it cannot get better
With a view like this from your window, it cannot get better

The site was on a hillside and the view of the Pyrenees is spectacular with the rugged mountains looming over us and the snowy peaks of yet even larger mountains behind them. The old Lady in the reception does not speak English, so with my pidgin French I do OK and manage to get us a pitch for €13 anywhere you can find, with free WiFi access to boot. It seems we got there just in time as we pick a nice flattish pitch near one of the rare electric posts dotted around the site. If we had come only an hour later we would have been fighting for space between the six or seven vans that came in after us. At one point of our stay, with the system of just park anywhere ran by the reception, one Irish family went with their campervan into town and came back to find their washing moved and their pitch taken by two Spanish camping cars. Find another one was the option of the day…For us the walk into town did not seem too far, so our campervan stayed put, allowing us perfect views of the mountains and the town of Lourdes.
The next morning we ventured in to get a closer look at the most famous of catholic pilgrimage sites and I have to say as you walk up the Esplanade to ‘Rosary square’ the view looking up to the Crypt and the Upper Basilica, both of which are built on top of Massabielle, is a beautiful site. Two enormous ramps, with statues of what I presumed were famous pops or saints following the curve up and around either side of Rosary Square towards the entrances of the Crypt and Basilica. The actual grotto itself is undecorated, although there was a plain stone altar and lectern so that Mass can be said there. Above the main recess is the niche where the apparitions are said to have took place and Fabisch’s statue now stands. A large stand of candles next to the altar is kept burning here. The spring Bernadette is said to have dug can be seen at the rear of the grotto, shielded by a glass cover. Pilgrims can process through the grotto and it is traditional to touch the rocks directly under the statue; indeed so many people have done this, that the stone has become polished. At the rear of the basilica and to the side of the grotto is a large area full of candles contained in what are called brulières. Large metal stands attended to by a number of feutiers, attendants whose job is to ensure candles are burnt safely and evenly, and to remove the trays of melted wax which collects under each brulière. A thankless task I guess as I look at the quantity and size of some of the candles, and knowing that they are burning constantly in remembrance.

The grotto with the ever burning candles
The grotto with the ever burning candles

As we head out of the sanctuary itself to look for a little sustenance, we finally meet the commercial side of Lourdes, with shops full of bric-a-brac, statues of Bernadette and Mary along with plastic rosaries aplenty. I look at shops displaying the freely available Lourdes water in numerous sizes, from a small vial to five litre containers so you can take a little of Lourdes home with you when you leave. I found it incredulous and funny at some of the items on sale, like your replica plastic musical grottos and a nice bedside alarm clock. The clock depicted Bernadette and Mary in the grotto on its large face and the two big shiny bells sitting atop, just waiting to cheerfully awaken you in the morning. I understand that the church, distances itself from such commercialisation. As the many trinket stalls we saw are privately owned, and the church strictly forbids the hawkers inside the sanctuary itself. But I cannot get the image of a large UK seaside town like Southend or Blackpool out of my mind, as we pass the numerous shops looking for a cafe to have lunch, full to the brim with the kind of stuff I would not even take one look at if I was at home. And yet someone must be buying all this stuff for the shops to be here in the first place. I suppose the other issue I had was with the church and Lourdes itself and the number of people we saw at the shrine who were there for some miracle that they believed would help them of their aches or afflictions. I understand that the number of sick people coming to Lourdes is in decline and that is a good thing in my opinion, but many still do come. Whilst we were there I saw a couple moving in the direction of the shrine, the man was on foot helping what I presume was his wife and the woman was on her knees, crawling slowly towards the shrine as pious as can be. I gleaned what she hoped for was some salvation, from whatever sickness she had when she got to the grotto. Whilst I found empathy for her plight, I also found her actions concerning. I was saddened by the fact that someone would get to this state of affairs, and in my mind be actively encouraged by an organisation that there was some hope for her in Lourdes where in my opinion there is none. Not from the mineral water flowing from the mountain spring in any case. As always with these things, show me proof that I can believe in of the curative properties of the water, then we may get somewhere. But I’m told I need faith to benefit. And as faith means a belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof of such a doctrine, I guess I will stay an Atheist for the time being. I think that you are born into this world from nothing; you exist and go back to nothing. If this is the case, and it’s the only certainty I have at the moment then I will have fun and try and get the most out of my life, time and experience on this earth whist I can. If I’m wrong I will face that challenge when it comes. But in my mind, it’s not worth concerning yourself with things that may or may not be, it until it can be proven as a possibility…

This entry was posted on Friday, April 9th, 2010 at 6:08 pm and is filed under Travel Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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