What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Before you travel to a place – any place – for the first time, you should always try to wipe the slate of your memory clean of everything you have ever heard or read about it. Otherwise, why come at all? You can save yourself the money and effort of actually going there by just reading a guide book or by watching a YouTube documentary. Travelling with an open mind, however, is easier in some places than in others. Take Las Vegas, for example. No matter how hard you try to forget everything you know about the place, before you go there for the first time, you will have a pretty good idea whether you will like it or not.

And so it is with Lourdes …

"Visit Grotto - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

… the spiritual home of gimcrack religion and snake oil salesmen where pilgrimage warehouses shift industrial quantities of Holy Water as well as “flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark” – or Virgin Marys, in this case.

"Buy religious figurines - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

Or so the story goes.

In fact, however, (although those who have come to Lourdes to sneer will surely find something to sneer at. They always do, anywhere in the world), we were surprised to see how little Lourdes had in common with what we had expected.

"Discover the touwn - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

First, some facts.

Lourdes is one of the most visited places in the world. I knew that Lourdes had the second highest number of hotel beds in France but had always assumed that this figure was based on some qualifier (per capita or square km). It was only when we were walking down the streets of Lourdes when it dawned on me that this might be correct in absolute numbers.

In certain streets, every house – every house – is a hotel. I had never seen anything like that. Lourdes has 40,000 hotel beds, fewer than Paris’s 115,000, but more than some entire regions in France.

Every year, the town – with a population of 15,000 – welcomes 5 million visitors, a larger per-capita number even than Venice (20 million visitors for 260,000 inhabitants). Paris, with its 2 million inhabitants, would need to clock up 670 million visitors every year to reach the same ratio. That would be an interesting experiment, considering that the actual annual figure of visitors is 15.6 million and that the Parisians appear to moan and groan about these “alien invaders” all the time. Let’s see what they would say when they are swamped with 40 times that figure.

For a place so much visited, Lourdes looks surprisingly shabby. That was our first surprise. Last year, we had travelled to a pilgrimage town in Germany, and you could see where all the money from the thriving tourism trade had gone.

Lourdes, conversely, looks like any other small town in rural France: grey, forgotten by the world, a little depressed. If the town were a human being, it would be a late middle-aged man, recently widowed and in dire need of a shave and a bath.

"a convent - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

Not every visitor in Lourdes is a pilgrim: the absence of conspicuously demonstrative devotion also surprised us. I am not sure whether a day in January can be representative for the general feel of the town throughout the year, so all I can say is this: when we came, the number of devout appeared to be more than matched by the merely curious.

Most surprisingly, however, the sacred sites are much less of a circus than we had been led to believe. Everybody you meet is friendly and polite, and the sisters who are managing the daily routines of the sites are always ready to help out the visitors with a smile.

Lourdes is clearly not run with the objective of squeezing every last penny out of the faithful. The source’s holy water, for example, is on tap for free, in unlimited quantities. It would be easy to have someone stand in front of the faucet to charge, or to insistently rattle the tin, but there is no such intrusion.

Here’s What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes

Any walking itinerary of Lourdes is, inevitably, based around the story of Sainte Bernadette.

Turn right out of the train station and left at the roundabout into Avenue General Baron Maransin before descending (at the overpass) into Boulevard de la Grotte on your right – which leads you, as its name implies, straight to the grotto and the church that was built on top of it.

"visit church - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

On many streets in the town centre, you will find a blue line that guides you around stations of Sainte Bernadette’s life.

"walk around the town - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

The tour will also lead you to the house where Bernadette grew up, the oldest of 9 children. The house is well-preserved and dwarfed by the modern buildings around it.

"follow the life of Ste Bernadette - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

After visiting the main pilgrimage sites, it is time for a look at Lourdes’s second attraction: the castle that overhangs the town like a bleak and hostile menace. If it came up in a movie, you would immediately know that this is where the baddie lives.

"visit Castle of Lourdes - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

The Chateau Fort as it stands today was largely built in the 14th century, but a castle has stood on the same rock at least since Roman times. Throughout the late Middle Ages, the building was used as a prison for specifically dangerous enemies of the King, earning itself the sombre sobriquet as the ”Bastille of the Pyrenees”.

The castle was thoroughly renovated in the early years of the 20th century on the initiative of Louis and Margalide Le Bondidier who had come here (from their native Lorraine region) for a hiking expedition, fell in love with the Pyrenees and stayed in Lourdes for the rest of their lives.

Their great project was to turn the Chateau Fort into a Museum of the Pyrenees, filling it gradually with exhibits of local culture and traditions …

"visit Museum de Pyrenees - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

… as well as some quirkier stuff …

"replica of Pyrenean town - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

… such as these scaled-down models of “typical” Pyrenean towns and villages. The Le Bondidiers sure had a lot of time on their hands.

Overall, visiting Lourdes is an unusual travel experience, one you will be pressed to repeat anywhere else. Mrs. Easy Hiker had wanted to go there for years, but I had always resisted, pointing out how far, isolated and remote from almost anywhere else it is (all true), until I finally relented, and I do not regret having gone.

The experience can certainly teach you a lot about Christianity. Whether the Divine really revealed itself to little Bernadette may still be in dispute, but it is undeniable that tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of Christians are prepared to think so.

They believe that God, through His emissary the Virgin Mary, conducted His search for a human interlocutor not among aristocrats or academics, the “metropolitan elite”, but went to one of the remotest corners in Europe and picked the sickly, barely literate teenage daughter of a poor miller.

This is one of Christianity’s finest traditions: a readiness to see the potentially divine in God’s most humble servants. Seen like that, it may not be entirely coincidental that the political philosophy of equality, individual liberty and the rights of man sprang from this source rather than any other in the world.

"Crucifix in Lourdes - What Easy Hikers Can Do in Lourdes"

We always try to find hikes and walks for you to do in every town and city we visit. Don’t miss out on these hiking and walking tips by subscribing to our free updates via email. You can also follow us on Facebook,  Instagram and Twitter. Why not include us in your G+ circles too?

Leave a Reply