Saturday, August 30, 2008

Journey to...and impression of..Lourdes, France

So...after Pamplona, Spain, I had 2 days to pop across the border to Lourdes, France where I was to watch the Tour de France. How would I get there? Looking at the map, it seemed really easy. Lourdes is basically just a little northeast of Pamplona and I guessed I could get there in about an hour and a half on any bus heading that way. One small problem...the Pyrenees mountains are between the two cities and I COMPLETELY underestimated that mountain range. I figured for sure there were roads to Lourdes from Northern Spain; after all, Lourdes is known worldwide as a pilgrimage site for devout Catholics. However, in the bus station in Pamplona, as I tried to negotiate my way to Lourdes, I quickly realized that no one had even HEARD of Lourdes, let alone being able to sell me a bus ticket there. Instead, they told me to take a bus west (the complete opposite direction) to the larger town of San Sebastian, Spain and try to get a bus from there to France. I did.

San Sebastian is in the Basque region of Spain and it seems like another world, both in terrain and in culture. They speak a different language (though they will speak Spanish if you try) and they were not particularly friendly. As a group, they seek their independence from Spain and would prefer to be their own country. It is BEAUTIFUL, but it was not beautiful that day - the weather was quite rainy, the people were unfriendly and seemed suspicious of foreigners, and I couldn't find anyone who knew how to get to Lourdes, France. Finally I found a tourist information center and the girl was able/willing to speak Spanish with me, AND she had an idea of how to get to Lourdes once I described where it was. Ultimately, she ended up doing quite a bit of research and she found me a ticket on an obscure bus route that went directly to Lourdes...but only on Saturdays at 9 a.m. Hey, tomorrow was Saturday!!! Adding to the unpleasant San Sebastian experience was the fact that I was in a crappy hostel called Olga's Place (that had gotten rave reviews from, the booking site most people are using these days). It was filled with a bunch of arrogant and selfish surfer guys/girls - they were unfriendly to non-surfers, and they were quite inconsiderate with their drinking and noise during the stated quiet hours of the hostel. I finally had to speak up and kick a few of them out of the dorm room at 2 a.m. when they insisted on partying there, even as they knew that another guy and I were trying to sleep (quiet hours started at 11pm). The next morning, thankful to be leaving San Sebastian after only one evening, I headed out to the bus station. In a little bus station coffeehouse, I was pleasantly surprised to have a nice conversation in Spanish with nice girl...I wasn't really surprised that she turned out to be from Romania, not San Sebastian.

In the pouring rain, I boarded my bus to Lourdes. It rained and rained all day and it really reminded me of home in the Pacific Northwest with all the rain and all the mountains. As the day went on, however, and we got into the Pyrenees, I realized that these mountains are unlike any we have in the Northwest. The Pyrenees are B I G and there aren't a lot of roads. Arriving in Lourdes, I immediately checked into my hotel, which I had booked from the U.S. (the only place I´d booked before I left). It seemed to be a very nice hotel in the middle of a town filled with really ugly hotels. I then found the train/bus station on the map and walked to it. Walking through Lourdes was startling. Not knowing much about the history of the town, I was shocked to see literally hundreds of tourist shops filled with every possible religious (Catholic) artifact for sale. Honestly, it was shocking. Cheap, cheesy stuff with pictures of the Virgin Mary or of St. Bernadette was everywhere, and expensive! Umbrellas, water bottles, ponchos, shirts, trinkets, necklaces, rosaries, fans, posters, hats, and anything else you can imagine was for sale. Crap, all of it.

I guess back in the 1800´s, this young, 11-year old girl called Bernadette claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her 18 times. The church believed her and the spot (cave) where this supposedly happened became sacred. They built a cathedral on site above the cave. Catholics worldwide began to learn of this spot and began to flock here, bringing their injured/sick friends and family to be cured or granted a miracle. There is a spring in the cave and the water from this spring is supposed to be curative. I swear to God...seriously...this town is FILLED with people in wheelchairs, on gurneys, on crutches, etc., and equally filled with volunteers from around the world pushing them to the holy spring. The spring just happens to now be like a massive drinking fountain with about 30 faucets, but I suppose one day in the past it really was water flowing out of a rock. Anyway, people drink it, bottle it, let it run over various body parts that need some divine attention. Every store sells every size of water bottle, from small 1/2 ounce vials to gallon buckets, for people to take home a little o' Lourdes...their own little portable miracle. To me the juxtaposition of this super holy place with such outrageous capitalization on tourists' devotion is quite the paradox.

Lourdes is kind of an ugly town in a beautiful setting; of course, the pilgrims (and yes, they do call those who come to see miracles 'pilgrims') would probably disagree wholeheartedly.

But I made it...and the Tour de France awaited!!

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