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Lourdes in the Pyrenees

One hundred and fifty years ago, a young peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous wandered into an undiscovered grotto in the dense forest on the edge of her village. The vision she saw there changed her life and elevated Lourdes from a small insignificant place beneath the Pyrénées to a global phenomenon that attracts five million visitors annually.

On 11 February 1858, Bernadette went with her sister and a friend to look for firewood. As she was frail and sickly, they left her on one bank of the river, where she found a cave, hidden in a copse, with a spring of clear water. According to Bernadette, a young woman appeared to her, “surrounded by light, and who looked at me and smiled”.

This was the first of seventeen or possibly eighteen visions Bernadette claims to have had, although it was not until the sixteenth that the lady identified herself as ‘the Immaculate Conception’, in other words, the Virgin Mary.  Few believed Bernadette at first. She was subjected to rigorous questioning by religious and secular authorities, even briefly taken to a sanatorium for the mentally ill, but she stuck to her story. Hundreds and later thousands of people accompanied her to the grotto during some of these visions, but none of them ever experienced what Bernadette saw and heard.  Within months of the apparitions, rumours of miraculous cures brought about by drinking water from the spring in the grotto began to spread, encouraging visits by the seriously ill in greater and greater numbers. Bernadette herself, questioned by an English tourist in April 1859, flatly denied such miracles, responding, “There’s no truth in all that”. Nonetheless the Catholic Church has recognised 67 cures at Lourdes as miraculous, the last in 2005 of Anna Santaniello who suffered severe rhumatism.

Sceptics looking for an alternative explanation point to Bernadette’s personal circumstances.  Her family were bankrupt millers, forced to leave their mill two years previously and live in a single damp and dingy, cellar-like room. The visions of what may have been a very impressionable young girl undoubtedly changed their fortunes.

However, Bernadette herself never profited from her fame. She became a novice and later a nun at Nevers, leaving Lourdes for good in 1866.  Bernadette suffered from several debilitating illnesses, including asthma and tuberculosis, and had treatment at a thermal spa, but she never returned to the grotto she had made famous and died in 1879, aged only 35.

Lourdes, though, never looked back. The town has more than 200 hotels. Its post office handles about 6.5 million postcards per year. Its ciergerie produces a tonne of candles a day. A vast industry has been created to make religious souvenirs, including images of Christ backed by velvet in fake silver frames, and shocking pink plastic rosaries. It seems safe to conclude, based on Jesus’s visit to the Temple in Jerusalem, that he would have been no happier with the commercialism of Lourdes. 

Undeniably magnificent, however, is the Basilica of the Rosary, built above Bernadette’s grotto to celebrate her discovery. Although its dominant lines are Romanesque, it has all the grandeur of the heyday of Byzantine architecture, with ornamental mosaics, arcades, ramps, domes and fifteen chapels radiating from the centre. In the upper basilica, the chapels mark the boundaries of a vast square capable of holding almost 80,000 worshippers.  The Venetian mosaics are superb, created by the master craftsman Giandomenico Facchina, whose other accomplishments include the frescoes of the Opera Garnier in Paris and of the Kyoto Imperial Palace in Japan.

High above the steep alleyways of the old town, and its covered market with charming craft shops and gastronomic food stalls, Lourdes castle possesses a considerable pedigree that in other circumstances would make it the centre of attraction. The Romans were the first to build here and legend – but little historical fact – would have it that Charlemagne himself took the fortress by stealth in 778. The castle had three formidable lines of defence: a lower wall encircling the rock on which it was built, a bastioned upper wall with ramparts and towers, and a donjon, added in the middle of the Gothic period, during the 14th century. The donjon became a prison for state prisoners of importance and the residence of the local counts of Bigorre in the 16th and 17th centuries. After their removal, the famous engineer Vauban strengthened its defences and in 1685 added Lourdes to the ring of fortresses defending the France of Louis XIV. The castle caters successfully for handicapped visitors, reflecting the circumstances of the many that still come to Lourdes in the hope of a cure.

A chair lift, itself celebrating 100 years and known as Le Pic du Jer, marks the start of the Pyrénées. It takes visitors to the town up to a height of more than one thousand metres in less than six minutes. Lourdes’ glacier lake, bordered by coniferous trees, is just a flash of blue below. The ride through the pine trees is a magical experience and the view from the top superb. The viewing table on the summit picks out the nearby towns of Pau and Tarbes and the great mountains beyond.

 

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Bernadette's Grotto
© Dominique's Villas

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For sale
© Dominique's Villas

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Miraculous Source
© Sanctuaires ND de Lourdes EURL Basilique du Rosaire

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Basilica of the Rosary
© Sanctuaires ND de Lourdes EURL Basilique du Rosaire


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