The first time I saw Lourdes, I was caught completely by surprise. I was heading for St Jean-Pied-De-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees with a seasoned traveller friend in a rented car in 2002. We had overnighted in Toulouse and as I had never been to Europe before, I had no idea that we would be going so close to Lourdes. My main focus was on Santiago de Compostela and driving along the Camino. It was all I could think about, I was so very excited.
Out of the blue my friend said that we would be passing by the turn off to Lourdes in a few minutes and would I like to stop in and see it. Well of course I wanted to see it, so in we went. What I didn't know was that my friend had planned the stop all along and that we were to stay overnight. I couldn't believe my luck.
I fell in love with this little town in a matter of minutes. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The contrast between the town and its hundreds of souvenir shops (all selling the same stuff) and the Sanctuary where the Grotto is located was absolutely amazing.
I especially love the Candle Light Procession every night. On a clear night with a bigger than usual crowd it is nothing short of spectacular and to the faithful, a very moving experience.
I am a born and bred and practising Catholic, so Lourdes obviously means a lot to me. However, I can understand why so many non-believers don't like it. To them, the commercialism is quite tacky and they have little or no interest in the Basilica or the Grotto or the Sanctuary in general, so a visit to Lourdes to them is a complete waste of time. On the other hand those of us who were brought up hearing about Bernadette and the Lady find the Sanctuary to be a place full of peace, joy and lots of love. The souvenir sellers are not allowed anywhere within the confines of the Sanctuary. I never tire of it and go back there every time I go to Europe.
"Peace, Joy and lots of Love........"
When we arrived in Lourdes on my third visit in 2007, Billy was in a far more relaxed frame of mind than he had been in Paris, so I let him loose to explore for himself. He climbed up to the castle and rode the funicular to the top of the Pic de Jer in the Pyrennees and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He had all kinds of stories to tell about the people he met and his adventures without Mum in tow.
For my part I celebrated my birthday in Lourdes and never did anyone have so many birthday candles as I did at the Candlelight Procession. I know that there are many people who don't like Lourdes, but I find it to be a place full of peace and joy and it does my old heart good to spend a day or two there whenever I go to Europe. This time was no different.
"You'll love it or loathe it........"
If you have a special devotion to St Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes, you will love it (especially the Sanctuary), if you don't have that devotion, don't waste your time, you'll hate it. And in defence of the locals who are often criticised for "cashing in" with all their souvenir shops etc, I might remind the knockers that these people have to make a living somehow and after all, they are being invaded by tens of thousands of tourists every day for nine months of every year. Cut them some slack for heaven's sake. It's what they do to survive.