Lourdes opens for business
LOURDES (France), July 24 — On a cold February day in 1858 in the highland village of Lourdes, France, a young girl of 14 ventured out of the village in search of firewood and saw something that would change the fate of not only her life but the lives of the Lourdais for generations to come.
Her sighting of a rose wavering from a mysterious breeze and apparition of a woman in the grotto was the beginning of a change that would catapult the small Occitan town to international fame and make it a Catholic pilgrimage site for believers from all over the world.
Bernadette continued to receive visions of a woman dressed in white in the grotto, speaking to her and demonstrating inexplicable miraculous acts which baffled and confounded believers and non-believers alike.
Her mystical visions of this demure woman in white culminated eventually in the revelation that she was the Virgin Mary whom only four years earlier was declared as such, unblemished by the stain of original sin which marks all mankind with the exception of Jesus, Adam and Eve.
Since then, Lourdes has become a place of great interest and spiritual significance for believers of the Catholic faith, a place where miracles take place.
It has also turned into a money-making machine which turns over approximately five million visitors every year. If you expect to arrive at a quaint, peaceful French town with stone-walled castles and cathedrals built in the Middle Ages, the initial introduction to Lourdes may give you a wee bit of a shock.
The South of France possesses a serene beauty that envelopes and surrounds you, from the quietly imposing Pyrénées that watch you as you cruise through rolling meadows and charming Occitan farm houses proffering traditionally made goat’s cheese and foie gras.
So when you roll into Lourdes, you can expect very much the same.
However, the moment you step out and hit the tourist circuit you are immediately smacked in the face with all manner of Catholic paraphernalia and hotels with blessed names flashing at you from various angles in charming blue neon.
Cross the street from the town centre and things take a turn for the tacky. Beautiful neo-classic architecture are hidden behind giant signs and compete for space with hastily developed square structures to house the hordes of modern pilgrims that flock to Lourdes to learn more about Saint Bernadette, the holy grotto, the basilica and bring home mass-produced religious tokens to be placed in glass cabinets at home.
It is a Catholic pilgrims’ one-stop shop and a non-pilgrims’ opportunity to study the relation between religion and economics. The solemn Basilica of the Immaculate Conception that sits perched on the hill is juxtaposed against the colourful array of souvenir shops and snack stalls, offering everything from shiny rosary beads by the hundreds, holy water bottles stacked high and the statue of Virgin Mary in every size, colour and style.
Although, once you escape the droves you can find some peace and solace, and it becomes easier to appreciate the tranquil flow of the River Gave coursing through the veins of Lourdes and the faraway medieval Château fort de Lourdes in the distance.
Put behind the kitsch and commerce and imagine Lourdes as it was in the past, before globalisation brought the buses and turned Our Lady of Lourdes into a marketing brand.
If nothing else, let Lourdes capture your imagination, allow yourself to ponder the irony of it all and enjoy some bread and cheese.
* Eelee is an aspiring writer, teacher and pursuer of languages currently living in Argentina.