A couple hundred years ago, a fourteen-year-old went to a secluded grotto to pray, and saw a divine personage appear. (This story seems weirdly familiar, doesn't it?) The divine personage was of course the Virgin Mary, and the fourteen-year-old was later canonized as Saint Bernadette.
Lourdes is one of the most popular religious pilgrimage sites in the world. According to Wikipedia, it has more hotels than any city in France besides Paris. The Catholic church has officially declared that the waters of Lourdes have the power to miraculously heal people, so Lourdes is the prime destination for every Catholic whose health requires a miracle.
Lourdes is a popular spot for healthy Catholics as well. I mentioned to a colleague that I was going to Lourdes, and he told me his story of visiting Lourdes when he was a kid, in Catechism. The healthy push the sick (in special wheelchairs of Lourdes) to the healing waters to bathe. An endless procession of the dreadfully ill marinate in the miraculous pool from morning until night. Then it's your turn to get in. "That you don't get sick from it -- that's the miracle!" he said.
I haven't participated in any of the religious aspects, but I've learned a lot about Lourdes by observation. One popular custom I've noticed is to buy candles and place them in one of these candle-boxes:
Those are just the little ones. If you need a heavy-duty prayer candle to help your miracle along, you can buy a 20 kilogram candle for only 150 euros!
If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the candle box says (in several languages) "This flame continues my prayer." So apparently you start praying, and lighting a candle holds the line open with God while you go off and do something else. I thought it was pretty hilarious when Mr. Deity called dinner blessings "spam", but the Catholics have gone one step farther -- they actually call up God and put Him on hold!!!
(The things God has to put up with -- it's a wonder Mormons aspire to take that job...)
I was a little taken aback when I saw there was a medical station (open 365 days a year) right on the plaza of the Basilica! But... what do you need doctors for when you have the miracle of Our Lady of Lourdes right there? Never mind, don't answer that...
The best thing about Lourdes however is the souvenirs!!! Downtown Lourdes is an endless collection of block after block of the kitschiest holy souvenirs you've ever laid eyes on!!! The Wikipedia article warns that some may be shocked by the crass commercialism, but shocking is really the wrong word here. I think the word they're looking for is "hilarious"!!! I don't care whether you're one of those grumpy atheists who's always lamenting the popularity of magical thinking or one of those prudish Christians who thinks that religious items should be respectful and dignified -- when you actually get here and see this stuff, you can't be shocked because you're too busy rolling around on the ground laughing!!!
Seriously, for this alone Lourdes is worth the trip.
Some of my Catholic friends have told me about playing games like competing over who can find the tackiest souvenir in all of Lourdes. I keep wanting to play that game (or the variant where you count how many different household items can be made in the shape of the Virgin Mary), but we almost never have any time for souvenir shopping since we go there to visit our aunt who is too old to walk all the way to town. I know I shouldn't be disappointed -- I should be thinking about aunty and not about my own selfish desire to take a million outrageously wacky photos to post to my blog. Still it would have been great fun if I'd had time to see if I could find myself a glow-in-the-dark rosary or a magic 8-ball Jesus or perhaps an authentic shroud of Turin replica lampshade.
As it was, all I got this time were a few photos I took through the window of the taxi on the way back to the train station:
The other thing I was curious to see was the wax museum. It boasts life-size wax statues of the entire Last Supper (DaVinci style) and of Pope John Paul II!!! I'm a little hesitant about that place though because it may cross that fine line between tacky and scary...
Oh well, maybe next year!