The Pyrenees village of Lourdes offers local history, regional food and excellent hiking. Lorraine Ansell reports.
Associated with Christian pilgrimage, Lourdes is a beacon for tourists in the Pyrenees in southern France. It’s a charming place, and a beautiful lush green valley village.
A travelling group of three adults, we took the Eurostar from London and then a TGV to keep our carbon footprint down. However, it made for a long journey – reaching to about nine hours of train travelling, as well as a mad metro dash underneath Paris.
As we headed down the line on the last hour of the train journey, our fellow train travellers shared their thoughts on Lourdes: “Beautiful but rain city central for the Pyrenees”. This was confirmed by the howling storm that seemed to be raging outside the train window and was common for the time of year.
However, as we reached Lourdes – crossing the train tracks to reach our hotel – the late evening sunshine came out and cast a warm cosy glow over the village rooftops.
We stayed in a basic triple room hotel, up in the attic space. I was suddenly transported to my time living in Paris, where we all lived in garettes, with no room to swing a cat, only going back to them to sleep. But our Lourdes hotel had everything we needed, and we wouldn’t be spending much time inside the room.
After a simple continental breakfast, we headed to see the basilica and Grotto of Lourdes. Every hotel is about 10 minutes’ walk from the entrance, though hotels seem to outnumber even the nuns and priests walking around the village.
A leisurely walk among some bistros, coffee shops and the smell from a boulangerie lets you that the village was already awake and busy. While there are quite a few trading shops selling everything from logoed bottles to assortments of candles and rosary beads, as soon as you reach the entrance a sense of calm descends.
Nestled back after a long driveway is a beautiful church flanked to the right by an ice snow mountain river which – given the rain – was gushing over its weirs.
The famous grotto lies to the right, and the spring water that is said to heal ailments can be clearly seen. Many had gathered for the numerous masses or simply to walk around the grotto touching the rock and then taking selfies by the statue of the Virgin Mary.
As you keep walking down, the path is flanked by candle holding stalls and beyond them lie the famous stone baths. With up to two hours waiting times we eagerly joined the queue. Perhaps it was the rain, but we soon found we were the only people waiting that morning, and we were ushered into a corridor with an intricate arrangement of curtains.
Much like a Victorian bathing chamber of old, these curtains overlapped to provide privacy for those wishing to have a dip in the cooling waters of the baths. Helped into the ice-cold water with a bath sheet for modesty and two helpers to ensure you don’t fall, the icy water certainly focuses the mind! A few squeals can be heard echoing through the long corridor of bathing units.
Dressing after the icy dip, we expected to be shivering in the rain but instead we felt warm, calm and rather revived, as if we had eaten a large bowl of the excellent French onion soup from the many restaurants dotted outside the entrance.
The candlelight night procession brings all the visitors to the central point of the plaza. There – all patiently waiting in a queue – everyone holds a candle, ready to follow behind the statue of the Virgin Mary. Groups of school children and disabled parties start the procession and after an hour make their way in front of the main church. All the while prayers are said, as the sun sets creating a spectacular backdrop to the hushed footsteps of the tourists.
Another procession or walk to go on is the winding walk around the mountain, following the final steps of Jesus – a steep climb but rewarding for the views across the valley, spotting the local flora and fauna and the calm from the busy village life below.
As a reward for our afternoon climb we set out to find a typical French restaurant – not one of the pizza places or numerous cafes dotted about, but rather something more classically and totally French.
Losing ourselves in the myriad of lanes, near the village museum, we stumbled across “Alexandra” – a traditional French-fare restaurant with modern and top-notch service.
There were fresh salads peppered with eggs and bacon, a generous lamb cutlet dish served with warm, thick-cut potatoes, and a garlicky snail dish. All this was followed by perfect French desserts, including profiteroles made freshly every day, and tarte au citron so sweet yet sharp and so delicious that – despite a full meal – we all simply had to eat it up. Everything was locally sourced and of the highest quality.
Lorraine Ansell is an experienced bilingual voice over artist showcasing British (Received Pronunciation) and Spanish (Latin American) voices. Lorraine focuses on bringing scripts to life to engage the target audience, and delivering a professional sound. She works with a home studio, skype and ipDTL, and is based in and around London, UK. Loves to travel, eat and speak! Twitter @LAvoiceart.
Green Adventures August 2015
The next day we visited the Chateau Fort – a castle museum perched high on the hill overlooking the town. This is home to a collection of artefacts of how life was lived through the ages in this southern village, with examples of local industries – including yarn and candle making – as well as a miniature village of different housing styles typical to the region.
A popular pastime in this area is skiing when the season is open, and a lot of the paintings within the museum depict life in the snow.
Lourdes is a stop on the Pyrenean tour for families, hikers and offers the tourist a typical village experience with local fare on offer. We managed to fit in the museum visit and grotto tours into two days, but it can be done in a day during the off season. Make it a visit on your next trip around the Pyrenees.