Monday, April 30, 2012

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.

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