2015-07-16 Lourdes

Grotto in Lourdes alongside the Gave river

I had originally planned to stay 2 days in Lourdes but was so tired the morning I was due to leave, that I decided to book another night in the hotel and get some rest. This gave me a chance to update my website and write about my trip from Auch to Lourdes on Bastille Day and seeing the Tour de France go through Lourdes the day afterwards. The extra day’s rest also meant I had plenty of time to go sight-seeing around Lourdes and visit the Grotto and Basilica which is located about a mile from the hotel.

The Grotto at Lourdes

A statue was added to the alcove above the Grotto to mark the spot where Mary appeared to Bernardette. In the early 19th century Lourdes was a quiet town with a population of about 4,000. Then, on 11 February 1858, while out gathering firewood with her sister and a friend, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous saw a beautiful lady in a small grotto near the town. For the next 5 months or so, the apparition appeared to Marie-Bernadette Soubirous on a total of eighteen occasions. Between the 11th of February and the 4th of March, the apparition appeared to Bernadette every day. The next vision wasn’t until the 25th of March, the 16th vision, and it was during this appearance, the apparition told Bernadette her name. Bernadette only had 2 more visions after this on the 7th April and the 16th July.


Just some of the millions of tourists who visit Lourdes every year outside the main Tourist Office on Peyramale Square. Shortly thereafter the city became one of the world’s most important sites of pilgrimage and religious tourism. It has been estimated that over 200 million people have visited the town since the apparitions. Even today Lourdes still hosts around six million visitors every year from all corners of the world. In all, there are about 270 hotels in Lourdes and the town has more hotels than any other city in France apart from Paris.


The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception also known as the Upper Basilica in Lourdes. Situated on top of the rock above the Grotto, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes was constructed between 1866 and 1872. Because of its location it is also known as the Upper Basilica. It was during the 13th appearance of the apparition on March the 2nd that Bernadette was first told to build a chapel here. Only 8 years later, a small church known as the Crypt was completed above the Grotto but because of the number of visitors, a bigger basilica was commissioned. This was built on top of the Crypt and was consecrated in 1876. The spire is 70m tall and is flanked by 2 smaller spires, which were added in 1908.


A gilded cross and crown adorns the top of the Rosary Basilica’s dome. Situated to the front of the Upper Basilica is the Rosary Basilica or in French Notre Dame du Rosaire. Work on the Rosary Basilica began in 1883 and it took until 1899 to be completed. It was consecrated in 1901 and has a capacity of 1,500 worshipers. This wonderful gilded cross and crown was a gift from the people of Ireland and was added in 1924 to the Basilica’s dome.


The spring that Bernadette discovered is today marked by flowers. To the left of the grotto is the miraculous spring that began to flow after Bernadette scratched at the dirt and grass that was then on the rock here. Soon afterwards, a spring arose at this spot and today the spring that Bernadette discovered is lovingly marked with flowers. The rock itself is damp to touch but there is no sign of any water flowing from it. Instead, the spring water is piped to a nearby location where multiple taps allow anyone to fill a container with this water.


Hundreds of candles were lined up in cages beside the Grotto and most of them were lit. To the right of the grotto is where the candles are lit. There are so many candles burning that rivers of wax flow across the footpath and you have to be careful where you step.


One of the candles was for Italian cyclist Fabio Casartelli who was killed during the Tour de France in 1995. Fabio Casartelli had won the gold medal in the Olympic road race in Barcelona in 1992 and was competing in his first Tour de France when he was killed in 1995. He crashed along with some other riders while descending the nearby Col de Portet d’Aspet and his head struck a concrete block on the edge of the road. His death led to the compulsory wearing of bike helmets during cycle races a few years later. While riders have been killed on other races, no rider has died since on the Tour de France.


This statue depicts Bernadette’s time as a shepherdess on her aunt’s farm. Bernadette had a tough life. She contracted cholera as a toddler and also suffered from severe asthma. Her family were very poor at time of the apparitions and were living in a basement flat, formerly used as a jail, called le Cachot or “the dungeon”. The Cachot was a 1-room dwelling with a very poor fireplace and was very cold and damp. Bernadette was the eldest of 9 children, though only 4 of the family survived childhood.There was very little space in the flat for Bernadette and her 3 siblings so she would sometimes stay with her aunt in the countryside and worked as a shepherdess looking after her aunt’s sheep.

Source : Thoughtsandplaces.org

Bernadette’s baptismal font in the Sacred Heart church in the centre of Lourdes. Bernadette was born on 7 January 1844 and baptized at the local parish church, St. Pierre’s, 2 days later on 9 January. After the apparitions, St Pierre’s was demolished and replaced by a much bigger church known as the Sacred Heart or Sacre Couer church. However, the actual baptismal font used to baptize Bernadette was saved and it is now on display inside the Sacred Heart church. Her baptismal certificate is also on the wall to the left of the font. There is also a stained glass display which depicts the local priest, Abbe Peyramale, asking Bernadette to ask the apparition her name. Bernadette told him that the lady in her vision said that she was the Immaculate Conception. This answer astonished Father Peyramale and caused him to believe Bernadette and to announce this news to his superiors.


Footbridge across the Gave river between the Grotto and the Church of St. Bernadette. Today was the 157th anniversary of Bernadette’s last apparition on 16th July 1858. That apparition was unusual in that it was the only apparition that did not take place at the Grotto. The local mayor in Lourdes alarmed at the crowds who were congregating at the Grotto had closed off the surrounding area and had issued a decree forbidding anyone to kneel or pray in its vicinity. Because the grotto was barricaded, Bernadette knelt outside the fence by the riverbank. “I thought I was at the Grotto and all I saw was Our Lady … She was more beautiful than ever.” she said afterwards. The grotto was reopened to the public in October 1858, by order of Emperor Louis Napoleon III. Bernadette received no further apparitions and apparently, did not feel any desire to visit the Grotto afterwards. In 1866 she left Lourdes to join a religious order, 500 km away, in Nevers. 13 years later, she died in Nevers at the age of 35 from tuberculosis. In 1988, a church was consecrated on the spot where Bernadette stood during the final (18th) Apparition. The church was named the church of St. Bernadette in her honor and it can be reached from the Grotto by crossing the footbridge in the photo above.


View of the Chateau Fort from the steps of the Notre Dame basilica. Prior to the apparitions, Lourdes was best known for the Chateau Fort, which overlooks the town. The castle’s origins go back to Roman times and in the 8th Century, it was besieged by Charlemagne. The present day Chateau Fort dates from the 14th Century and in Bernadette’s time, was used as a prison. In 1921, it was converted into a museum (Musée Pyrénéen) after an elevator was added for tourists to use. There is a small garden in the grounds of the castle with a miniature village, which depicts local Basque life.


A single cross at the top of the Grand Jer overlooking Lourdes. Lourdes is great to visit any time of the year but it is the surrounding mountains and their lush green colour that make the place just stunning in the middle of summer. Lourdes is overlooked from the south by the Pyrenees while around the town there are three summits reaching up to 1,000 m which are known as the Béout, the Petit Jer (with its three crosses) and the Grand Jer (with its single cross) which overlook the town. The Grand Jer is accessible via the funicular railway of the Pic du Jer.


View of the Sanctuary of Our Lady in Lourdes from the Esplanade. If I was only allowed to re-visit one place from the 2015 Tour de Travoy, it wouldn’t be Alpe d’Huez or Champagne or certainly not the Somme, it would be here in Lourdes. France has always had a reputation for building grand edifices such as the Cite de Carcassonne or Chateau de Versailles. More recently, President Francois Mitterand would refer to these projects as Les Grandes Projets. Well, there is no finer Grand Projet in all of France than here in Lourdes. What would have been a rocky outcrop in Bernadette’s time has been transformed into a beautiful gem. People may criticize it as Disneyland for pilgrims and pensioners but that just misses the point. Sure there is no shortage of cafes and souvenir shops but they are kept well away from the Sanctuary and the area around the Grotto is just lovely. Many of the famous tourist site in France such as Cote d’Azur or Disneyland are very expensive and are mobbed during the summer but here in Lourdes, the place was relatively quiet and everything from accommodation to food was very affordable. One day, I hope to make it back to Lourdes and tackle the Tourmalet and some of the other famous climbs nearby in the Pyrenees. It was a great venue to see the Tour de France and would make a great base for anyone watching the Tour in the Pyrenees. I am sure loads of people stay here during the winter also when they go skiing. But the place is well worth a visit at any time of the year even if you are not into cycling or religion or skiing as it is stunningly beautiful.


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