“How will you get your bag out when you reach your destination?” asked a passerby as she volunteered to lug an oversize suitcase for a red-headed woman on the TGV train at Paris’s Montparnasse Station. “I’m going to Lourdes. Perhaps a nice young man will help me off with it!” she replied. “Well, it is the place of miracles,” said the Good Samaritan as she descended back onto the platform. Indeed, most of the two dozen of us in the coach (including a French civil servant watching The Devil Wears Prada on his laptop) turned out to be booked for the 5 1/2-hour ride to Lourdes. It runs through the flat farmlands of the middle of France and then to the wine capital of Bordeaux. The vibe changes at Pau, a village that faces the snowy caps of the Pyrenees and perches above the teal-green Gave de Pau River, which rushes at high speed 25 miles downstream to Lourdes.
Water always has been the star in the Hautes-Pyrénées, an underexposed region of southwestern France that borders Spain. And of all its bubbling brooks, thermal spas, and cascading waterfalls, the spring at Lourdes, which was discovered by 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 during one of her 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in a riverside grotto, is its most famous effluence. More than six million visitors a year come to Lourdes to pray, bathe, or simply gawk at its reputed healing source.
Bernadette’s own accounts of her visions in the Grotto of Massabielle (old rock) were actually quite understated. She reported seeing a little girl wearing a white dress with a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot. For weeks, she simply called her (in the local patois) “aqueró,” or “that thing.” But when a friend of Bernadette’s dipped her paralyzed arm in the spring and was instantly healed, crowds began to gather. Bernadette’s miraculous legacy still lives on for the Netflix generation thanks to the 1943 The Song of Bernadette, a black-and-white Hollywood film both luminous and kitschy. And, of course, in the name of Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes.
Yet nothing about the taxi ride from the Lourdes train station, or about the cliffside Grand Hôtel de la Grotte, built in 1872, with its hanging eaves and wrought-iron balconies, was a tip-off to the spiritual aura of the town. Unlatching the long wooden shutters of our room, my traveling companion, an American Baptist minister, and I looked out on a small and charming French town. Lourdes is set in a region spectacular enough to have given rise a century before to an entire architectural movement dubbed “pyrénéisme” by the French Romantics: stone church spires, and cream-colored houses with dark tiled roofs. The valley, dotted with tall poplar trees, is cut by a satin river.
To arrive at ground zero of Bernadette’s vision, you first have to jostle down Boulevard de la Grotte, a strip of honky-tonk religious shops just as tacky as they were when Joris-Karl Huysmans, the 19th-century aesthete and Roman Catholic convert, proclaimed them “a hemorrhage of bad taste.” Stores with names such as Au Sacré Coeur de Jésus, Charles de Foucauld (who lived in extreme poverty in the desert), or, most bluntly, Tourisme et Religion are crammed with Marian night-lights, cross-shaped Lourdes water bottles, and a bijouterie of rosary beads, all displayed under fluorescent lighting.
“Lourdes is really a study in contrasts,” says James Martin, Jesuit priest and author of Lourdes Diary, of this high-low setup. “When you’re outside the Domain, it’s a little like being in Las Vegas. But when you pass over into the Marian City, the central spot around the grotto, you’re suddenly in a beautiful, prayerful place. Even atheists and non-Catholic Christians would find it moving.”
The large, iron St. Michael’s Gate, at the end of the boulevard, topped by statues of three archangels, marks a clean break from the pilgrim trap. The church buildings beyond the gate exude a Christian-theme-park unreality: the 120,000-square-foot Rosary Square, surrounded by two elliptical ramps framing the neo-Byzantine Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, atop which, like a second scoop of ice cream, looms the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Just below is an underground concrete bunker of a basilica that can hold 30,000, dedicated by Cardinal Roncalli (who later became Pope John XXIII) in 1958.