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The Healing Waters in Lourdes, France, Brought Me and My Grandmother Closer Together

May 31, 2006 (Updated Jun 1, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:quaint town full of religious tradition, healing water, candle procession, Basilica

Cons:other than the candle procession, there's no "nightlife"

The Bottom Line: The Catholic Church has recognized that 67 miracle healings have taken place here... not counting my bonding with my grandmother.

Once upon a time (about 10 years ago), this good Catholic girl (who now calls herself an agnostic) went on a pilgrimage to one of the top-rated “vacation” spots for religious Pope-aphiles. My grandmother had recently recovered from a horrible car accident and had a religious renewal. Her friends at church and my mother convinced her she needed a vacation. My mother also thought it would be a good way for me to see the light (since I was a cynic through and through) and bond with my grandmother. So the two of us booked our whirlwind guided tour (I believe it was only a 7-day stay) to Paris, Lourdes, Madrid, Zaragosa, and Toledo (the last three cities are in Spain). This review is only about our stay in Lourdes, France.

Lourdes is located in southwest France, near the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. It is a small city/town (population under 20,000) but it draws huge crowds each year because of its most famous inhabitant, St. Bernadette, who saw the Virgin Mary where a water source suddenly opened up back in the mid-1800s. It’s an old town and has lots of narrow cobblestone streets and small buildings. But since it’s also a tourist trap, there are larger hotels and lots of souvenir shops. It’s a seven-hour drive from Paris according to Mapquest. I honestly can’t remember if we took a tour bus there or if we took a charter plane, since we traveled via both those means at different legs of our trip.

In 1858, a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous had a series of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto. The apparition told her to drink from a nonexistent spring, which Bernadette uncovered by digging. The water is said to have miraculous healing properties. Bernadette’s story was authenticated by the Catholic Church and she was later canonized.

There are many sites worth seeing at this religious destination. They range from a tour of St. Bernadette’s house to a nightly candlelight vigil/procession to heal the sick to a dunking into the actual miracle water. It’s not a place you’re going to spend a week at, but there are enough things to see in a couple of days. All of the sites were within walking distance of our hotel.

The Basilica and Candlelight Procession
The main focus of the town/city is the Basilica of the Rosary, which was built after Bernadette’s visions in the mid-1800s. It is a towering work of art that rivals if not overpowers other churches we saw on our tour. There’s a huge courtyard in front and arches and ramps that lead into the building. Other than the mountains in the background, there is nothing in the area to overtower the gold-laced spires. The statues and ornate decorations inside are stunning as well.

I have to admit, that even to such a cynical skeptic as myself (I was even worse 10 years ago), this basilica is gorgeous and the nightly candle procession in the courtyard is stately and awe inspiring. Rows and rows of thousands of people gather and walk in such an amazingly orderly fashion, without guard control, carrying candles. What’s truly awe inspiring are the folks who come to be healed. I saw tons of people hobbling along, being carried, or pushing themselves in wheelchairs to the rhythm of the slow-moving, ritualistic procession. Other than the lights illuminating the church, the candles were the only lights in the pitch-dark night. It was eery and amazing at the same time. Prayers are said in multiple languages once everyone is in the courtyard. It nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Stations of the Cross
Until I went to Lourdes, I had never heard of the Stations of the Cross tradition. Apparently, it’s a Catholic commemoration of the final hours of Jesus’s life and there are usually sculptures or paintings of 14 scenes. Worshippers move from one to the next saying different prayers at each. The Stations of the Cross in Lourdes are simply outstanding. There are larger-than-life-sized sculptures (I believe they were bronze) that scale up a large hill. Worshippers start at the bottom with a scene of Christ being condemned to death and make their way around a spiraling dirt and gravel pathway up a tree-lined hill until they reach the scene depicting Christ in his tomb. It was actually pretty tiring but worth seeing.

The Grotto
The Grotto is the actual location of the visions of St. Bernadette. People line up inside the cavern to catch a glimpse of the stream that Bernadette discovered. There’s a glass plate over the cavern floor that reveals the water and people place flowers around it.

Near the portal hole, there’s another, and perhaps greater, tourist site: the dunking stations. They’re not actually called that, but that’s an appropriately descriptive name. The water that runs below the cavern floor is actually part of a larger stream that people line up to be dunked into in hopes of soaking in its presumed healing powers. I can’t remember if the stream was actually inside the cave or if there were simply tents put up around it to shelter people, but it was enclosed and lit by artificial means. There were partitioned and covered stations so that one or two people could bathe in the water without onlookers. I believe there was one older woman in charge of the actual dunking and two younger women who helped with disrobing when it was my turn. I was given a thin, sheetlike dress to wear in place of my clothing and then was asked if I wanted to be partially or fully submerged. I chose partially and was simply pushed (rather forcefully) by the older woman to my knees. I think there were some prayers said and then I was ushered off to get dressed. I can’t say I felt any better than I did before I got wet, but I was definitely colder. That water was chilly.

The Souvenirs
You simply cannot leave Lourdes without buying at least one tiny plastic bottle shaped like the Virgin Mary filled with the blessed water. And there are tons of tiny stores along the main road that sell these and other typical souvenirs (postcards, candles, T-shirts, etc.). My grandmother made sure she brought back water for just about all of our family members.

Since our trip was part of a tour package I didn’t have much choice in hotels. We stood at the Hotel La Solitude. It’s a pretty pinkish building built overlooking a river. It’s been a while since the trip so I don’t remember too many particulars about the hotel but the staff was friendly and spoke English and we didn’t have any problems. A continental breakfast was served that was comprised of what seemed like the typical French breakfast: pastries. Some of the other members of our group were upset by this and really craved some American meals but we didn’t mind. It was tasty and fattening. Yum. They also didn’t like the hard-to-avoid meat-and-cheese dinner served at the restaurant on the main level of the hotel. But that’s what French cuisine is. Fortunately for the others, we only stayed in Lourdes two days. Because of this, we didn’t explore any other dining experiences. There were some shops by the souvenir area that sold snack items but I don’t remember buying anything from them.

Lourdes really surprised me. I expected lots of praying and ritual, but boy do they know how to dish it out. It was quite an experience. No, I didn’t suddenly become a believer, but the religious fervor and overpowering belief is inspiring, if not a bit trippy. I went there with a sort of ethnographer attitude (I’d just gotten A’s in two of my sociology courses and figured I’d add some field experience). I didn’t judge and I wasn’t suddenly transformed, but I did soak in the culture. Catholic Southern France has a unique love of the Virgin Mary. It’s as though Catholicism and the older pagan traditions merged and formed a sort of Maryism religion that is different than anything you’ll find in the United States. There’s still a devotion toward Jesus, but the overriding devotion at Lourdes is toward Mary and St. Bernadette. The faith people show at Lourdes is quite entrancing and the quaint town and rituals make it worth seeing if you’re in the neighborhood or in search of a pilgrimage destination.

Though I haven't read it in its entirety, Ruth Harris's Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age is a great place to learn about the St. Bernadette story and the role Lourdes played in recent religious and social history.

This review has been part of ifif1938’s French write-off in honor of her 400th review. Thanks for the invite, Barbara. I had fun reminiscing.

Thanks to SurgRN911 for adding this so quickly to the Epinions database.

Recommend this product? Yes

Best Suited For: Seniors
Best Time to Travel Here: Sep - Nov

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