Visiting the French city of Lourdes is a thought provoking experience; mostly agreeable, in parts a little odd but well worth a detour to the foothills of the Pyrenees to discover for yourself. Six million people plus visit each year, many as a personal pilgrimage, making Lourdes the third most visited city in France.
Lourdes is not always a comfortable place to be. Generally, Lourdes place in the hearts of those who visit is bound as one with the Catholic Church, so those with a delicate constitution when it comes to religion, and Catholicism specifically, should look away now – quite honestly, I doubt you will find anything at Lourdes that will sway your thinking. I suspect that the endless stream of religious gift shops that guide the visitor from the coach parks to the gates of the chapel grounds will sit uneasily for some; surely a religious site is no place for such ‘in your face’ commercialism?
But don’t allow that first impression to define your visit to Lourdes. It is a place of hope, of love, of faith and once you enter the church grounds, these values take centre stage. It is life affirming, but to see those who are facing incredible challenges make this pilgrimage can be deeply saddening too. Perhaps they travel in the hope of a cure, more likely simply wanting to be closer to their God. The emotion, passion, and devotion – it is there in full view. All kinds of people, from all around the world, make this journey with hope in their heart and it’s certainly not my place to question the faith. If Lourdes calls to them at their darkest time, then who am I to question?
Within the grounds, the churches are remarkable; the architecture alone warrants respect. The Rosary Basilica is quite simply stunning, inside and out; filled to the rafters and with a choir in full voice it must be an incredible experience to attend a service there. The Basilica of St. Pius X looks like something out of Star Wars; it has a capacity of 25,000; incredibly modern, the simplicity of its design offers a startling contrast.
The grotto, the site of the visions and the starting point for all that Lourdes has become, is easily accessed and a place that encourages visitors to sit and reflect next to the river.
Now I have to say that we visited in March and it was quiet – at peak season, I suspect the queues will challenge …well…the patience of a saint. But when we were there, it was all very relaxed.
As for the rest of Lourdes, head for the castle to discover the real town. That part boasts a large indoor food market, many attractive restaurants and a delightful maze of old streets with more regular shops; in essence a beautiful French town with plenty of possibilities to sit out, reflect on life and watch the world go by. We also discovered a riverside walk that took us to the better hotels and again, revealed great places to eat.
Lourdes is all about Bernadette, her visions and the subsequent healings. That means millions of visitors, which means lots of hotels and gift shops; that’s not always pretty but allowing that to shape your view of Lourdes would be wrong – a beautiful town, bursting with hope, with the Pyrenees the perfect backdrop.
And no, I don’t have a faith, but I still felt richer for having visited this special place.
NB: Lourdes is about 1;45hr from Le Petit Cochon, at Valence sur Baise, so worth a day trip if the opportunity arises.