Last week I travelled to Lourdes in France with a band of local pilgrims. I went along as a) it was the sort of thing I would never do and I want to push my boundaries, and b) I was generally just curious to see it.
A bit about Lourdes…
Lourdes is a small market town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It is part of the Hautes-Pyrénées department in the Occitanie region in south-western France. Prior to the mid-19th century, the town was best known for the Château fort de Lourdes, a fortified castle that rises up from a rocky escarpment at its center.
In 1858 Lourdes rose to prominence in France and abroad due to the Marian apparitions claimed to have been seen by the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, who was later canonized. Shortly thereafter the city with the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes became one of the world’s most important sites of pilgrimage and religious tourism. Today Lourdes hosts around six million visitors every year from all corners of the world. This constant stream of pilgrims and tourists transformed quiet Lourdes into the second most important center of tourism in France, second only to Paris, and the third most important site of international Catholic pilgrimage after Rome and the Holy Land.
I took along my trusty Canon E0S as I knew there would be interesting photo opportunities, and although I wanted to respect the privacy of people there I knew I could get some good documentary type shots.
I am a born and bred ‘intermittent’ catholic, (although my local priest calls me a ‘have a go catholic’ – i.e. I just pick the bits of doctrine which I like and ignore others), so I went with some scepticism if I am totally honest. But I can convey that is a great place to visit, and not a bastion of the Catholic Church itself in terms of rules and regulations, but one of Faith, pure and simple. The atmosphere was amazing, and what I liked most was that ill and disable people were treated with the utmost respect and courtesy. They were not the invisible as in so many places, but instead the most focused upon and respected.
The town is set at the foot of the Pyrenees, and I went up the funicular on the Pic du Jer to get a birdseye view. This is a very high hill overlooking the town, and the funicular was so steep I had to shut my eyes going up, but once up on the top you can see snowcaps in the distance even in the summer. It is simply beautiful.
Around the Basilica and Grotto in the town were a multitude of people; Religious, Medical Staff, Pilgrims and Volunteers. I loved just watching them all go about their business, whether it was praying, talking or just moving through the town.
The town has stations of the cross set on two levels, low and high. I climbed up to the high ones which are life size and cast in bronze, to get a set of photos for a pilgrim I was with who could not make the steep walk.
The statues of Saints and Angels around the Basilica are amazing.
It really is an inspirational place and I recommend a visit for anyone, religious or not, to see such kindness to the sick and disabled. I bathed in the waters at the Grotto, and it was an incredibly experience and very humbling.
There are bits of Lourdes that have lots of shops selling religious souvenirs, some tasteful and some very garish, but it’s all part of the experience just to see how many different statues and types of water bottles you can count…!
So if you are ever in that part of the world, I really recommend a visit. It puts life into perspective a bit more and was a very calming experience.