November 29, 2016, Tuesday:
A Pilgrimage to Lourdes
We arrived on schedule at Toulouse at 6.45 am after poor Llew complained that he had barely slept. I, on the other hand, had slept fairly well considering that I was sitting up in a moving train—but that was because I had dozed myself with medication to kill a cold that I had picked up in Israel. At 7.41, we boarded another train from Toulouse for Lourdes and arrived at Montrajet-Gourdan Poligny at 9.40 am. We had about an hour to wait at that small village in the midst of nowhere and decided to take a little walk. A bus (also run by the SNCF—Syndicat Nationale de Chemin de Fer) that we boarded at 10.41 am eventually got us to Lourdes to 12 noon! As you can see, getting to Lourdes is not easy—even if you take trains from Paris. No wonder people prefer to drive to Lourdes. But, if you can believe it, we really did enjoy all these bits of the journey as they were quite pleasant, offered wonderful scenery and allowed us to chat and catch up on our many months of absence. The last bit (the bus ride) was particularly nice as the Pyrennes came into view with their snow caps.
Arrival in Lourdes:
However, Lourdes turned out to be a real disappointment in many ways. For one thing, I guess November is not the time to be there as it is way past the ‘season’. Once we alighted from the bus at the bus station, we obtained a map from the Tourist Information Center at the train station and the lady there showed me exactly how to get to the Basilica—which is the biggest attraction.
Walking there took about fifteen minutes. Throughout the walk we found that every single commercial establishment was shut—every restaurant, most hotels and almost all the souvenir shops. The only ones open were those nearest to the basilica. The Basilica has been built on the top of the grotto at which the Virgin Mary appeared to a simple village girl called Bernadette in….. The village catapulted into global prominence and began to draw large numbers of pilgrims. So large were the crowds that the basilica was built to sanctify the venue. It is a very elaborate building and characterized by two levels—an upper and a lower. From the front, it looks almost like a fairy-tale castle with its towering conical turrets and its beautiful location on the banks of the River Pau. Autumn had brought lovely russet color to the trees that framed the church.
There is an elaborate mosaic at the entrance of the lower church but long before we arrived there, we were stunned by the number and size of the candles that had been lit by the faithful. Every single one of the decades of the Rosary are interpreted upon the walls of the church in Byzantine mosaics. When we had spent a while in the church, we went outside to the grotto to pray there. It is lovely that they have retained the grotto exactly as it was and have constructed the church to rise above it. The grotto does not have a statue of Bernadette—surprisingly—just one of Mary. There too, we took pictures and said a few Hail Marys for the many people who asked us to pray for them at Lourdes.
Unfortunately, the pools at which people take a ritualistic dunking, were all closed as it would simply be too cold for anyone to take a dip. Similarly, although we crossed the bridge over the Pau, we found that the smaller church on the other side, closes on October 1 and remains closed up to April 1. So, apart from actually praying in the basilica, there was not much we could do in Lourdes. But that was okay because that was exactly why we had made our pilgrimage to Lourdes. On our way back to the railway station, we found a souvenir store opened and from there, we did buy a magnet and our postcard. But that was it. Still, despite the disappointment, it was nice to eventually get to Lourdes and be able to continue the pilgrimage that we had started in the Holy Land.
Return to Paris:
Since we had more than an hour to wait at Lourdes station for our return direct train to Paris which left at 4.34 pm, we used the time to make a reservation for the night, through Hotels.com, in a centrally-located hotel in Paris called Hotel Liege Strasbourg and it was there that we reached at about 10.30 pm. It turned out to be a really nice hotel—clean, safe and up on the fifth floor of the building, it offered lovely views of the rooftops of Paris.