I recently visited the French Pyrenees for a painting trip. It’s a wonderful place, and along with the paintings I took some time to write a small journal for this blog. Thanks for reading.
Our landing at Lourdes
Of course the most famous thing about this modest Pyrenees town, the thing that absolutely everyone knows is that Madonna named one of her children after it. The second most famous thing, the thing that most people know is that it is the site of visions by Maria-Bernada Sobirós (St Bernadette) of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’ll not go into details but after a number of visions in a small grotto, a spring suddenly appeared where no spring was previously and since that time this spring is said to have curative properties. In short, this water works miracles.
Lourdes and St Bernadette runs deep into the Catholic psyche. Growing up a Catholic myself I recall my old aunties venerating Lourdes as THE place to visit on the catholic pilgrimage calendar. My grandparents too had a small plastic bottle of Lourdes water in the shape of Mary, her crown was the screw top lid. The ‘Holy water’ as it was known was regularly used to treat minor ailments as one would use any product from a chemist; in fact I’m sure the bottle was kept in a bathroom cabinet with all the plasters and tubes of antiseptic cream.
The name ‘Bernadette’ featured large too, I must have had half a dozen cousins called Bernadette. Weddings were very confusing ‘Where’s Bernadette?’ She’s with Bernadette.’ ‘Oh, ok I’ll go and chat to Bernadette then’ ‘Will do Bernadette.’
Whatever your belief a miracle of a sorts has indeed happened, as Lourdes, a modest town of 15,000 souls has near on five million pilgrims visiting every year. Only Paris has more hotels in France than Lourdes. They come to drink the water and take samples away with them as a heavenly ‘cure all’. Odder still since only 67 cures have ever been verified by the Lourdes Medical Bureau as “inexplicable”. The whole towns’ economy is built on this meagre statistic.
Rue De Grotte (Road to the Grotto) is lined with Hotels, shops and restaurants and one notices that these become subtly more up market and pricier as you get nearer the grotto. We popped in to one called ‘Alexandra’ (pictured above). It was everything one would expect and indeed desire from a fine French restaurant. The linen was crisp and sharp, the food was wonderful, the wine selection was just so, and the staff were exquisitely unpleasant. Perfect! I highly recommend it.
Moving on along the Rue De Grotte the shops sell a multitude of miracle related souvenirs. You can even buy a pilgrims outfit. This consists of a russet cloak, a roughly hewn walking stick and a wooden crucifix on a leather thong.
By far the most popular of the souvenirs are the aforementioned receptacles for the Lourdes water. The range of shapes and sizes is innumerable. The smaller ones are glass, tiny, ornate and not much bigger than an adult’s thumb. From there you go right up to large industrial plastic containers which would normally be used to carry around petrol. It’s only holy concession being a rather incongruous screen print on the side of Mary appearing at the grotto. It is ‘Salvation by the litre’.
In amongst all this I was rather taken aback to see the very same Mary-shaped bottle my grandparents had all those years ago. Not just one either, there were hundreds of them. Thousands. There were sisterly regiments of Mary’s all lined up in every shop awaiting orders to be filled and then to be posted to Lord knows were. I must say seeing so many Marys together rather diminished ‘our’ family Mary in my thoughts. The sentimental part of me still wanted to see her as special and I suppose ‘special’ meant in the singular like the first Mary. But sadly ‘our’ Mary has long gone now and so too have both my Grandparents who dearly cherished her contents.
The road to Luz-St-Sauveur
A friend loaned us a house about 20 kilometres from Lourdes and we hired a car to make the trip.
Once out of Lourdes the terrain first became hilly and then quickly became mountainous. The road too went from a wide, straight three lanes to a narrow single lane, winding carefully in a steady climb into the Pyrenees. Peering out the side window I noticed the road – or ‘track’ as my city trained mind was now referring to it, appeared to be barely clinging to the side of the precipitous gorges and sharp steep hills.
Once I was used to the unfamiliar driving conditions however, I had an opportunity to admire the stunning view. Across the valley we were eye level with the clouds. I heard myself say ‘Look! Clouds!’ Vast tufts were elegantly drifting through the forests and floating over tiny villages, each with its own needle of a church spire. You can certainly see how composers are inspired by these scenes and how they inform their music to produce some of the greatest compositions. One might suppose an intellectual whilst driving may tap the steering wheel and hum a few bars from the pen of Richard Wagner or Edvard Grieg whose early lives were informed by dramatic landscapes. I too found myself inspired enough to hum a tune. And I not being an intellectual it just had to be the theme tune to ‘The Italian Job’. A better time there could not have been as I slaughtered Matt Munros ‘On days like these’ for the 20th time.
As I drove I noticed on the bends ahead we were slowly closing on a vast double trailer, double decker cattle lorry which was gingerly navigating through what must have been a scary ride. If not for the driver then certainly for his hapless passengers. It wasn’t long before we were sitting right behind it with a wall of cow lorry right in front. All was quiet for a few minutes until suddenly a deluge of cow piss spewed from the back of the truck and covered the car. I was horrified and screamed like a pubescent girl. ‘WINDOWS! WINDOWS! WINDOWS!’ an ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ followed with much stabbing randomly at the unfamiliar control panel, desperate to find the switches that would close the windows. It seemed an age until we were finally sealed in though it still stank through the air ducts. They were by no means finished. A minute or so would pass and then again we would be presented with another reeking deluge. Although all entry points were now shut one could not help simultaneously ducking and wincing with every dose. There was nowhere to go either. Obviously right and left were out of the question and I could not pull back as a line of cars were jammed right up behind us. In the rear view mirror I eyed the them spitefully. They were clearly enjoying every minute of all this and were deliberately keeping me tight on the lorries bumper so they could savour every bovine soaking! Bastards.
The situation was clear; we had to sit behind two double decker trucks of nervy cows that have just drank two gallons of water each. How much piss would that be? It was hell, occasionally two or more would go at once. It seemed French cow Olympic synchro pissing team were on board. This went on for miles and miles until the lorry eventually lumbered off up one of the few side roads, his leaky, lowing cargo in tow.