Part 3 of my latest travel series on my recent trip to southern France continues where we left off in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region, but for this post the focus is on the urban areas and in particular Pau, Lourdes and St Jean de Pied de Port.
Pau was our first point of travel in region being the nearest to our rented farmhouse and we were trying to save the more picturesque areas for the better weather which was forecast for the middle of the week. Our trip to Pau was on Sunday and being France, everywhere was practically closed so the town did have the slight feel of a ghost town when walking about the main shopping streets. However, as we headed down Boulevard des Pyrénées this soon changed. The boulevard is built up on the northern side of the street only with the terraced south side overlooking the valley of the Gave de Pau to its south. The boulevard on the clear days provides distant view of the peaks of the Pyrénées, but they were completed obscured by cloud on our visit. On approaching the funicular railway, which lifts people from the railway station on the valley floor to the boulevard, we noticed a group of people and cyclists milling around a street performer. On closer inspection, the group was part of an organised cycle ride which was departing from the boulevard complete with people in old costumes and old bikes. Perfect opportunity for street photography.
Next up was Lourdes. It is well publicised about the religious commercialisation of the town with an array of tourist shops selling a vast variety of holy water bottles and other mass production religious artefacts. For me this does not distract from the beautiful setting of the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes. The Sanctuary is overlooked by the three hills of Béout, the Petit Jer and the Grand Jer and is bordered by the fasting flowing Gave de Pau river cascading its way down from the Pyrénées Mountains. The Sanctuary is also guarded by the imposing Château fort de Lourdes perched high on a rocky outcrop. I knew little of Lourdes before arriving in Ireland seven years ago. I am not a Catholic and although I was brought up under the presbyterian Church of Scotland, I do not label myself as such nor would I label myself as an atheist either. As such, I find I can visit these places without any perceived views, blind faith or scepticism and arrive with an inquisitive mind and openness to what is to become before me. Over my years in Ireland, I began to hear a little more about Lourdes with the occasional mention of people receiving gifts of holy water from Lourdes, to other people actually heading out on pilgrimages either as a traveller or as a volunteer to selflessly tend and aid others who are making the trip. Slowly I started to ask my own questions about this place and in return started to hear of grottos and miraculous healing.
With all this in mind, my wife and I entered the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The pristinely manicured esplanade leads you down to the statue of the crowned Virgin with the Rosary Square and the Rosary Basilica behind. The square is dominated by two massive ornate circular ramps encircling the Rosary Square and Romanesque-Byzantine style basilica .The ramps lead up to the crypt which was the original church on the site and which is founded upon the rock of Massabielle above the grottos. The next level up again takes you the french gothic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. We explored the various levels working our way up to the Upper Basilica to take the Way of the Cross (Chemin de Croix). The path steeply winds it way up Mount of Espelugues for around a mile passing fifteen stations depicting the various stages of Jesus' last journey before winding back down towards the basilica. We passed many groups on the way some with guides and others with priests as they stopped at each station for readings and prayers.
We returned to the lowest level of the sanctuary to make our way to the Grotto. The Grottos at Massabielle are where St Bernadette's visions took place and where the pilgrims drink the spring water , touch the rockface of the grotto and leave prayers and offerings of prayers, petitions and candles. The final aspect to our visit was the Blessed Sacrament Procession. The precession is led by a priest or bishop carrying a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament preceded by bearers carrying leafy branches, incense burners and religious banners. The precession is led down the ramps and into Rosary Square where the group of the sick pilgrims are gathered awaiting their blessings. Regrettably we did not hang around for the candle lit precession which takes place later at night.
The visit left me with somewhat mixed emotions. Visually beautiful but what I thought at the time was an undercurrent of sadness. One cannot help but notice the mass of the sick and the infirm who have made their pilgrimage to Lourdes in hope and consolation to all who are in need of healing and peace. Having had time to reflect, my view has changed to recognise the greater feeling of hope and togetherness that such a place can bring. The vast number of volunteers, young and old, who give up their time to ensure those who are sick get every last bit of enjoyment and hope to those people who the trip may be their only holiday of the year and precious time out of hospitals and nursing homes. My wife, the more religious one of our marriage, commented that she felt Lourdes was more spiritual than the Vatican. I struggled to write this part of the post and to convey the feelings that Lourdes left me with. In writing the post I ended up reading various posts about Lourdes. I came across this one quote from Malcolm Muggeridge in a BBC broadcast from the 7th September 1965 which resonated with me.
These people—the fortitude with which they endured their afflictions, the joy with which life none the less filled them, their compassion for those more stricken than themselves, above all their serene confrontation of the prospect of death in the certain knowledge of God's love and mercy—occupied my mind and spirit much more than Lourdes as a place... ...For most of the time, in all seasons, it is teeming with people. No, the stillness is within, not without; wonderfully peaceful and uplifting. Human beings are only bearable when the last defences of their egos are down; when they stand, helpless and humbled, before the awful circumstances of their being. It is only thus that the point of the cross becomes clear, and the point of the cross is the point of life."
Perhaps swayed by tales of miracles from Lourdes, I feel I was guilty at some level of misconstruing the pilgrimages of the sick to Lourdes as a last act of desperation in an attempt to find a miracle to cure their aliment. Having reflected, I can now see the true value in Lourdes in bringing peace to these people and bringing them closer to the love of their God and through the kinship and extended community of the Lourdes faithful. Perhaps, in what could be the last time for some of these pilgrims, even acceptance in their afflictions in preparation for death knowing of what lies in wait for them beyond our place on this earth.
I was saddened to hear of terrible floods which hit the region and in particular Lourdes and the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes only a week after we had returned from our trip. I hope the area can recover promptly to continue the valuable service the area provides.
My intention was to also to write about St Jean Pied de Port, but it doesn't feel right to add it on to the bottom of this post so I think I will tag it onto the next post.