I’ve had enough education to question blind faith but not nearly enough to give me any answers. Like many others raised Catholic have found, it’s a religion that stays with you once you have been indoctrinated.
Once you’ve started Catholic, frankly, there’s no real way to stop being Catholic. Even not believing in God isn’t regarded as sufficient reason to get out of the Catholic church. You’d think it’d be fairly fundamental to the whole thing, but no. Catholicism: the stickiest, most adhesive religion in the world.
– Dara O’Briain, “Live at the Apollo”, July 6, 2005
When we were in the Gascony region of Southwest France region of Southwest France recently visiting our daughter who is at school in France, we decided to undertake a Lourdes pilgrimage. We made our Lourdes pilgrimage a day trip but many people spend several days at the shrine.
When you are visiting Lourdes with children, I think a day trip is sufficient. Most of the things to do in Lourdes revolved around the Lourdes pilgrimage sites which makes it hard for children to sustain interest for a longer period.
The little town of Lourdes in the middle-of-nowhere Southwest France is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Approximately 5 million visitors a year come to pray at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The sanctuary is built over the rock formation where Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, an amazing 18 times in the middle of the 18th century.
Lourdes Holy Water
There are lots of miracles associated with Lourdes and the water that flows from the spring where Mary appeared. People bathe in the spring’s holy water or take the holy water from Lourdes in containers all over the world.
You can buy water bottles of all sizes in the stores surrounding the shrine. Technically the Lourdes holy water isn’t Holy Water because it hasn’t been blessed by a priest. Pilgrims either anoint themselves with the water or drink it.
Miracles Associated With Lourdes
The Roman Catholic church has documented 66 miracles associated with Lourdes. These official miracles are thoroughly investigated by the Church. There are countless other people who claim to have been cured at Lourdes that don’t pass the official testing.
According to official estimates, over 80,000 sick and disabled people visit Lourdes annually. They are assisted by 100,000 volunteers. We saw people of all nationalities – both sick and healthy, young and old.
Things To Do in Lourdes
Most of the things to do in the city are based around the Lourdes pilgrimage. If you are doing a Lourdes pilgrimage only for the day, you will have plenty to do at the Sanctuary itself (especially if the lines are long!).
The busiest time of year to visit Lourdes is during the spring and summer months. We went in May which is still early in the season so that it wasn’t too crowded. Our line to see the Grotto only took 10 minutes but I’ve heard it can be one hour+ during peak season.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
The most important thing to do on a Lourdes pilgrimage is to visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is open 24/7 and admission is free. The Sanctuary covers almost 130 acres with 22 places of worship.
The gates to the Sanctuary are impressive with three archangels guarding the enormous gates. It was sad to see concrete bollards in the front of the gates because even a place of pilgrimage filled with the sick and disabled could be subject to terrorism.
These 6 sights are the most important in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes:
- The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is the upper basilica.
- The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is the lower basilica. It’s covered with thousands of Venetian mosaics.
- The Crypt is the most intimate of the prayer spaces. It has room for only 120 people.
- The Basilica of Saint Pius X is underground in the lawned area in front of the two previous basilicas and the Crypt. You think you are walking into a car park but inside the architecture is marvellous. This basilica is massive and can hold 25,000 people.
- The Grotto is where Mary appeared to Bernadette. It has the spring from which the water is diverted for people to take away with them.
- Underneath the Sanctuary and next door to the grotto are the Pools. They are open in the morning and the afternoon. As is the French custom, they take a couple of hours break in the middle of the day for lunch.
The evening torchlight procession in Lourdes is a famous sight. As day-trippers, we did not stay to see the procession at 9pm.
Visiting the Lourdes Pools
We went to all of the places but skipped the pools because my daughter refused to go inside the pools. No one could answer our question on how often the water in the pool is filtered.
My daughter was convinced she would come down with leprosy (or similar) even if the pools are full of holy water. This fear is probably a side effect of the fact that I am swabbing my kids in hand sanitiser every 10 minutes.
When author Flannery O’Conner balked at going into the pool like my daughter, she said:
I am one of those people who would rather die for my religion, than take a bath for it.
– Flannery O’Connor
There are separate pools for men and women. Even though there were not many people waiting, the wait would have been an hour. The water is supposed to be quite cold (naturally because it is spring water).
The Life of Bernadette
You can also visit sites associated with Bernadette. Her childhood home is open to visitors for a nominal fee. The visions appeared to Bernadette when she was 14 years old. By the age of 22, as the object of constant curiosity, she fled to a quiet life in a convent 500 miles away. She never returned to Lourdes.
The visitor centre at Lourdes has a walking route you can do that follows the life of Bernadette in the town. There is also screenings of the 2011 French movie of the life of Bernadette shown in cinemas around town. The French movie is Je M’appelle Bernadette but the classic English-language movie is The Song of Bernadette (1943).
Other Things To Do in Lourdes
There is religious shopping galore. People have said how tacky it is. We didn’t think it was too bad (but I did grow up in an Indian Catholic family where religious paraphernalia in the home was obligatory). It’s a bit like any tourist town. Instead of shot glasses and hats, the tacky souvenirs are rosary beads and religious figurines.
A fortress looms above Lourdes on the edge of the city as the one and only secular sightseeing option in the city. If you make it to the top, there are fabulous views.
About 20 minutes outside of Lourdes, you will find the popular limestone caves, the Grottes de Betharram. When we went, the line wasn’t long but there was NO staff around at all. We waited for 1/2 hour expecting someone to show up and tell us what to do and where to go. Nope, nothing.
My husband checked the TripAdvisor Reviews which said the caves were fascinating but service was atrocious. The kids were getting antsy and so we bailed on this attraction. We were disappointed because the dioramas of the caves which we examined thoroughly while we were waiting looked very cool!
Photo Gallery For Lourdes
Practical Information for A Lourdes Pilgrimage
Getting To Lourdes
You can take the train from Paris to Lourdes relatively easily. The journey can last anywhere between 6-9 hours depending on the type of train. The TGV trains from Paris Gare-Montparnasse to Lourdes run up to 12x a day. The first train is in the early morning around 6AM and the last one leaves Paris around 9PM. Many of the trains involved 1-2 changes but there are up to 3 trains a day that are a direct service.
My parents did the Lourdes pilgrimage via the high-speed train from Paris several years ago. They speak no French. They also have a tendency to get hopelessly lost because map/sign reading is a skill they have not mastered (as I know from my childhood). If they can do it, you can, too!
We flew into Toulouse from London via EasyJet. British Airways also has flights into Toulouse. It’s a two hour drive from Toulouse to Lourdes.
Accommodation in Lourdes
We stayed an hour away at the Chateau de Projan. The chateau itself was gorgeous and the owners were gracious hosts. They gave us an alternate to the motorway to get to Lourdes which lead us through charming towns and bucolic countryside. We found the Chateau de Projan through Alistair Sawday which we love for quirky, cool places to stay.
My parents stayed at the Grand Hotel Moderne which is right near the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. They loved the location because it allowed them to go to all the different Masses.
There are plenty of other hotels in Lourdes to accommodate the many people from near and far who undertake a Lourdes pilgrimage.
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