“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.
We arrived just in time for the Marian Procession, which begins at nine o’clock every night from April through October and has been perfected over time into a spiritual trapdoor through which tumble all but the most snarky observers. Winding their way behind a shoulder-borne statue of the Virgin Mary were thousands of pilgrims, like so many fireflies, their candles protected from the wind by tulip-shaped holders, chanting “The Lourdes Hymn,” a variation of “Ave Maria.” In the lead were the malades, in blue sedan chairs, pulled along rickshaw-style by volunteers.
Afterward, we proceeded several hundred yards along the bottom of the 90-foot-high shoulder of rock on which the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is set to a more intimate 12-foot-high outcropping, the Grotto, to rub our palms along wet rock made velveteen by a century and a half of such touching, and stare into a lit porthole at the gurgling ur-spring itself. A huge iron candelabra burned. Long troughs, refreshed by spigots, provided springwater for those with knapsacks full of empty bottles. Deep into the night, the faithful walked by with bundles of candles, like firewood, to light at the racks of the metal prayer stalls. Anyone appearing in a wheelchair or on crutches was escorted to the front of the line.
The next morning my friend and I showed up early at the baths a few steps beyond the grotto: 17 marble pools (including one for children) for immersion in water piped from the spring and kept at a brisk 54 degrees. “This is not for the faint-hearted,” he whispered as we sat on long benches in a sun-dappled stone portico, its front wall carved with the divine prompt heard by Bernadette: Go drink at the spring and bathe in its waters. Wheeled in at that moment was a boy who held up a pale hand for anyone to take hold of, and someone did. Others were oblivious to any heartstring tug. A crusty Italian gentleman kept busy reading the sports pages of his newspaper.
Soon I was seated in a plastic chair in an antechamber with six other men in briefs. As a card-carrying Episcopalian I still did not know what to expect. Suddenly I was waved through blue-and-white–striped curtains, wrapped in a towel, prayed over by four volunteers, and immersed full-body in a narrow bath. Emitting an involuntary gasp, I emerged, blinking and shaggy, into the bright light of day. Though 67 physical healings have been verified over the years by the Medical Bureau of Lourdes, most of the activity is labeled “spiritual healing.” When the American author Flannery O’Connor visited in 1958, she balked, saying: “I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it.” Later she relented, noticing more salutary effects in her novel The Violent Bear It Away than in her health.
On our last night at Lourdes, sharp needles of rain began to fall, accented by thunder and lightning. I borrowed a hotel umbrella to walk to the Esplanade des Processions to bid a quick good-bye. I didn’t expect a crowd, but standing on the stone balustrade above the square, I found myself looking down instead on numbers equal to the first night. In the topsy-turvy world of Lourdes, where the sick are given celebrity treatment, the only concessions to the weather were the blue awnings over the sedans, the plastic ponchos, and the hundreds of black umbrellas of those surging forward, in slow motion, singing “…Ave, Ave, Ave Maria.” Many of those below, their faces lit by candles, had obviously experienced a hard rain falling in their lives before; their faith made them impervious.
The TGV train runs from Paris to Lourdes four times daily.
Where to Stay
Le Relais de SauxA five-room B&B on the edge of town. Madeleine et Bernard Heres, Rte. de Tarbes; 33-5/62-94-29-61; doubles from $115, including breakfast.
Where to Eat & Drink
Le Magret Beautifully crafted dishes, like pan-seared foie gras with caramelized pears and spiced gingerbread. 10 Rue des Quatre Frères Soulas; 33-5/62-94-20-55; dinner for two $72.
Le Palacio Traditional French, with cassoulet and house-made sausages. 28 Place du Champ Commun; 33-5/62-94-00-59; dinner for two $54.
What to See and Do
What to Read
Lourdes Diary by James Martin (Loyola Press, $12).
Pilgrimages have been on the rise recently, and the UN’s World Tourism Organization held its first-ever conference on religion and travel in the fall of 2007. Here are four operators leading the way.
Follow in the steps of Mary Magdalene, Miriam, and Queen Helena on one of Abercrombie & Kent’s Women of the Bible trips. Other itineraries highlight Holy Land favorites: the Garden of Gethsemane and the Dome of the Rock. 800/554-7016; abercrombiekent.com; 11-day itineraries from $8,350 per person, double.
Germany, Poland, and Switzerland
Globus arranges tours of Protestant Europe (see the church where Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door; visit the Zurich house where Zwingli lived), as well as a trip to Poland that celebrates the life of that nation's first pope, John Paul II. 866/755-8581; globusfaith.com; eight-day itineraries from $1,649 per person, double.
Discover hidden, off-the-beaten-path vestiges of medieval Sephardic Judaism with custom-designed trips by Heritage Private Tours. 800/378-4555; htprivatetravel.com; 10-day itineraries from $3,100 per person, double.
Once per decade since 1634, the Bavarian village of Oberammergau has put on the Passion Play—a performance that recounts the life of Jesus. The next show is in 2010. Tickets are hard to get, but are included on itineraries from Tauck. 800/788-7885; tauck.com; eight-day itineraries from $4,490 per person, double.