Whatever your religious beliefs, Lourdes is worth a visit – out of season!
On a cold November morning snug underneath the duvet, an air of anticipation crept over me as I thought about the morning’s adventure. After a seven hour journey the previous day that took us from Carcassonne in south west France, we had finally landed in Lourdes, partly as a stop over because we were exhausted and also we thought we might check it out before the snow came in. Lourdes wasn’t on our radar for specific personal pilgrimage; for us it was just a great chance to explore a much talked town that has a global reputation and it intrigued us. Well perhaps it more intrigued me.
Although I was educated in a Catholic Convent school as a small minority of non-Catholic students, my beliefs moved to a more spiritual and scientific nature as an adult. Yet I have always had a strange draw to Churches, influenced by my teenage years. It’s not so much about the religion per se, it’s more about the faith and devotion that goes into creating these magnificent buildings and the reverence that is encased within their walls. So coming to Lourdes was not a bucket list entry, although it was certainly a chance to pique my curiosity and uncover what lies behind a pilgrim’s determination to receive a holy blessing and a miracle cure from its waters.
Lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south west of France, Lourdes is a market-town that was originally built up around its chateau fortress that rises like a Phoenix from its craggy base. Sheltered by majestic mountains, Lourdes could be so easily missed, although one day in 1858 its destiny shifted in a heart-beat, thanks to the apparition of a young girl – placing them both firmly in the history books and on the international religious stage.
Bernadette Soubirous was the eldest of eight children born into a life of poverty. Many of her sibblings didn’t survive birth and Bernadette herself was a sickly child, contracting cholera when she was very young and tuberculous in her thirties. Yet when she was 14, out collecting firewood with her sister, a simple moment in time changed her life and that of her community forever.
An apparition spoke to her that day and on a further seventeen occasions, eventually revealing herself as the Immaculate Conception. The townsfolk were divided in their views of Bernadette’s claims, some of them thinking she had lost her mind. And yet throughout her interviews with the Church, she maintained her story and by 1862, the Church confirmed her visions were genuine. The building of the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes began and people came on pilgrimages to drink the holy water in the hopes of a cure from their ills. Today, Lourdes is the third most important religious site after the Vatican and the Holy Land. A town that started with simplicity at its heart, now must harness the partnership between religion and tourism, receiving over 6 million visitors each year. To this day there are no explanations for the miracles that occur here and to find scientific cause would in some way dishonour the faith and belief that this beautiful town has evolved around.
Whether you come as a pilgrim or an intrigued visitor like us, then a trip to Lourdes will not disappoint as long as you caste your eyes away from the religious influenced tourist shops. Every significant town of tourist merit of course has them, although move beyond them and the crowds and you will begin to feel the unquantifiable magic of Lourdes.
My first recommendation has to be to visit out of season. I can only imagine that the crowds from April to October are suffocating with people loosing their grace and humility to grab a drop of holy water and that Instagram selfie. At the end of November we had the place to ourselves and I am convinced that this added to the positive experience for us, as you could really hear the silence and reverence as it swept around the town’s major monuments.
Second recommendation is to follow… not the yellow brick road – instead follow the blue-lined roads, which guide you around the town’s best bits. This will ensure that you don’t miss the important historical jigsaw pieces that build up the evolutionary canvas of Lourdes.
Thirdly and paradoxically, get off the beaten track and be prepared to deviate from the blue-lines. We’ve always been a bit non-conformist in our explorations and like to find the real hub and throb of a place beyond the way-marked walks. There’s more than just religion in Lourdes. There was life before the apparitions and to feel Lourdes’ origins by visiting the fort, the undercover market and the back streets are all part of this town’s package.
And finally, make sure you have a minimum of three hours and up to two days to really soak up Lourdes’ subtle hews and palpable vibe – as to give it any less would be to miss something special about this holy ground.
7 Sights of Lourdes’ Soul
Tourism and religion work in partnership in Lourdes and for those making the pilgrimage to be at one with its healing magic they have a sole purpose. For the rest it is about seeking the soul of Lourdes beyond the holy waters and looking to understand the stories that lie behind the architecture, the ancient buildings and the protective landscape that surrounds it. Lourdes is one of the places of the world that really requires no marketing – it has an effortless allure. So for your trip to Lourdes, here are seven of the many major sights that need to go on your exploration list.
1. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
This has to be the number one draw for all visitors as this magnificent building housing a number of chapels, is at the heart of the apparitions of the Immaculate Conception. The building is truly devine with its magnificent architecture taking your gaze to the skies to marvel at its stone work. The slightly out of place and ostentatious golden cross creates a beacon as it sparkles in the autumn sunlight and the sweeping staircases either side of the Basilica looks like something out of Gone with the Wind. Although it is an incredible structure that has you transfixed in so many ways.
Walking into the many chapels I felt myself humbled by the sheer reverence that filled the air as people prayed on the basic looking pews. The sense of hope and faith is palpable, there’s no doubt. Yet it is as much outside the chapels that has you mesmerised. The paintings on the lower chapel walls, with closer examination are in fact the most intricate mosaics. And I defy you not to want to walk through Le Porte de Vie and see what is behind its doors.
We’ve been to the Vatican and have to say that the Basilica in Lourdes stands firmly shoulder to shoulder with the Pope’s Palace and you can imagine, with a mass of worshipers gathered beneath the cathedral, that the ambiance is quite electric. Experiencing all of this without the crowds though seriously appealed to me and no suffocation required today. Just a humbling opportunity to absorb the partnership of natural beauty with intriguing religious evolution. A strange and yet powerful combination.
And before you leave the Sanctuary’s embrace, a walk down the tree lined avenue towards the river Gave is yet another perspective that you cannot miss and will no doubt have your camera working overtime. The whole body of this place has a very special energy to it, as people armed with their plastic bottles scuttle towards the holy water taps and nuns in their beige attire walk purposely towards the home of their dreams.
Heading up the tourist gauntlet having crossed the river from the Sanctuary, you will be amazed by the sheer number of hotels that line the streets, almost paling the tat into insignificance! Lourdes is secondly only to Paris for the sheer volume of accommodation establishments. And restaurants of every nationality will greet you – opening your eyes to the global influence of this small mountain town. Heading right you find yourself in 10 minutes at one of the most authentic features of any town across Europe – the Market Square where the locals gather and live their lives oblivious to the throng of passing tourists. We always love coming to these parts of town as there is no tourism here, just life – pure and simple. Wander around the daily indoor market stalls to find local Pyrenean produce that will whet your appetite.
Lured by the call of the chateau, you find yourselves walking through Lourdes’ back streets where suddenly the blandness of homes that are close to the Sanctuary change to a picture perfect blaze of colour. Facias of multi-colours take on a life of their own as they cluster around the ancient Tour de Garnavie holding onto their originating history. The tower is one of the last standing monuments of Lourdes’ military constructions and dates back to 13th Century, still standing guard over the town, in the shadow of the chateau.
Past the fortress, the rest of the backstreets bring you back to more recent history and Bernadette’s birthplace and home. The Moulin is now a museum which was shut whilst we visited although the street shows you where her impoverished family barely survived. Who would have thought that their existence would bring so much wealth, fame and notoriety. What would they be thinking now if they could see how their homes were interwoven into such a powerful tale?
If the cathedral is about Our Lady, then the chateau would be personified as king as his lofty presence looms over the valley Gave creating a spectacle all of its own. Over a thousand year history will amaze you as you take the newly created lift or old fashioned staircase into the heart of this ancient community. For €7 per person you will be treated to a self-guided tour of not only the chateau walls that the Pyrenean ghosts still call home, you will also experience a very well put together museum that portrays life in this mountain region through the ages. What enticed us into its kingdom was the prospect of the views from the towers and wow they are incredible. A full 360 degree vision awaits you are you wonder at its panorama. Yet don’t miss the model villages that take you back to another time where locals of the region made their homes. These Lilliput style monuments are beautifully crafted and bring your tour to a lovely conclusion.
5. Funicular – Pic du Jer
If keeping your feet on the ground feeling Lourdes’ soul is enough for you, then you will have plenty to amuse yourself. Although if a little more adventure and activity is your thing and you have a bit more time than one day, then Lourdes has an array of possibilities. You can kayak, mountain bike, trek the Ice-Age lake 3km away or simply take the Funicular up 1000m to see Lourdes from a completely different angle. In Lourdes’ attempt to appeal to a diverse traveller, the activities in the area are limitless for those seeking adventure.
6. Grotto Massabielle
Outside of the pilgrimage period (April to October) the grotto is a serene place where you can contemplate, meditate or simply think of the people you love. With only a few people milling around, it is a perfect opportunity to capture the moment; a time when something special happened creating a religious evolution for Lourdes. Sadly between November and March, massive red water barriers hold the holy waters at bay and spoiling the image, although the ambience is palpable none the less. What I found slightly more disturbing is that to appease the masses (over 200 million visitors have come to Lourdes since 1860) the water has been channelled into taps that look more like they belong in a toilet block than a spiritual capital. So people go along with their plastic containers, press the tap and get their fill. It seems like a rather odd experience, although there have been 69 unexplained miracles after drinking the water, so make of it what you will. We said a little prayer for a friend who is going through a difficult time right now – so whether holy or not, this place certainly brings out the compassion in your blood.
7. Le chemin du Croix – The way of the cross
There are two paths you can follow – The way of the cross – High Station is adjacent to the Sanctuary going up deep into the woods. Or you can take the river walk on the opposite side of the river Gave. Before reaching this pathway, you will find a number of black kiosks that invite you to buy a pretty expensive candle and light it in honour of a loved one. Wandering through this area, which strangely has security guards surrounding it , is a sensual experience; the smell of burning candles fills the area, you stick to the carpet of wax beneath your feet and the sense of hope and faith that is behind the lighting of these candles make this a vibrant place to walk through. Beyond this is the way of the crosses; modern-day statues that depict religious scenes from the cross, which are beautifully designed and the views from the river are quite amazing, giving you a completely different picture of Lourdes yet again.
So should you come to Lourdes? Without doubt, a resounding yes. Lourdes is mostly certainly an appealing place for pilgrims, explorers and sport enthusiasts alike. It absolutely has something for everyone. And religion aside, the journey that this humble market town has taken, tucked away from civilisation, is a testimony to its valour, strength and courage – standing out to proclaim its greatness. It is a true warrior and deserves its place on your route’s itinerary.
For more information, check out this comprehensive guide to Lourdes and its surrounding area.
There are plenty of accommodation options, from hotels in the town to campsites just a few kms away. We stayed at Camping de Loup which was €13 for the night without electricity and allowed us a five minute walk into town.