We were given a 'Wonder Box' gift of 'deux nuits de rêve' two Christmas's ago by a very generous friend. I don't know if these exist outside of France - (the box, not the nights of 'rêve'), but here they are hyper-popular.
The booklet inside was thumbed many times; I had dog-eared various pages: Provence, Corsica and so on and left it to Mark to choose, as I'm usually the one who might, if we ever go anywhere, pick a destination.
'Lourdes' he had said, clopping the book shut.
'Er . . . why?' I had said.
'Because we must see it at least once.'
'OK.' (Mad, obviously)
So, he reserved a room at a rustic-looking chambre d'hôte about 15Km away and we put the book away and forgot about the trip until about a week ago.
Early-ish on Easter weekend Saturday, we set off and arrived in Lourdes in the mid-afternoon after a stop for some fabulous hippy food in St Girons.
First impressions: 'Where is everybody?'
The Rough Guide had said to park at the train station and then fight your way through seething crowds. The town appeared quiet, slightly damp and not overly beautiful. We parked in an underground car park that featured a sound system belting out Rachmaninov and pee-smelling staircases and made our way to a café where we sat and gawped at the many, many hotels with names such as La Madonna, La Jeanne d'Arc, l'Hôtel Sainte-Rose, l'Hôtel Saint Sauveur, etc.
Excellent tarte au citron and tea with cold milk - unusual
Having paid the very cheery waitress, we went in search of the seething crowds and found them in the roads heading towards La Grotte - the hyper-centre of Catholic religious fervour.
I had expected to see religious nick-nackery, but nothing on this scale! Incredible . . . worse than Oxford Street, any famous Provence Village and Carcassonne all bundled up together.
I asked this shop assistant where all the stuff comes from: 'Oo, La France, La Chine . . . partout' Imagine the factories . . .
Sweets made with holy source water
Eleven of the forty thousand or so plastic, resin and clay Madonnas
Most of the the tat featured Saint Bernadette gazing at the Madonna in the grotte: lurid green plastic, white and gold plastic, grey felt coated plastic, Madonnas in snow storms, key rings, bells, sweets, notebooks, ash-trays, a million rosaries, earrings, musical boxes, wallets, candles of all sizes from a few inches to a couple of yards, clocks . . . actually, I thought a cuckoo clock featuring the Madonna appearing miraculously at certain points of the day might be quite a good seller.
After half an hour of tat-browsing we had become glazed over. I held up a minuscule plastic bottle of holy water in which swam a tiny plastic Madonna. 'Look, pregnancy testing kit!'
'Really?' said Mark - seriously glazed over.
Pregnancy testing kit
We bought a key-ring, a small leather wallet, a packet of mints and a silver Holy Heart to add to my necklace of oddities from around the world and then went to eat the most appalling vegetable soup in the world in an untouched-since-the-60s/70s brasserie. The croque-monsieur was great though, and the sprightly, humorous waiter, and the loo of avocado green and mustard.
Thank the lord for non-modernisation
And so to the epicentre, the Holy core where Bernadette saw her visions in La Grotte: a series of 18 sightings of a 'small, young lady' who requested that a chapel be built upon the site of the grotte.
After 'investigations' the Vatican stated that the visions were in fact true; Bernadette became a saint and the small town of Lourdes became a place of world-wide pilgrimage - easier these days due to an airport having been constructed a few kilometres away.
Lourdes is also an important place for selfi-stick portraiture; almost as good as The Louvre or the Eiffel Tower.
The church (the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes) is spectacular in its gold-encrustedness and towering steeples, but the plaques of marble that make up the walls of the entrance were the most interesting parts of the building; each plaque showing the person's devotion and giving their thanks for minor miracles received.
A personal message of thanks for a cure received
A larger plaque recounting the miraculous saving of a pilgrim train in 1876
For a conserved foot
some of many, many 'Mercies'
As we were both experiencing serious religion fatigue by now, we had a quick look round for a restaurant. The one we liked the look of that could have been from a set in Eraserhead was unfortunately shut that evening so we found the car and drove to our B&B where we collapsed for an hour to wake to the site of velvety-green hills, donkeys and snowy peaks of the distant mountains.
blog author needs to lie down Entrance hall of shut restaurant
The next day, after a walk up a hill, we returned, parked for nowt, and went straight to La Grotte to feel rock and sample holy water.
The queue was already impressive by the time we arrived but we dutifully joined the tailback and let queue-jumping old women in who muttered prayers and surreptitiously glanced up at Mark towering in the clouds above them (6ft6).
I got my reporter's notebook out and went to ask a few folks where they had come from. This couple had come from the Charente area, and had been doing so on Easter day for the last thirty years.
Our turn came: we passed our hands over very smooth rock and looked at the tiny screws of paper that had been lodged into crevices each presumably bearing heartfelt prayers and messages.
No Madonna was seen, although I did notice my toe that had been aching the day before seemed a little better.
So, to the source to collect a little water in our sadly not very appropriate Perrier bottle. Mark also washed his leg to see if the malingering itchiness might disappear - sadly no, not yet anyway.
People were madly filling hundreds of containers, most in the shape of the Madonna, or bigger 'bidons' which they would then, in many cases, take on an aeroplane (how?) I can't imagine Ryanair accepting this, however holy the water might be deemed to be.
Tallest being with biggest feet in the queue (Mark)
Decades of rock-feeling have created a surface of incredible smoothness
The grotte procession and beyond area of the candle-lighting
Following on behind the crowds we entered the area reserved for candle lighting and pondered upon how many tons of candle wax must be brought in, burnt and disposed of, etc. Mark was worrying about bees, but this is presumably some other form of wax . . .
Beyond this area was the 'baths' where you can volunteer to be stripped, wrapped in a sheet and thrown backwards into very cold water. I would have done it but the queues were awfully long . . . Unfortunately you couldn't see any of what was actually happening so we had to content ourselves with nun-spotting instead, and admiring the outfits and flags of the various groups and dignitaries approaching the Grotte to worship.
Although keening for a cup of tea, we decided on a healthy walk up the hill behind the church where you can see the twelve stations of the cross in all their life-size golden splendour.
At the first station of the cross, you have to go up the steps on your knees. We didn't, not just as we would have felt a little out of place, but I have had a crappy knee joint these last few months.
A few of the million rosaries purchased in the souvenir shops
Now it was a choice between going to a mass in the horrible, giant 1970s church opposite the Grotte (a special mass organised by the charity HCPT, the many members of which could be seen pacing Lourdes in their signature t.shirts and badge-covered hats) or a ride in the Funicular on the edge of town.
Mark obviously alarmed by the football stadium-ness of these groups decided possible death on a gravity-defying train would be preferable (56% incline).
It was well worth the not-unimpressive entrance fee for the views and sheer spectacle of the machinery required to haul the 'train' carriages up such an incline.
View from the summit
We caught the last train back down and went on a hunt for another 'David Lynch' eating emporium. Sadly nearly all hotels and restaurants were completely booked but eventually we found a table at the beautiful and surprisingly not over-booked or expensive, Hotel Modern.
What a joy! 1920s/30s dining room with all original features, including cutlery, plates, and waiters. Well, not original, but certainly in the mode of that epoch.
One of them spotted me taking a picture of my minestrone soup and hauled me over to look at a pillar that had a miraculous depiction of the Madonna in its marble.
We paid, had a chat with a friendly waiter from Brazil and, after a last look at the Grotte, wended our way through the neon-lit streets to our car still waiting patiently next to a statue of Charles de Gaulle.
To a generally over-awed, star-gazer (pagan, perhaps) as myself, the sight and sensation of so many people gathered in a small French town to worship at an unremarkable cave is difficult to quantify, and I think we may have been the only 'onlookers' present. But I'm glad we went and will now pass any Catholic church with thoughts of the passion and belief that propels people to come to this spot from all over the planet, apparently in some cases spending their life's savings in order to do so.