Monday, April 30, 2012

Le Petit Train and the Funicular

Lourdes has the same problem as any other destination tourist attraction.  Once you have seen the basic attraction and shopped for souvenir, what apart from eating does one do?  This has been a conundrum for years in coastal towns in the United States and the reason places like wax museums, miniature golf courses, interpretative centers and a host of other "things to do when your kids our going crazy" places have sprung up all over the place.  Lourdes is no exception.

To get you around historic Lourdes, there is Le Petit Train, which is a silly little train designed solely to embarass tourists as they are ferried around town for the local's amusement.  Fortunately, they don't make you wear funny hats or blow Duck noise-makers, but that may be because they haven't thought about it.  The one saving grace is that there is a driver, who is a young local man trying desparately to be cool.  It is impossible in a shirt that has the logo "Le Petit Train".  The only thing it lacks is the label, "Hi, My Name is Jacques" on the pocket - I'm thinking of writing in to the company and suggesting that.

The train does drive you around historic Lourdes, but it also has a series of stops at various entertainment opportunities.

There is a waxworks museum dedicated to religious events.  This appears to be the place where waxworkers start their training and they must move somewhere else fairly quickly.  Here you can see "storefront manequins with beards" reenacting such scenes as the "Last Supper", "Jesus Entering Jerusalem", "Bernadette at the Grotto" and "Star Wars, Episode IV".

There is the Musee du Petit Lourdes, which is a little miniature city of what Lourdes looked like when Bernadette was around.  You feel just like Godzilla as you are near it (unfortunately, they don't let you stomp through the streets).

There is also the Musee de la Nativite de Anime, which is a display of storefront mannequins with beards which actually move just as if they were mannequins which could do one thing all the time, showing what it would have been like if Jesus was born in a town like Lourdes filled with zombies in the 19th century.

Finally, there is the funicular which is a cable-driven train which goes three thousand feet up a steep mountainside so that you can get a panoramic view of Lourdes and the Pyrenees.

I am not crazy about heights, but I love views and it is an unfortunate fact that in most places outside of Florida and Kansas views are associated with high places.  As a result, I have found myself on cliffs, towers, rooftops, mountains, chair lifts and other things over the years.

Karen is also not enamored of heights and when combined with questionable equipment she becomes even more wary.  She wasn't sure about going up the thing, but I suggested we just check it out and see.  We got off Le Petit Train at the funicular stop which promised a bar and a restaurant.  I thought we could have a drink at the bar and stiffen our resolve to go up.  It wasn't until the train left that we realized that the bar and restaurant were at the top of the funicular, not the bottom.

Karen looked up the steep mountainside and said, "You go up and I'll wait" to which I replied, "Don't be silly, I have no idea how long it would take and it is sure to be an outstanding view!"  There was a mental tug of war which went on for several minutes and eventually Karen gave in and agreed to go up.  I purchased the tickets and we boarded the front of the train, which tilted a bit precariously upward.  After we got on board, an army of French bicyclists started to board the car behind our seat with their bicycles.  Apparently, during the off-season, the funicular makes money by taking mountain bikers up the mountain and they go screaming down the mountainside, with any survivors reboarding the train for another fun fall.  The noise and apparent weight of the additional passengers started worrying Karen and she thought we could wait for the next train, to which I confidently but unwittingly replied, "There are more riders coming all of the time, the train will always be full.  Besides, the train says it takes 80 passengers and they can't fit more than 50 bicyclists with their equipment at the same time."  This did not sooth her mind, nor did my next attempt at comfort, "This French train has been going more than 100 years, we'll be fine."  Apparently, the reminder that, not only was this train French, but it was very old, just enhanced her fears.

However, as I was completing that statement, we were off, so there was no turning back.

There are three basic looks I get from Karen when I have done something wrong.  There are a lot of variations and subtleties, but three general categories.  The looks vary depending upon the nature of my error.

The first category is where I have shown one of my typical male traits like my inability to find things, anywhere.

Gary:  "Karen, have you seen the car?"
Karen:  "Did you check the garage?"
Gary:  "Of course I checked the garage, it's not there, did you put it somewhere?"
Karen:  "I haven't touched it today, check the garage again."
Gary:  "Fine, it's not there, but I will.  Well, what do you know, ha ha!  It WAS in the garage!  It was on the left side and I thought it was on the right!  Thanks, Honey!"

At that point, Karen rolls her eyes and shakes her head as if to say "Why did I pick a man to be with?  Wouldn't a pet or a turnip have been more sensible?"

The second category is when I've done something that probably any other male would have done, but it shows a distinct lack of thought when viewed by any female.

Karen:  "Why isn't my Grandma's desk in the bedroom?"
Gary:  "Oh, I needed an extra sawhorse in the garage and it was the right height.  I covered it with an old tarp, it won't hurt anything."

At that point, with eyes wide and mouth open she gives me the look which I have labeled, "You Did WHAT with the Puppies?"

The final category is real trouble.  This is where I either know or should have known that something was wrong and I did it anyway.  Should have known is a very broad area paricularly when, being a guy, a barely notice most things.  With this, I get the Glare which basically says, "I don't know what I'm going to do to you Buster, but if you don't sleep with one eye open for the next three nights, you'll be sorry."

I got the Glare.

I have a theory that the wife of the captain of the Titanic was angry with him and glaring from the port in England as he sailed off and that was why he was racing across the Atlantic - "If I get back in ten days, I can bring her flowers, buy some furniture and repaint the interior of the house."  Then, Whack! An Iceberg, "Oh great, now I'm really going to be in trouble at home."

The trip up the mountain took several years.

When we arrived, I reminded Karen how beautiful the view was, encouraged her to take photos and bought a bottle of the most expensive wine they served up there.

The view was lovely. 

When referring to this portion of our trip, Karen refers to it as the "F***nicular" - not in a good way.

Lourdy, Lourdy, Lourdy!!!

Both before, during and after our visit to Lourdes, we have had conversations with a wide variety of French people about how you are supposed to pronounce the name.  It is alternatively, "Loooowardzzz"  "Looordeez" "Loward" or any other combination of the letters.  The one constant is that however we pronounce it, that is not the way they say it.  I've been thinking of just calling it "Omaha"; they're going to correct me in any case.

Coming into the valley of Lourdes is very impressive.  You are in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which are snow-covered and very majestic.  Of course, the locals get a little peeved if you say they look just like the Alps.  They prefer to think that Alps look just like the Pyrenees.

We drove into town and did our typical small European tourist town drive down winding narrow streets crowded with pedestrians who do not seem to recognize what a car is, just viewing it as an oversize baby carriage which can wait its turn in line (our car, admittedly, was a bit like a baby carriage, only modestly oversized).  Karen and I had the conversation we normally have at these times, "Aren't you going a little fast?"  "They are walking too slow."  "Don't hit that old lady!"  "If you don't keep moving, you might as well park; besides, she's faking that limp."

Emma, our replacement GPS lady, had become a bit wary about where we were and announced several times that we had arrived.  Eventually, we could see our hotel down what appeared to be a one-way street going the wrong way (from our perspective).  However, there was a parking space and it wasn't too far up the road, so we drove up and parked; I figured at this hotel (it was a five-story normal hotel instead of a back-woods Chateau or country inn) there would be a valet to take the keys and know out what to do with the damn car in this town.

At the reception, I was told that that they didn't have parking, but that there was a municipal parking lot "not far from the hotel".  I knew this town already and it was only going to be "not far" if you ignored the one-way signs and pedestrians.  On the bright side, as opposed to most of the places we had stayed, they had a bell hop for our luggage, so Karen accompanied him while I went in search of the municipal car park.  I did find it and it was not far.  However, it was a combination of ten floors of the tightest corners and smallest parking spaces I have ever seen.  This, plus the fact that the people who had constructed it must have been scared out of their wits that it wasn't sturdy enough since they had huge concrete pillars every 8 to 10 feet.  I ended up parking on the ninth floor next to a wall facing the outside with warning tape the entire length, which appeared to say that the area was not safe.  Later, when I commented that the parking lot seemed a bit constricted, the receptionist sheepishly admitted he never parks there, "it is too narrow and dangerous".  I let him live since my car was just a rental.

Our hotel room was gorgeous!!  We had a corner suite on the fourth floor looking out over the promenade that went to the cathedral.  There was a balcony that wrapped around the hotel and we had three separate sets of French doors that stepped out onto it!  The balcony was not particularly wide and, being on the fourth floor (which in Euro-speak is the fifth floor, since the first floor is "0"), we were a bit tentative on how much we admired the view.

I ordered up a bottle of champagne and an ice bucket and our bell hop came up with that and wonderful cookies for a snack.  It was delightful!

Outside on the promenade, there was a huge group of people who appeared to be marching.  We initially thought it was some sort of demonstration, but as we looked and listened, we noticed that the people all seemed young, many were holding what looked like various flags and banners, and we could hear singing.  At this point, we thought that perhaps there was a soccer game (we are in soccer season and there had been a huge game in Reims a few weeks before).  We asked the bell hop what was going on and he informed us that it was the last day of a large pilgrimage of young people from Paris to Lourdes and they were doing a final processional.  It was, in short, a religious event.

It is impossible to accurately describe what followed.  The procession was huge and grew.  The promenade is a large oval several football fields long and the people filled almost the entire promenade.  There were literally thousands of people.  They were cheering, laughing and singing and as they finished they eventually emptied into the street of Lourdes below our hotel.  The spontaneity and joy of the entire crowd was incredible to experience.

Being raised as a Presbyterian, I have always respected the sanctity of the potluck, the jello-mold and the 32-cup coffee maker.  However, the only moments of true joy I can recall in church was when I realized the sermon was almost over and we just had to sing the Doxology and say the closing prayer before we would be outside in the fresh air and I could go home and take off my uncomfortable wool pants.

Here were thousands of young people just having a wonderful spiritual uplifting experience.  Neither Karen nor I had ever seen anything close to what we saw that afternoon.  I suppose there is an unfortunate irony in that the only comparison we could think of was a sporting event where teams were warring and beer was being served.

The procession eventually ended and later that day we could see all sorts of young people with backpacks and rolling suitcases making their way for the train station.

Our bell hop had informed us that every evening there was a candlelight Rosary procession on the promenade and that our balcony was a great place to see it from.  We had an early dinner at the hotel so that we wouldn't miss this procession.  After dinner, I went outside the hotel to a store to purchase a bottle of wine and some cognac for our hotel room (at a less exorbitant price).  As I was walking back, I saw hundreds of people holding candles and walking towards the promenade.  When I went upstairs to our room, I told Karen that I thought perhaps we should join this procession, as I thought we might not be able to see everything from our balcony.  We went downstairs, bought our candle lanterns  and headed out.

Much like what we saw that afternoon, what followed was an amazing experience, unlike anything either of us had ever had before.  It would have been easy to look at the spectacle from a long ways away and see humor in it, but to take part in the event was extremely emotional and moving.  There was a large statue of Mary on a wagon, which was lit up with electric lights and wheeled at the head of the procession.  Directly behind that were hundreds of people in wheel chairs being wheeled by nuns (the cathedral of Lourdes was established after a girl named Bernadette had a series of visions of Mary in a grotto below where the cathedral now stands; after one of the visions a continuous stream of water came from the rocks which is said to have miraculous healing powers), behind that were thousands of people and everyone was holding candle lanterns.  Over a series of loudspeakers, there was chanting, singing and prayers in alternating different languages coming from the large open area in front of the massive cathedral.  The procession went around the promenade and as it started to come into the open area in front of the cathedral it still stretched back around the entire promenade.  The mood was quieter and more serene, but still upbeat and definitely not somber.

It was wonderful to experience.

The next day we walked around the town of Lourdes.  Lourdes brings the concept of souvenir shops to a new height.  It makes Disneyland look undeveloped.  To fully appreciate why, one has to understand how big Lourdes is as a religious destination.  Lourdes is a town of 15 thousand and has annual visitors (pilgrims) of from 5 to 6 million each year.  Lourdes has a higher concentration of hotels than any city in France other than Paris.

Every other store front is a souvenir shop and they basically have the same things, a wide selection of statutes of Mary, ranging in all shapes and sizes, rosary beads by the thousands, key rings, lighters, cards, paintings, paperweights, souvenirs relating to Bernadette, and a bunch of different types of water containers containing "Water from the Grotto."  I think if Mary would have had larger ears, there would have been hats as well.

The color and noise of the souvenirs went all the way to the gates which form the entrance to the promenade, the cathedral and the grotto, but they don't cross that line.  Once you pass into that area, you are again transfixed by the place.

There is no doubt that we loved Lourdes!

  5 pm Mass

 The Savior Hotel and Pizzeria: "Salvation by the Slice"

Lighting candles for our families.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Another Bordeaux, S'il Vous Plaît

One note before we left Saint-Naizaire and the Plague Hotel.  The hotel itself was wonderful.  The restaurant was handy and we didn't feel like driving any further that evening.

The restaurant was very popular with locals, we think because it wasn't expensive and it served huge portions (think King's Table with a REALLY big table).  We didn't fully appreciate it when we were ordering and our waitress did not speak any English.  When we tried to work our way through the order with her, she invited another waiter who also did not speak any English but he spoke French slower, so that was a big help.  Saint-Naizarre is not an English-tourist hotspot (the receptionist asked us why we were there when we checked in), and there were no English menus.

We ordered a number of items which we were not sure of, but I did know what a pomme de terre (meaning potato) was and we "discussed that" with our wait staff.  We ended up with a somewhat confused wait staff and four baked potatoes.  Karen and I settled in, acting like it was exactly what we expected.  We couldn't quite finish our normal helping of four baked potatoes, but we thanked them for their efforts and commended their cooks.

We then drove off to Bordeaux!!  This was one of our longer drives and the weather was pretty stormy.

It took us awhile to get to our location in the Bordeaux region, we were in a chateau outside of a small town called Saint-Emilion.  We drove up to the Chateau Grand Barrail, which was easy for me to remember as the Bar Rail Hotel, though that wasn't exactly how they pronounced it.

After a wet and stormy drive, the place was an oasis. We had a lovely room in one of the towers. Our windows looked out over the vineyards from which the Chateau produces its own wine (which is very good, as we had it the first night we ate there). It was quiet, peaceful and luxurious.

That's Karen waving from our window!
Views from our windows.

We had a wonderful fixed-price menu for dinner and snuggled into bed for a very nice sleep.

The next day, armed with our Chateau-issued umbrellas (as it was still pouring), we went out to explore the area.  Saint-Emilion is a lovely French town, with cobblestone streets that wind up a hill.  We had a lovely lunch sitting outside in a village square, with an even lovelier bottle of Bordeaux.

We decided we should go to where they make some of this Bordeaux stuff and ventured off to a local winery.  It was not hard to find.  Driving down the roads in this area it is hard to avoid hitting a winery on pretty much every turn in the road.

We picked the particular Chateau winery with my normal scientific method.  The photo of the winery in the local winery map looked nice.  Karen asked why I picked that winery and I said, "I've heard they have good tours."  "From who?"  "Oh, you know, around."  Fortunately, they did have a good tour.  Our guide came from Spain, but had lived in New York and Montreal for a number of years, so he spoke English better than us.  Since we went on the tour, we have had several conversations as to his name and we are sure it starts with an "A" and sounds Spanish.  In any event, if you find yourself in Saint-Emilion at this winery, ask for him, he's great.

Because it had continued to rain, we were the only people on the tour which was very nice, a personal tour for a group rate.  The tour was very informative and a lot of fun.  We got to the tasting part and "A" joined right in with us.  I hadn't seen that before with a tour guide, but I wasn't one to quibble.  I did wonder what he would be like in the late afternoon of a busy day?

The next day, we were off to Lourdes!!