By Hannah and Ben
24.11.2012 - 24.11.2012 15 °C
We arrived in Lourdes yesterday in the late afternoon. The town has no real layout and there are not many buildings with a long history except for the fortress. The real focal point is the complex of churches and shrines in the centre of town. Our hotel was a mere stone's throw away. Lourdes is only second to Paris in the number of hotel rooms available per square kilometer. Because it is is off season you can get a hotel room with Kitchenette a queen bed a single and bunkbeds with a large bathroom and a couple of closets for 49 Euros a night with all taxes included.
Hannah has provided some facts about Lourdes in the next paragraph.
The church Our Lady of Lourdes, is a church constructed in honour of Saint Bernadette Soubirous. The church is located on top of a grotto where it is reported that Bernadette had some of her 18 apparitions. The water here is highly revered and it is said to have healing properties if the person who drinks it does so with faith. While the grotto is small and sparsely decorated, the church is sizeable and ornate. Since 1860, approximately 200 million people have visited the sanctuary and shrine. Many people light devotional candles while there, and consequently about 800 tonnes of wax are burnt there each year.
Ben, here again. We thought we would be spending a bit of time attending mass and working our way through the sites in the morning. It turned out that it did not take all that long. One reason was that we chose not to attend mass when we found the mass was not to be held in the Cathedral but was to be held by the grotto itself. A mass totally focussed on Bernadette was not really the kind of church service we were ready for so we chose to wander the sites and then take a peek at all the religious paraphanelia that was on sale in the dozens if not hundreds of stores surrounding the religious site. We spotted glow in the dark Virgin Marys and a Mary that changed colour according to the differences in barometric pressure. There were all sorts of containers that could be purchased to take home the water of Lourdes from the size of a 50 ml bottle to 25 litre jugs.
After our experience of the religious sites of Lourdes, Abby, Muriel and I (Hannah wanted to be spared another stomach churning experience of the winding backroads of Europe) went to Gavarnie which is located 55 kilometers from Lourdes and a 1000 meters higher in the French Pyrenees. The small town of Gavarnie is the start of a 4 km path to the cirque de Gavarnie which is a large rock amphitheater, situated at the border of France and Spain. The main valley is on the French side, with most of the peaks on the French/Spanish border. The large limestone walls rise 1500m vertically from the bottom of the cirque which is around 800m across at the bottom and 3000m across the top. On the right side is a 400m waterfall. The view was quite spectacular althought the colours will appear muted in the photographs due to the overcast skies.
In the morning when we left Lourdes it felt like it was no warmer than 8 degrees Celsius. When were were half way up to Gavarnie we stopped to look at a magnificent arched bridge and couldn't believe how warm it felt when we stepped out of the car. The car thermometer showed an incredible 19 degrees. It was overcast but there was a chinook-like breeze moving through the valley. Even when we arrived at Gavarnie the thermometer still read a balmy 15 degrees even though the surrounding mountains were dusted in snow. At the very base of the cirque it was no colder than 12 degreees and yet the face of the cliffs were covered in ice and the waterfall was shedding small avalanches of ice every half hour. We felt that the the natural setting we experienced was more conducive to the worship of the divine then what we encountered in the rather kitchy setting of Lourdes.
There were about 20 or 30 people that we came across during our walk which is a pretty small number when you consider that the cirque de Gavarnie has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and the town of Lourdes which attracts 5 million visitors a year is less than an hour drive away. We have found that Lourdes and Gavarnie are basically ghost towns this time of year. The only locals you see are in the supermarket and the few who still have their businesses open this time of year. Many hotels are closed but most things a tourist would like to see are still open.
It was interesting to see a pilgrimage site for Catholicism and we could see it was quite meaningful and important to the pilgrims that were there (few tourists are in Lourdes this time of year more are devout pilgrims and even they are somewhat sparse) but it was not really our cup of tea in terms of what we feel is central in Christianity or how we would choose to express our faith. The nature around Lourdes was what we appreciated most, but we are still glad we came to see.