Up until 1858, Lourdes was a quiet modest county town of some 4,000 inhabitants. The fort was occupied by an infantry garrison, and the town was a place people passed through on their way to the spa cities with thermal baths. The setting itself is lovely.
It was here, in 1858, Bernadette Soubirous saw the first of her 18 visions of the Immaculate Conception, and by 1859 thousands of pilgrims were visiting Lourdes. It was relatively quiet yesterday, but the shrine of Lourdes is second only to Rome in its appeal to Catholics, and up to 25,000 pilgrims and tourists can be accommodated at one time.
There are almost as many hotels here as in Paris, and the focus is completely on the religious aspect of the town. That doesn’t mean there is no commercialism at work. Getting to the grotto is like running a gauntlet of souvenir and religious memento stalls, including those which sell containers for the water from the spring considered so holy.
And then there are the many pilgrims, the sick and those who assist them. There are volunteers from all over the world who transport and attend to those who come here hoping for a cure. Rather amazing to see them in action.
Once past the shops, one enters into the realm of the shrine. It does rather feel like walking to the Magic Kingdom, and it is very nicely arranged. The approach is to the two large basilicas (one on top of the other) that surmount the grotto itself, which is to the right of the churches. Around the right side, the first point of interest is the area where one can fill containers with Lourdes water, which is being done continually with quite a bit of passion.
And then you go just a bit further to find the grotto itself, an outcropping of rock on top of which these massive basilicas are built. Amazing. We arrive just as a Mass was finishing, and the crowd started to disperse. What happens next is that a line forms to walk through the grotto, constantly touching the walls, and getting a glimpse of the spring that Mary is said to have revealed to Bernadette – hence the sanctity of the water. It is an inspiring and beautiful spot, and it is touching to see the rapture of the faithful who have gathered there.
The upper and lower basilicas are both majestic and stunning, but it seems at some point they were no longer large enough. In time for the centenary in 1958, the Basilica of St. Pius X, known as the Underground Basilica, was built. It is almost entirely underground and when full it can accommodate 25,000 worshippers. Not surprisingly, it is very controversial and not much loved.
The last bit of Lourdes to see was the house where Bernadette was born (an old mill), the house that her family was reduced to after the mill failed, and the house that was built for her parents when it was determined that she had truly experienced apparitions, in the opinion of the Catholic Church. Her family still runs the last house, and the order of nuns she joined runs the hovel they moved to after the mill. They are all a bit reconstructed, but quite intact. The artifacts are amazing, like her childhood bed, the bed her mother died in, the family baptismal gown, which she helped embroider and which is still in use. and a model of the grotto that Bernadette herself made.
History and religion combine at Lourdes in a very powerful way. Even Don insisted on filling a bottle with water from the spring. Granted it was last night’s Fanta bottle, but still….
P.S. Our hotel view was so gorgeous. A parting shot of the town at sunrise: