Making a Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France

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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.  The water was absolutely frigid so the miracle may be 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…

 


 

On the Camino de Santiago I Went – Another Pilgrim

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The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage indeed with a timeline of over 1,000 years.  Pilgrims from all over Europe would come from far and near to visit the place where St. James (or Santiago) is buried:  under the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain (Galicia, to be more precise).

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A map in O Cebreiro showing the many routes pilgrims took from all over Europe to get to NW Spain

In modern days, though, not all who “do” the Camino are necessarily doing it for spiritual reasons but I would find hard to believe that most don’t get something spiritual out of the sacrifice and effort doing the Camino requires.

The Camino is a joy not only for the experience of trekking these ancient “ways”.  I have to admit that the social and culinary were also part of my Camino.

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One of my favorites from my childhood re-encountered in the Camino: croquetas!

I will aim to share about the experience in a couple of different ways in this and upcoming posts:

  • The first way will be to simply share what everyday was like using photographs and other thoughts – whether you ever plan to or want to do it.
  • The second will be by sharing what I did to prepare and do the Camino, in case you are yourself hoping to, or actually planning to, do the Camino.

Why I went

I first learned more about the Camino when I met a co-worker back in 2003 who had just done the Camino from St. Jean Pied de Port – so about 30 days’ worth of trekking (close to 800km or 500 miles).  It all sounded hard and just too much time.  Over the years, as we became good friends, I enjoyed hearing stories about what the Camino was like and the friendships he struck along the way.  It made me curious about the Camino though I never thought I would want to “walk” for 30 days.

Years later, as I got more into trekking/hiking, I started thinking that I -some day- would want to do it (or part of it, to be more precise).  Watching the movie “The Way” helped inspire me but not tons more.  The coup de grace was when an organization I do treks with, Trekking for Kids, announced they would do a trek to do the Camino in the summer of 2014.  That sealed the deal.  Combining both my desire to do the Camino with the mission of Trekking for Kids (to improve the lives of orphaned and at-risk children around the world) was the perfect reason to go.

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The group of trekkers and the children and staff of the Bayti Centre in Essaouira

How we did the Camino de Santiago

The Trekking for Kids trek mixed a few days at a center for at-risk children in Essaouira, Morocco, called Bayti Centre, followed by seven days on the Camino (read more about our time at the Bayti Centre here).  Because the overall trek had to be kept to less than two weeks, the starting point of the Camino had to be picked such that we could do the minimum required distance (100km for those walking; 200km for those cycling) to be able to get the “compostela” (or the certificate issued in Santiago de Compostela that validates that you did the Camino) yet stay within the desired overall trip duration.  In addition, it had to allow for the travel day or two between Morocco and the start of the hike.

The preferred route was the traditional Camino Francés which is sort of parallel to the northern coast of Spain but further inland.  It is likely the most popular route of all though I wonder how the other routes are (and secretly hope I can check out some day!).

This meant we would need to start the hike at the last possible point we could and still meet the minimum walking requirements:  the town of Sarria, which meant we would do more than the 100km minimum (at least, 110km).  There were, however, a couple of important towns right before Sarria that were worth seeing (O Cebreiro and Samos), yet we did not have time to hike through them (would have required one or two more hiking days) – so the itinerary included driving through these towns before being dropped off on the trailhead from which our hike would start.

Our Camino route

Our hiking itinerary was as follows (click on the Day to read the post for that day!):

  • Day 1:  Begin at Sarria.  After a very short (“warm-up”) hike, we would overnight at Barbadelo.
  • Day 2:  From Barbadelo to Portomarín
  • Day 3:  From Portomarín to Palas del Rei
  • Day 4:  From Palas del Rei to Boente
  • Day 5:  From Boente to Salceda
  • Day 6:  From Salceda to Lavacolla
  • Day 7:  From Lavacolla to Santiago.

The map that follows highlights in a blue oval the town of Sarria, our starting point (immediately to the right, you will see Samos; further to the right, you will notice O Cebreiro).  The purple line that connects the blue oval to Santiago de Compostela to the west (left, on the map) is the route of our itinerary.Galicia, Camino, Santiago, Compostela, camino frances, Frenc route, Sarria, map, pilgrimage

On to Day 1!

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