My cousin, Gaby, and I visited Lourdes, France in May 2009. It is a small village in south-western France where Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (the Virgin Mary) appeared to a little shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous, over a grotto in 1858. She appeared for a total of 18 times over the years and after much investigation, the local bishops declared Lourdes to be a holy site in 1860. Since then, millions of Catholic pilgrims have made Lourdes as one of their must-visit destination, along with Fatima in Portugal.
So when Candice told me that she will be going to England to visit her grandmother and will be making a stop in Lourdes, I was more than excited to share my experiences there. Here’s for you, Monday Buddy!
We started our European adventure in Paris and hopped on an overnight train to make our way to Lourdes. Leaving from Gare d’Austerlitz at 11:10PM, we arrived in Lourdes the next morning at approximately 8AM. We got on a (cute! little!) bus, went through town, and finally arrived at the front gate of the sanctuary.
Except, get this, our hostel, Maison St. Pierre – St. Paul, was located behind the sanctuary, still quite the distance to walk. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really function well in the morning. That, plus the fact that I had just spent the past 8 or so hours on an uncomfortable, reclining seat in the COLDEST train compartment known to mankind, gives a very confused Pauline:
Gaby: “Uh. Ce, where are we going?”
Gaby: “Do you know where the hostel is?”
Me: “Eh?” *blank stares*
Gaby: *After looking at the map from the station* “Okay. I think it’s this way”
She’s always been the one with a better sense of direction, that girl.
Once we made it to our hostel, checked in, ate breakfast (I’m telling you, freshly-baked French baguette with butter and jam and a cup of coffee have never tasted so delicious before!), and took a much-needed HOT shower, we walked down to the sanctuary and started to explore the grounds.
First, we stepped into St. Bernadette Church. Because it is built over the grotto on which the Virgin Mary appeared, its inside smelled of damp wood and you can hear water trickling through its walls. Underneath St. Bernadette church is the Rosary Basilica, which is topped with a golden crown.
Inside the basilica are 15 chapels, each of which is dedicated to the events of the Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful Mysteries. These chapels were individually crafted with glass mosaics and the details in them are incredible!
Behind the Basilica is the actual grotto on which the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette. Stemming from Our Lady of Lourdes’ instruction to Bernadette to “drink at the spring and wash in it”, these two activities have become somewhat of a must-do when you’re in Lourdes. Drinking the water is easy enough – all you have to do is fill your water bottles and plastic Marys (should you want to take some home for your family and friends) with water from the taps by the grotto.
Bathing, on the other hand, required a more elaborate effort. I’m going to try to describe it as much as I possibly can, but words alone cannot convey the power of a poignant experience. We found out from the information office that bathing in the spring water takes place every day from 2-4PM, but the lady on duty suggested we head over and start lining up at 1PM. Seeing as it was only a little after noon, we decided to peruse the souvenir shops and grab something to eat. We had a quick lunch at Brasserie Las Brancardieres, where I was being adventurous and chose the most-exotic-sounding item on the menu (Escaloupe turkey et frites), only to find out that it’s breaded turkey breast with fries. Meh. Hey, who says I have a good command of the French language?
After lunch we made our way to the bathing station, located behind the sanctuary, along the river bank. The hour-long wait for the bath went by surprisingly quickly. When it was our turn, we were called into a massive stall, which is essentially a changing room, where we take off our clothes and wrap ourselves with the cloth provided. Then we walked to the next room where there are a row of huge, marble bath tubs, about 1.3m deep, filled with the spring water from the grotto. There is a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes affixed on the other end of each tub. The objective is to wade through the water to this statue and say your prayers and intentions while you are doing so. When you step into your tub, there are 2 volunteers who wrap your body with this wet cloth and they hold on to you as you make your way across. The water was really, really cold, but it was quite the experience! I hate it when people tell me this, but it’s very true in this instance – you just have to experience it to know what it’s like!
At 9PM every night, there is a Torchlight Marian Procession at the courtyard in which the Rosary is recited in multiple languages accompanied by choirs from around the world. It was truly awesome to join everyone else in reciting the Hail Mary, albeit in different languages, to listen to the cacophony of melodies as literally everyone had their own version of Ave Maria, and to see so many flickering candle lights across the darkened courtyard as the sun was setting. Needless to say, I was very moved and it was a gorgeous scene! If you don’t want to join the pilgrims in walking while reciting the rosary (like us), the best location to participate from is on the ramp on either side of the basilica. This gives you a sweeping view of the entire event as it unfolds and it’s not as crowded as it would be if you are downstairs in the courtyard. Oh and don’t forget to bring your sweater as Lourdes gets rather chilly after sundown.
Last but not least, nothing is better for midnight snack than Gauffres avec Chantilly (which is really just waffles with whip cream) and a warm cup of cappuccino to end an otherwise awesome day in the sanctuary.