Making a Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France

Lourdes, France – a major Catholic pilgrimage destination – is a one-of-a-kind kind of place.  For me, that is for two good reasons:

  1. It is the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette, a country girl with no education but a lot of faith.
  2. My mother and sister are both named after that site, where the “Virgin of Lourdes” appeared to Bernadette.

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    The lower and upper basilicas from the Information Center

I suspect both my mom and sister have always wondered if they would ever go to that town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.  Wouldn’t you want to go to the town where your name came from or is related to?  In their case, maybe more than just for the curiosity of being namesakes with the town but also on account of what happened there in the mid 19th century.

The apparition happened multiple times and the local clergy had initially been skeptical but, over time, became convinced of the validity of what Bernadette shared.  I will leave to other sources to explain the whole story but the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette on a grotto near the river.  Out of these events, water sprung from the site and waters of Lourdes are, to believers, holy waters.  People from all over the world come seeking healing or just a spiritual encounter.  Many drink the waters from the spring, bottle some to take home, or even immerse themselves in special pools set up near the grotto (we did all three).

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The grotto

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Fountains where bottles can be filled

When we first arrived in Lourdes from San Sebastian via Biarritz and Bayonne, I was expecting the narrow streets, crowded and me driving this larger vehicle through it all.  I knew I was near the hotel, the Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, which I had picked due to its proximity to the Sanctuary of Lourdes to make all the walking to and fro easier for everyone, when all of a sudden I saw a parking sign for it, not where the GPS was indicating I needed to go.  Miraculously (pardon the pun), I caught a passing glimpse of the sign before I would have hit the heart of the crowded part of town!

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The back of our hotel

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Right outside of the Sanctuary – tourist shop chaos

The hotel was in the old style of a grand hotel.  It was nice enough but, unfortunately, the A/C was not working on our floor.  Hard to tell with French hotels whether they are just being stingy or whether it was true.  Certainly, at night the air cooled enough to be comfortable in the room but the noise from the street did not subside until the very wee hours of the morning – not the faithful partying, I am sure.  So that made the hotel not perfect.  But other than that, it did the job nicely enough.

We had dinner before heading in the early evening to the Sanctuary, the site with the grotto and several churches/basilicas, almost across the street from the hotel.  We knew there would be a torchlight procession at 9PM where the Holy Rosary is recited but we did not quite know the ‘mechanics’ of it.  So we sat on a bench to wait and what we missed was that we were supposed to walk towards the grotto and join the procession line.  But we witnessed the procession which brought a statue of the Virgin to the front steps of the Rosary Basilica (the lower one; the upper one that one sees more evidently is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or the Upper Basilica).  In the meantime, we did walk to the grotto for our first visit to the spot where the apparition took place.  The line was very short and it was always moving so it did not take long before we got to visit and say our prayers and intentions…

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The front of the lower basilica during the torchlight procession

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Grotto at night

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Statue of the Virgin carried during the torchlight procession

The next day, we had found out at the information center (located by one of the entrances to the complex) that there would be a Spanish Mass at 11 AM down the Esplanade at St. Joseph’s Chapel.  After attending that Mass we went into the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, a massive modern space completed in 1958 (it can hold 25,000 folk!).  I am not sure it is the type of church I feel most spiritual in but I suppose there is a need for it in this site?

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Information Center

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The Basilica of St. Pius X

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The lower and upper basilicas from across the Esplanade

We finished our exploring by visiting the Rosary Basilica and the Upper Basilica.  After that we went to the baths (or piscines) where one can immerse him- or herself in the holy spring waters.  One waits in an outdoor area (with plenty of seats!) and then eventually one gets called in to a vestibule awaiting the assignment of to one of the pools, where one will undress and be wrapped as preparation to walking into the pool.  The water was absolutely frigid so the miracle may be that I was able to walk out of the pool and that my legs regained normal body temperature!  All joking aside, it was a very moving experience and we are grateful to the kind and helpful volunteers who give of themselves to help pilgrims…

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Detail of the facade of the lower basilica

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The inside of the lower basilica

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Looking towards the Esplanade from the Upper Basilica

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Entrance to the baths or piscines

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Amazing to see all the people helping the sick, or malade, move around

Witnessing so many people wearing their faith ‘on their sleeve’ was powerful.  Our trip was actually not just due to curiosity, or even strictly to see a place where an important event in our faith took place.  Our trip was a real pilgrimage of thanksgiving and prayer for continued health in my family after a year-and-a-half of dealing with cancer…  The grotto and the holy waters of Lourdes carry a very special meaning for us, even more now that we have been so fortunate to visit this place…

 


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Swayambhunath – A Special Place in Kathmandu

Kathmandu is an amazing city.  Colorful and busy.  Yet, somehow spirituality seems to permeate it.  Among the many places that back that impression is the Swayambhunath site – also just known as the monkey site.  I don’t know that it is technically a temple but it is certainly an important Buddhist religious site.  Claims about when it was first established range from the 6th century A.D. to the 3rd B.C.!  Let’s settle on “it’s old.”

Beauty everywhere

The site’s shrines and other structures dot the hillside and are packed at the hilltop.  I wish I had had a guide to make sure I understood the meaning of the different types of structures and figures sculpted in them.  Here is a glimpse of some of the sights on the site.Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung GalaxySwayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung GalaxySwayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy

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Prayer wheels

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The earthquake changed it

The many shrines and temple-like structures included more than you can see today.  Sadly, the earthquake of April 2015 knocked down one of the two towers, and severely damaged the other one and many other structures.  Yet, it seems many survived OK which is a blessing at such an important site.

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The surviving tower

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The base of the collapsed tower

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Damage from the earthquake

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Serious crack under the large stoupa with prayer wheels around it

Eye gotta stupa for you…

More impressive than anything else on the site is the stupa with the painted eyes on it.  They follow you around…  They are Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows…  It is said it is over 1,500 years old though it has been renovated many times in its long life.

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The eyes on the golden tower in the stoupa

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See? They are watching you…

Monkeys R Us

But, the way I heard of this place for the first time was because of the monkeys.  The many monkeys that reside on the place.  Big and small, they are everywhere.  Yet, much as they must be used to people, they were not climbing over folks.  They were very well-behaved!

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Baby monkeys – a fertile place!

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Curious monkeys

Getting to view Kathmandu from up high

The site is located on a tall hill that offers great views of Kathmandu.  The main approach is a rather long and steep set of steps on the east side of the hill.  LOOOONG! (365 steps to be more precise) But, unbeknownst to me, our driver was taking us to a point that maybe was 2/3 of the way around the back so our climb was not as severe.  Now, now, don’t be poking fun.  I had just spent 5 days hiking on the Everest Base Camp trail so saving steps was relief of sorts…

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Sweeping view of Kathmandu – and a passing bird!

I must say that though at first visiting a place full of monkeys did not thrill me, the place’s charm and the faith it represents was captivating.   I enjoyed spending time there and would recommend taking the time to connect with this bit of Kathmandu!

 

 

 

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