Spiritual site where solace meets commercial forces

All this year, Lourdes is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in a small grotto. Samantha David pays a visit to France’s wildly popular holy location

Published Last updated

Lourdes is uplifting, other-worldly and spiritual. It is also tacky, vulgar, and crammed with coach tours. In 1858, it was a small agricultural market town in the Pyrenean foothills with a population of around 4,000 people. One of them, a 14 year-old called Bernadette Soubirous, formed the habit of praying in a shallow grotto beside the Gave de Pau river which ran past the town.

It was an insalubrious place, where rubbish was dumped, firewood collected and animals grazed. There, in a niche just above the grotto, Bernadette saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary 18 times over a few weeks. The apparition told Bernadette to “Go and drink from the spring”, “Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here,” and “Have the people come here in procession”. And where Bernadette touched the ground, water sprang up.

Little by little people heard about the apparitions and began visiting the grotto. Over the years Bernadette received more and more requests to talk about her experiences, until finally age 22 she became a nun. (She died at the age of 35.) But her legacy was fixed.

Her visions validated by the Catholic church, the spot was venerated as a pilgrimage destination. Around 200 million people have visited the site since 1860 and every year up to 6 million more people arrive. 350,000 of them bathe in the water, many hoping for a miracle.

The permanent population of Lourdes is 15,000 but the town boasts 270 hotels with a total of around 11,000 rooms. Paris is the only French city with more hotel rooms than Lourdes.

The 124-acre area around the grotto is called the ‘Sanctuary’ and contains 22 different places of worship along with a medical centre, administration blocks, a library and several impressive cathedrals.

The original Crypt has been joined by the Upper Basilica, the Rosary Basilica and the controversial Underground Basilica: constructed in 1958 for the centenary of the apparitions, the brutal 50s concrete bunker can accommodate a mind-boggling 25,000 worshippers.

There is also the Church of St Bernadette constructed in 1988 on the riverbank opposite the grotto; St Joseph’s Chapel; and the Chapel of Reconciliation where priests are available to hear confessions in almost any European language at any time.

There are flocks of pilgrims all wearing the same colour hats or scarves, groups of fresh-faced youngsters pushing wheelchairs, nurses in crisp white aprons, people being wheeled slowly towards the grotto on hospital stretchers. Pilgrims from all over the world attend Mass in dozens of different languages. From Easter to All Saints, when the Sanctuary is in full swing, there is a daily Mass and procession at17.00, and a torchlight procession at 21.00.

Visitors come for all sorts of reasons, and each year hundreds of people feel they have experienced a miracle. Doctor Alessandro de Franciscis is the resident doctor at the Sanctuary.

His job is to determine whether an unexplained cure has taken place or not. “I am the devil’s advocate,” he says. “I believe in miracles, but my job is to make a scientific evaluation.”

He explains that for a cure to be considered a miracle, it has to be unexpected, instant, complete, and lasting.

“I also need to see medical records including x-rays and scans showing a person’s condition and prognosis before they came to Lourdes, and more medical records showing the change after the so-called miracle. And for something to be considered a true miracle, it has to be an improvement that can’t be explained in any other way.”

It also helps if the condition which has been miraculously cured has never been cured before. “As a doctor I have to be most annoyingly precise.”

He says that around 100 people come to his office in the Sanctuary every year. “Most just come to talk to me, but around 20-30 say they’ve experienced a miracle. I explain that we need proof, we can’t just take their word for it. But so far, of the people who came in 2017, only one has sent some medical evidence.”

Since 1883, the Bureau has judged around 7,400 alleged cures as being unexplained, but Bishops have declared just 70 to be miracles.

Outside the Sanctuary is a close-packed jumble of souvenir shops, cafés, and kiosks selling tour bus tickets and advertising mobility scooters for hire. Around the perimeter of the Sanctuary shops jammed in side-by-side line the streets, their shelves stacked with Virgin Mary statues in various sizes and colourways, with or without infant/roses/halo/blue belt/crown/faint smile; some will even glow in the dark.

There are crucifixes, rosaries, Bibles, posters of Bernadette beholding the Virgin or just gazing solemnly out of a grainy photograph; Lourdes medals, prayer cards, candles, pill boxes, tea-towels, coffee cups, t-shirts.

On and on it goes, and mixed in amongst the religious artefacts are piles of mountain sausages, Pyrenean cheese, foie gras, teddy bears, sheepskin slippers and more cheap jewellery than anyone knew existed.

There are plastic bottles of all sizes, some shaped like the Virgin Mary, to fill with holy water from the Sanctuary, incense (some of it promising miraculous cures, just in case the waters don’t do the trick), pastels, vials of holy water, postcards of kittens, woollen ponchos, plastic rain macs, silk scarves, holy handbags, luggage, cuckoo clocks, Provencal olive bowls, mantillas, religious wall plaques, posters of the Last Supper, rag dolls, magic rings... there’s even a sari shop.

I was initially amused. People obviously love to shop, so what’s the problem? But then is faith really just a free gift with every purchase of a Lourdes teapot?

I went back to the Sanctuary in search of something more authentic, and decided to bathe in the waters. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, but I hoped that at least it wouldn’t involve a fluorescent Virgin.

An immersive experience

The baths are divided into men’s and women’s. We queued sitting on benches and, as we all got nearer the top of the queue, everyone nervously fell silent. Finally six of us were beckoned through the curtains into a very small cubicle staffed by volunteer Catholic nurses in old fashioned uniforms.

There were six chairs, six clothes hooks and hardly room to move. The nurses held up damp rubber navy blue capes to save our blushes, we all stripped naked and were wrapped in the capes.

Physically if not mentally prepared, we sat on our chairs waiting to be beckoned through the second set of curtains. By the time my turn came and I found myself standing at the end of a long shallow bath flanked by another team of volunteer nurses, I was incredibly nervous.

I tried to walk down the steps into the water but they said I had to wait until, by some sleight of hand, they managed to remove the rubber cape and wrap a wide strip of wet white muslin round my body. I headed off down the steps into the cold water, but yet again I was too eager. I needed to address a prayer to the bust of the Virgin, overlooking the proceedings with a kindly but very glazed stare.

Finally it was time to wade through the water, which at 12 degrees was cold but not impossibly so, and then the nurses held my arms and the muslin wrap while I sat down and they lowered me backwards into the water. The immersion was brief, and stopped at my neck.

Then they swung me upright again (these women must have arms like wrestlers from doing this all day), replaced the muslin with the wet rubber, and I waded out. It was completely surreal, and very emotional.

Back in the changing room I had tears on my cheeks as I dragged my clothes over my wet skin and stumbled back out into the sunlight. I briefly experienced a feeling of incredible well-being. Was it a miracle? Or just relief at being outside again with all my clothes on? Was I turning into a pilgrim rather than a visitor?

“I don’t think there’s any difference between pilgrims and visitors,” said Father André Cabes, the Rector of the Sanctuary. “It just depends what’s in their hearts. People can call themselves good Catholics but they are so full of judgement and inflexibility that I think they are further from eternal life than people who tell me they don’t believe in God, but behave every day with love and consideration towards others.”

The Rector oversees and manages the Sanctuary. “All sorts of people come here. So many people are badly situated in life, but there is a place for them here. We are a family with open arms. Here, we welcome people as they are.”

A softly-spoken, physically slight man, Father André nevertheless manages one of the largest visitor attractions in the world. Thirty full-time chaplains work at the Sanctuary, alongside around 450 lay-employees and thousands of volunteers. Running costs are in the region of 18 million euros a year, 90% of which comes from donations.

“We are all disabled in one way or another, often invisibly. Being here among so many visibly disabled people makes it easier for people to admit their own disabilities. Going to confession is easier here because it’s truly anonymous, and daring to voice the secrets we all carry liberates the heart and the spirit. Sometimes there are no solutions, but being forgiven liberates the soul. The biggest miracle we see here is the heart that changes.”

He says that after three years in the job he is still amazed at the waves of humanity who come to Lourdes. But it remains a deeply human experience, he says, and people often ask chaplains and priests to bless them. “I believe in miracles, but that’s not the aim here. Spiritual healing is far more important. The real aim is eternal life.”

He says people come to Lourdes searching for happiness having filled their lives with endless purchases. But when you eat cake he says, it’s gone. When you take love, it increases indefinitely. People come hoping to learn they are worth loving.

I tell him how surreal I found my bathing experience. “The baths here wash the soul, you open yourself and are no longer imprisoned. People come back for this liberation every year,” he says. “In the end it’s all about love.”

Not only, but also... what else to see in Lourdes

Want to escape the crowds? Explore more aspects of the town’s history or head for the hills for a view to remember

Away from in the intense atmosphere of the Sanctuary and the surrounding old town, there are plenty of other, non-spiritual, attractions in and around Lourdes.

There is also a huge range of restaurants and, as a side-effect of being a pilgrimage destination, almost the entire town is wheelchair accessible. Pavements have ramps, steps have been replaced with slopes, shops have large lifts, restaurants and cafés have wheelchair accessible conveniences, even historical monuments have lifts concealed in their ancient stone towers.

It is an object lesson to the lazy town planners, stingy accountants and mean-spirited apparatchiks across France who wrongly claim that making public spaces wheelchair accessible ruins traditional buildings, or is prohibitively expensive, or cannot technically be accomplished. If a place like Lourdes can do it, why can’t other towns and cities?

A 10-minute walk away from the Sanctuary, the Château Fort contains a museum explaining local history and culture. I personally have a great fondness for dusty waxworks, reconstructed scenes of peasant kitchens and collections of stuffed wild animals so these were my highlights, but the museum also contains a fascinating amount of actual history if that’s more to your taste. And when you climb to the very top of the fortress, there is a fabulous 360 degree view of the town and the surrounding mountains.

Also in the centre of the new part of the town, do not miss the Halles de Lourdes; the 19th century indoor market hall is a particularly fine construction, and rather than be seduced by the gourmet food shops in the tourist drag around the sanctuary, this is also the best place to buy all kinds of local cheeses, charcuterie, jams, wines and other goodies.

The funicular ride up to the Pic du Jer is also richly rewarding if you love mountain scenery, and at the top there is a nice selection of activities. You can chill out in the café, follow the marked path to the summit (just 10-15 minutes) or join Hélène Sarniguet daily to explore the blissfully cool caves, or on Tuesdays, go on her guided nature walk. Hélène is informative and fun, making all of it interesting. (Book in advance via the Tourist Office.)

It is also possible, if you have nerves of steel and your tastes do not include waxwork Neanderthals, to ‘cycle’ down the mountain. This means wearing body armour and thrashing down a blue, red or black run (used in the World Cup Mountain Biking Championships in 2015, 2016, and 2017) at terrifying speed.

A short drive out of Lourdes brings you to the glories of the Grotte de Bétharram, discovered, owned and run by the Ross family. This is a huge cave system surrounding an underground river.

The entrance (several miles away from the exit) is a time-machine in itself, being traditionally constructed of wood. The lifts take you down into the first massive hall and the guided walk begins. The lighting is impressive, and the explanations are in multiple languages. It is, however, one of the rare attractions in the area which is not fully wheelchair accessible.

Although partial access has been constructed, scrambling down narrow stairs, ducking under overhanging rocks, leaning over banisters to watch the river below simply isn’t possible with limited mobility. You also need a cardigan and comfortable shoes because the temperature in the caves is 12 degrees, even at the height of summer and the path is nearly three kilometres long.

But just as you get exhausted, there’s a ferry boat decorated with dragons’ heads to carry you over the water, and soon after that a miniature steam train takes you through the rest of the caves, back out into the sunshine.

The terminus building, the Aiglon Hall, was constructed in 1925 and is stunningly elegant and full of light. It contains a gift shop and a wonderfully vintage café counter where you can buy refreshments. A coach then takes you back to the entrance where you left your car.