“English?” asked the gentleman stationed beyond the curtain. I said yes, and he led me to one corner of the room and wrapped me with a large wet piece of towel. Once it was secure, he and another volunteer took me by the arms and guided me as I stepped into the basin, my legs slowly acclimating to the biting cold of the spring water. “You may say a prayer to Our Lady,” he instructed this time, so I turned to the image before me and uttered a silent supplication. I then signaled that I was ready and, with ease of skill, the volunteers lowered my entire body into the basin in a symbolic gesture of rebirth unique to this part of the world. I thanked the gentlemen after and finally walked out into the morning breeze of the Pyrenees, a grand church of stone right before my very eyes.
I found myself in Lourdes in the middle of a, at springtime – the weather was a bit nippy in the morning, but the sun came out at midday to shower the town with warmth. For a few days, through these interchanges of cold and heat, I saw pilgrims of all ages, genders, and states of health make their way to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, ready to receive healing and grace from the hallowed shrine. But such wasn’t always the scene for the town, for before the time of the Marian apparitions, Lourdes was a quiet pastoral village with a rich medieval history and an entrepreneurial vigor.
A shift in history
Situated at the foot of the Pyrenean mountain range which separates France from Spain, the town of Lourdes used to be a military stronghold for various forces in France’s early history, which included the Romans, the Visigoths, the Saracens and the Franks. According to local guide Cathy Boyrie-Glas, an 8th century legend tells that the town is named after the Saracen chief Mirat, who was baptized by the local bishop with the name “Lorus” upon his conversion to Christianity. The story of his conversion can still be seen in the coat-of-arms of Lourdes, which finds a lofty home in the millenia-old castle of Mirambel, perched on the rock overhanging the center of the town.
The history of Lourdes, however, took a different turn 11 centuries later, when a young peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous came to a naturally occurring cave in the Massabielle rock, and witnessed the apparitions of “uo petito damizelo” (a small young lady) in white, wearing a blue girdle, with a golden rose beneath each of her feet. For eighteen times, Bernadette would return to the grotto at the instruction of the lady she referred to only as “aquero” (that), with the lady finally identifying herself, saying “Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ,” or “I am the Immaculate Conception” in the local Gascon Occitan dialect. Upon hearing this, the parish priest Abbé Dominique Peyramale and the local bishop were convinced that the apparitions were genuinely of the Virgin Mary, leading to the Church declaration that they are worthy of belief.
To get to know the story leading to the apparitions, we went “into the footsteps of Bernadette” and took a refreshing uphill stroll into the old Lourdes town, seeing for ourselves primarily the Moulin de Boly or Boly Mill, birthplace of the future saint. Born to Francois Soubirous and Louise Castérot, Bernadette lived in the mill with her siblings for ten years, until the competition of steam mills in town and the family’s extreme generosity put the business in danger. This forced them to vacate the mill for Le Cachot, a former city jail, where the six members of the Soubirous family lived during the time of the apparitions. Meanwhile, not far from Le Cachot is the Eglise du Sacré-Coeur, the local parish church where Bernadette was baptized in January of 1844. The font in which Bernadette and other children in Lourdes were baptized is still on display in the church to this day.
Pilgrims may seek nourishment from restaurants serving authentic southern French cuisine, which can also be found around these spots. Among the popular establishments one must try include the Le Magret and the Alexandra, which serve succulent duck confit (cooked in its own fat), creamy slices of foie gras (fattened duck liver), escargots (snails) stuffed with garlic and butter, and garbure, a rich vegetable soup cooked with meat. As recommended, all these dishes go well with a glass of Madiran wine, which come in varieties of powerful red, sweet white, and dry white.
The refuge of pilgrims
Following the apparitions of 1858, the number of pilgrims visiting the grotto of Lourdes grew to the thousands, and the need for a chapel couldn’t be ignored. Construction soon started on a small chapel above the grotto, which was finished in 1866, eight years after the visions. Bernadette Soubirous, preparing to enter the convent of the Sisters of Charity at this time, attended the first mass held in the chapel at the request of the bishop. She then proceeded to Nevers, France to take the religious habit of a postulant, and spent her life there until her death in 1879. While her incorrupt body lies in the mother house of the order in Nevers, two pieces of her ribs were taken in 1925 and placed in a reliquary and given to Lourdes. I took the time to visit this reliquary, now housed in the original chapel, which is now called the Crypt as it houses the saint’s relics. Another unique feature I saw inside are the ex voto plaques, which are marble tiles donated by pilgrims in gratitude to spiritual favors granted in the Sanctuary.
Continuing our visit to the 51-hectare Sanctuary, which is more commonly called the Domain, took us up to the church built on top of the crypt, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, simply known as the Upper Basilica. Consecrated in 1876, the Upper Basilica was built in the neo-Gothic style by architect Hyppolyte Durand, with its altar lying directly above the grotto. We marveled that morning at the stained glass windows adorning the church, which let the sunlight in as a dance of colors, while they retold the stories of Bernadette and the apparitions, and the life of the Virgin Mary leading up to her celestial coronation. Displayed as well high upon the walls of the basilica are relics from French soldiers who survived World War I, including uniforms and copper hearts embedded with prayers made in wartime.
We finally made our way down near the grotto and entered the Rosary Basilica, one of the Sanctuary’s major churches, and the only one which is dug into the rock of Massabielle. Completed in 1899, this Byzantine-inspired church designed by Leopold Hardy has a capacity of 1,500 people, and its altars are decorated with exquisite mosaics depicting the mysteries of the Rosary. Many of these mosaics were done by the famous Italian artist Giandomenico Facchina within 14 years, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Following the addition of the Luminous Mysteries by Pope John Paul II in 2002, the exterior facade of the basilica was reconstructed in 2007 to display a mosaic creation depicting the new additions, along with a depiction of Mary handing the Rosary to St. Dominic.
Other churches and chapels dot the Domain, but nothing has stirred more controversy than the Underground Basilica of St. Pius X. Designed by architect Pierre Vago, the Underground Basilica was completed in 1958 in order to accommodate the thousands of pilgrims expected in Lourdes for the apparitions’ centenary. The basilica has a projected capacity of 25,000, and is where the multilingual International Mass is held on Wednesdays, Sundays, and special church occasions.
A place of grace and healing
“You can see them, people coming from far away because they have the feeling that, indeed, here they will be welcome for who they are and not for who they pretend to be,” began Monseigneur Xavier d’Arodes de Peyriague, Head of the International Pastoral Ministry of the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Lourdes, during our interview with him on the Sanctuary’s appeal to pilgrims.
“That’s why we welcome them also in different languages, and take into account their different cultures in the way we celebrate things,” continued the prelate. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes has six official languages – French, English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German, and all these languages are used in the Domain’s large celebrations, including the International Mass and the Torchlight Marian Procession.
Our visit also came at an opportune time, as the entire Church was celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy at the instruction of Pope Francis. Monseigneur d’Arodes then remarked on why people must visit the sanctuary during this period. “It’s a place of grace, and a place of healing. It’s also a place of prayer, so in a time when people come searching for meaning in their lives, here they can find answers.”
During the 9th of the 18 apparitions, Bernadette Soubirous was instructed by the Lady to dig from the ground and drink from the water that flowed from it. The spring that sprung after still flows to this day, and pilgrims drink from it and bring bottles of water home to their families and friends, believing they will be healed from their physical and spiritual ailments through this water flowing from the rock. The Baths of the Sanctuary were also built to facilitate the want of the pilgrims to submerge themselves into the waters, an opportunity granted to me on the morning I lined up by the grotto.
“You cannot just focus on the apparitions themselves, but on more than 150 years of healing,” said the monseigneur during our chat, for through the studies of the independent Lourdes Medical Bureau, the long process of recognizing miracles in Lourdes has yielded 69 confirmed cases out of the 7,000 ones acknowledged as unexplainable. But in the end, “the goal is not to have miracles, but for people to believe. We come to Lourdes not for miracles, but for healing.”
I took the message with me as I joined the Sanctuary’s nightly Torchlight Procession. Candle in hand, I and my fellow pilgrims wound our way through Rosary Square, fumbling our rosaries and singing our “Ave Marias,” when I saw the leaders of the procession rolling in – sick people in wheelchairs and carriages guided by hospitaliers from the Sovereign Order of Malta. As I joined them in prayer before the grotto of Massabielle, I took a final look upon the Lady illumined in the niche, sculpted with care by Joseph-Hugues Fabisch, and said a prayer for healing for me and the sick who’ve made their way home to Lourdes. It was my last Easter night in Lourdes, and as everyone was singing the “Regina Coeli,” I began my steps from the hallowed place with a renewed spirit – a pilgrim reborn and healed.
The Peaks of Lourdes
With Lourdes sitting right below the Pyrenees, it is home to many peaks and vantage points from where one can see the town and its surrounding area on a massive scale. Take a trip to the following destinations for a complete experience of Lourdes:
The Castle of Lourdes, found right in the middle of town, was initially built by the Romans during their conquest of Gaul. The first structure was occupied by various powers, until it became the residence of the Count of Bigorre in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It became a prison in the 16th century, and was continually expanded following the order of the kings of France. In 1921, the Pyrenean Museum was opened in the castle by Louis and Margalide Le Bondidier to showcase the history and culture of the mountain people, which was declared a “Musée de France” in 2002.
The Pic du Jer, towering over the town of Lourdes, is recognizable by its large cross which is illuminated at night. It can be reached using a hundred-year old funicular railway which takes passengers to the summit at an altitude of 1000 meters above sea level within a few minutes. One must then either take a trek through trees and bushes, or a walk into a gallery of caves and speleothems, in order to get to the peak, which offers a 360-degree view of Lourdes and the surrounding towns of Tarbes, Pau, the Argelès-Gazost valley, and the summits of the Pyrenees.
While technically outside the domain of Lourdes, the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is worth mentioning as it is a wonder of nature which provides a peek into the skies. Part of the French Pyrenees and less than an hour away from the center of Lourdes, the Pic du Midi reaches 2,877 meters above sea level and is home to the Observatoire du Pic du Midi de Bigorre (Pic du Midi Observatory). Reach the peak and the observatory via cable car.
Hôtels Vinuales: Retreats near the Sanctuary of Lourdes
Lourdes sees between 4 to 6 million pilgrims visit each year, and with this influx of visitors comes the need for hotels to provide guests with outstanding accommodations, excellent dining options, and premier hospitality. With seven hotels near the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, Hôtels Vinuales is one of Lourdes’ leading hotel groups, and you can jump from one hotel to another to sleep, eat and relax.
The task of catering to this select clientele falls to the family of brothers Nicolas & Patrick Vinuales, who manage a number of the hotels in their parents’ name. “Visitors are looking for comfort, most of whom come from far away, and we can give it to them,” said Nicolas over dinner. Nicolas is in-charge of Grand Hôtel Gallia et Londres and Hôtel Chapelle et Parc, which are housed in buildings with more than a century of history. Newly renovated, the four-star Grand Hôtel Gallia et Londres is home to modern rooms with baroque accents, while the Hôtel Chapelle et Parc blends its historic charm with sophisticated décor, as the structure itself was built by the niece of Bernadette Soubirous. Both hotels are also home to outstanding restaurants serving fine European cuisine.
Patrick, meanwhile, took charge of the Hôtel Saint-Sauveur. Open all year round, the three-star Hôtel Saint-Sauveur is perfectly located at the gateway to the Sanctuaries, and is reputed for the warm welcome its staff gives to large groups who stay in the hotel. Hôtels Vinuales also owns Hôtel La Solitude, Hôtel Panorama, Hôtel Sainte-Rose, and Hôtel Continental, all within walking distance from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The charms of nearby Gavarnie
Less than an hour away from Lourdes is the charming town of Gavarnie. At the heart of the Pyrenees National Park and just a few steps from Spain, Gavarnie forms part of the “Pyrenees Mont Perdu,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for both its natural scenery and its cultural traditions, offering one of the greatest natural spectacles in the world. Follow the trek into the glorious Cirque and make new discoveries along the way.
Situated at 1375 meters, Gavarnie amply merits its reputation as an authentic Pyrenean village. It is the birthplace of Pyreneism, a paradise for mountaineers, birthplace also of many famous mountain guides. It was given the status of a commune by a royal edict dated August 1842. Gavarnie was originally the property of the Order of the Temple, then the Knights of St. John. The Templars constructed a church and a hospital, which favored cross-frontier exchanges and trade.
From the village, make your way to the heart of the Pyrenees National Park, which is home to over 200 endemic plants, a rich and typical mountain fauna, and a well-developed entomological diversity. There are a number of plants to be discovered on the trail to the Cirque, including ramonda, blue-thistle, edelweiss, and numerous saxifrages. Some raptors, like the golden eagle, the griffon vulture, the lammergeier, and the Egyptian vulture, call the park home.
At the end of the trek is the Cirque de Gavarnie. Adjoining the Spanish Ordesa/Monte Perdido National Park, the rock face of the Cirque has a diameter of six kilometers and a vertical height of 1500 meters. With many summits over 3000 meters, the vast glaciated cirque is composed of grey, pink, and ocre limestone over three distinct concentric stages, and has suspended glaciers and waterfalls, including the Grand Cascade with its 423-meter drop.