Rishad Saam Mehta on the palpable piety in Lourdes and the scenic drive in the Pyrenees
There is magic in Lourdes. You don’t need to know about the story of 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous who saw the Virgin Mary in a series of 18 visions that came to her in the grotto. Visions that made Lourdes one of the world’s holiest pilgrimage sites for Christians and where there has been a certified miracle every decade.
You can feel the palpable piety in the air. And it is a place that will move you. I arrived there from Pau, which is 43 km away and the nearest airport. The drive was pretty enough getting to Lourdes with a stop at the Bétharram Caves, 15 km before Lourdes.
The caves are like an underground cathedral where Nature has carved out huge halls and fascinating rock formations. The guided tour lasts about an hour and the last bit via a little train is a superb experience.
Descending the steep street of Lourdes down towards the Santuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes, the first touching sight I saw was of volunteers helping the disabled.
These volunteers, numbering 7,000, pull the wheelchairs of the disabled and the infirm, who come to Lourdes to visit the grotto and ask for blessings.
A matter of faith
It is this firm and unshakable faith that draws seven million pilgrims to Lourdes every year, and gives the town its aura. And, the aura burns brightest at the grotto.
The rock at the very place where Bernadette saw the Lady of the Immaculate Conception is worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims who have touched it over the years.
In the grotto, too, is the source of the holy spring water. The Virgin Mary asked Bernadette to dig the ground with her hands during one of the visions, and she discovered a spring that flows to this day. Today, pilgrims fill holy water from the springs in bottles and take back home.
The Santuaires’ main basilica is the Basilique du Rosaire, and inside this are 15 chapels beautifully done in mosaic that tell about the life of Christ right from the time God appears to Mary to the time Jesus departs for heaven after 40 days of the resurrection. The torch-light procession that starts from the Massabielle Grotto every night at 9 is ethereal, and something that is a highlight of a visit to Lourdes.
The next morning, I drove from Lourdes to Gèdre, a distance of 41.2 km, half of which was through stunning mountain scenery. I was now driving in the Pyrenees, and the village of Gèdre is a typical example of a rural mountain village where pastoral activities regulate day-to-day living. Armed with a map and accompanied by a very capable guide in Sarah, a half- English, half-French local girl, I set off from this village towards the Cirque de Troumouse.
This vast, wild and already snow-laden place is a super-scenic drive up from Gèdre past the village of Hèas. The snow, which seemed far up when I started the winding roads of the Pyrenees, were suddenly within reach and, after a few minutes, I was seeing snow below me, forming white patches on the landscape I had just crossed.
The Cirque de Troumouse is an imposing curved wall of rock, 10 km long and 1,000 mt high! It looks like a huge amphitheatre, and in its centre is a grassy knoll crowned by a prominent statue of the Virgin Mary. It’s a place for some invigorating trekking, silent contemplation, moments of peace and bird watching.
Beneath the Eastern walls of the cirque are scattered a half-dozen blue glacial mini lakes, the Lacs des Aires. Even if you aren’t an ardent trekker, the drive up to the car park itself is worth the trip to the Cirque.
All the walking around the cirque worked up a pretty good appetite, and so we stopped at the village of Hèas on the way back to Gèdre.
The centre of Héas is simply an old church and a few other buildings. The church is hauntingly beautiful and a must visit. The restaurant there, called the Auberge, is a family-run establishment serving very lovely local cuisine. Since the day was so lovely without a hint of cloud, the bustling lady of the house set up a table on the terrace. Our lunch was in full view of the snow-capped Pyrenees. She also popped open a bottle of chilled white wine from the region that went very well with the lamb that was being served.
We were joined by other walkers, and the table grew to eight people from different countries laughing and guffawing as if they were old friends. The sun was warm, the air was invigorating and the food delicious. It was a perfect afternoon — the kind of village afternoons that you read about in books about rural France where lunches are spread over three hours.
How to go
To get here, you can fly straight from Paris to Pau, which has four daily connections from Charles De Gaulle airport.
From Pau, you can hire a car and drive. For more on walking and staying in the Pyrenees, go to www.gavarnie.com