The first large-scale pilgrimage took place in 1873, organized by a reactionary Catholic movement called the Assomptionistes, whose avowed purpose was to stem the advancing tide of republicanism and rationalism. They took over the management of Lourdes, shoving aside the local priest who had wanted to organize the pilgrimages himself. Adroit propagandists and agitators, they sought to promote their cause by publishing a cheap mass-circulation paper called La Croix, aimed at the poor and uneducated, and by organizing these massive pilgrimages.
Practically every shop is given over to the sale of indescribable religious kitsch: Bernadette in every shape and size, adorning barometers, thermometers, plastic tree trunks, key rings, empty bottles that you can fill with holy Lourdes water, bellows, candles, sweets and illuminated plastic grottoes. There's even a waxworks museum, the Musée Grévin, at 87 rue de la Grotte (daily: April to mid-Nov MonSat 911.30am & 1.306.30pm; Sun 1011.30am & 1.306.30pm; July & Aug also 8.3010pm; €5), with over a hundred life-size figures illustrating the lives of Bernadette and Christ. Clustered around the miraculous grotto are the churches of the Cité Réligieuse, an annexe to the town proper that sprang up last century. The first to be built was the Flamboyant Basilique du Rosaire et de l'Immaculée Conception (18711883), swiftly followed by the massive subterranean Basilique St-Pie-X, which claims to be able to house 20,000 people at a time. The Grotte de Massabielle itself, where Bernadette had her visions, is the focus of the pilgrimages a moisture-blackened overhang by the riverside with a statue of the Virgin in waxwork white and baby blue.
Lourdes' only secular attraction is its castle, poised on a rocky bluff guarding the approaches to the valleys and passes of the central Pyrenees. Briefly an English stronghold in the late fourteenth century, it later became a state prison. Inside, it houses the surprisingly excellent Musée Pyrénéen (guided visits: AprilSept daily 9amnoon & 1.306.30pm; OctMarch daily except Tues 9amnoon & 26pm; last tour 1hr before closing; €3.20). Its collections include Pyrenean fauna, all sorts of fascinating pastoral and farming gear, and an interesting section on the history of Pyrenean mountaineering. In the rock garden outside are some beautiful models of various Pyrenean styles of house, as well as of the churches of St-Bertrand-de-Comminges and Luz-St-Sauveur.
Pages in section ‘Lourdes’: Practicalities.
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