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Lourdes

7 May 2014

We arrive in Lourdes late afternoon, a small town as far as permanent population goes, but with a tremendous stream of pilgrims constantly passing through. Although it’s been a fantastic day, driving from Bordeaux, via the seaside town of Biarritz, a walk around Biarritz, buying utterly delicious strawberries at the market, and pistachios to eat along the way, then a superb 3 course lunch near the ocean with 5 other people from the Tour Group: a traditional Basque salad, poached salmon followed by creme caramel, in spite of all this I’m not feeling overly cheerful, because I left my phone, with 2 credit cards, my licence and my Qantas card on the shelf of the toilet in the restaurant. Merde!

All is not lost. At least I have my iPad, and another credit card in the money purse I sling around my neck, tuck down my singlet and into the top of my jeans to protrude ungracefully over my already protruding tummy. It doesn’t work, this money-purse bullshit, with a backpack for the less valuable items. I need a handbag!

Another slice of luck (maybe I could call it good management, even though leaving my phone there is ridiculously stupid), when I couldn’t find it in my backpack, I remembered where I’d left it. It was such a convenient shelf to pop it on and I remember thinking I wish other toilets had such useful shelves. Then I rushed to catch the bus, and got distracted trying to tuck away the stupid money purse. And another slice of luck: I didn’t take the receipt with me, so I couldn’t look up the name of the restaurant, but one of the guys I was with had taken a photo of the restaurant and we could see it was called Bar de Napsomething, and one of the girls said it was Napoleon. To cut a long story a bit shorter, it has been located and should make its way back to me in about a week. I’m going to try and forget about it until then.

Soon after arriving at Lourdes, we set off down the street following our Tour Director, who had a microphone, while we all had little red walkie-talkies slung around our necks and turquoise earpieces in our ears. Along the way were various souvenir shops, bars, souvenir shops, chemists, souvenir shops, hotels, and souvenir shops.

We turned up a narrow lane, lined, totally, with souvenir shops. In them were various sizes of statues of the Virgin Mary, medals, rosary beads, other beads and bracelets, bottles to collect Lourdes water, and ubiquitous candles in ever bigger sizes. At Lourdes, the size of your candle matters.

The crowd are a mixed bunch. There are regular tourists like us, walking around with tour insignia, trailing each other. Then there are the pilgrims wishing for a miracle. Some of them are being pulled in little carts by people dressed as nurses, in white with little white caps, (essentially porters in fancy dress), some of whom look almost like they should be sitting in the cart. Usually someone else equally old but apparently less infirm tags along holding the back of the cart. Then there are people with bright yellow scarves belonging to pilgrim tours. I spot some with white scarves, too. There’s even a snake line of schoolchildren, one carrying a banner, leading the way.

The end of the alley opens to a square and overlooking the square is a majestic grey-stoned church with brightly coloured frescos on the front of it. At our end of the square, perched high above a rose garden is a statue of the Virgin Mary, representing how she appeared to Bernadette. People with yellow scarves look adoringly up at her, some of them tucking bunches of flowers into the fence.

From one of the souvenir shops blasts “Ave ave ave Maria” just like we used to sing at church. Suddenly in my head I can hear Mum’s voice singing it next to me and I no longer feel like laughing about the tackiness of it all. Instead I feel sad for the faith and trust and longing and hope that brings these desperate people to Lourdes wishing for a miracle.

Further along, by the side of the church is the grotto itself, where people are lining up to shuffle in and out touching the walls as they go. Of course, there’s another statue of the Virgin Mary residing in there.

I leave the group and climb the steps to the church. Inside are brightly painted frescoes, with gildedĀ  decorations. There is also an altar where you can light a candle. Used to love to do that when I was a kid, though I’m not sure if the motivation was piety or playing with fire and melting wax.

Looking down the square from the top of the steps, a castle opposes the church in the distance. The castle, I hear, was there long before the church.

I duck into a souvenir shop, vacillating about whether or not to buy something religious for a friend, but feeling a bit fake about it. A couple of shops along I find a travel bag, and I buy it, a little candle and a box of matches. I’m going to come back tonight for the candlelight procession and relive a religious festival of my childhood.

On the way back to the hotel, I see a new level of tackiness. Like a little toy animated merry-go-round, an invalid cart runs around a circular track, as music plays. Jen, a girl from the tour looks at it at the same time, then turns to me, shaking her head with disgust. “That’s just wrong,” she says.

Dinner takes longer than expected, but there is still plenty of time to get back to the square before the procession at 9pm. On the way a gypsy man sits pathetically on the pavement, cuddling a little boy, shaking a plastic cup and looking pleadingly at passersby. I think about whether I have loose coins handy but think better of it. About 100 yards further down I am surprised to find what looks like the same man and boy sitting on the pavement in exactly the same position. Now I look around me and notice a gypsy boy and gypsy girl not far behind me. I cut over to the other side of the road and they casually do the same. I stop, turn and look at them, and they are looking at me too. After that, I keep a close lookout but don’t see them again.

There are hundreds of people milling about, most with lighted candles with paper shields. I pull out my candle, unwrap it, and light it with my box of matches with, you guessed it, a picture of Our Lady on the box. Two latecomers with unlit candles come and light theirs off mine.

The service begins. Someone speaks in French, then there’s a reading in English, then in another language. The parade of invalids begins: carts mostly pulled by one person, with another behind, dressed as a nurse, the invalid sitting unobtrusively inside, a blanket over their knees. They pour out of a side road, hundreds of them it seems. They start singing Ave Maria, raising their candles as they sing the chorus.

The walking infirm follow, then the general crowd, including me, surges forward to join the procession. They process down a loop like a racetrack, with readings emanating from the speakers along the way, interspersed with decades of the rosary in French and more renditions of the Ave Maria.

I see Nada and Mayra from our tour group. Mayra confides to me that it’s 32 years since she was last here, when she came with her mother. The girls sing the Ave, then Mayra steps up the gutter to take photos, then joins the procession again. I do likewise, asking Nada to hold my candle while I take a photo. My candle sets light to her paper shield, and she quickly shakes and extinguishes it.

I look for a way to cut across the track so I don’t have to do the full loop, but realise that if I do that I’ll end up amongst the invalids in carts, so I keep going. The procession intermittently stops and starts. Some children are walking along the left gutter and seem to be moving faster, so I fall in behind them until I can eventually leave and return back to the hotel.