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Lourdes France French Destinations

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In 1858 the quiet market town of Lourdes, 35km southeast of Pau, was transformed into one of the world's most important pilgrimage sites when semi literate, 14 year old peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous saw 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in the Grotte de Massabielle near the town.

The Vatican eventually confirmed that her apparitions were authentic and Bernadette, who had lived as a nun until her death in 1879, became Saint Bernadette in 1933. Around seven million Catholic pilgrims come to Lourdes every year and the town's sole purpose seems to be welcoming (and exploiting) them. They have been flocking here since the first pilgrimage in 1873, hoping to have their immovable illnesses miraculously cured by the holy waters. The last miracle took place in 1987 and, after extensive investigation, was recognised by the church in 1999.

Lourdes is certainly the place to come if you want to buy a barometer with a picture of Bernadette emblazoned upon it, or a keying or any other brash plastic trash you care to dream up. Every shop is full of such wonders. However much you may feel like mocking this enthusiasm for kitsch, do bear in mind that Lourdes is an important place for the visitors, most of them from outside France, some of whom have saved up all their money to come here. The Grotte de Massabielle to the west of town is obviously the focus of Lourdes and to illustrate Bernadette's visions there is a waxwork of the Virgin in pastel blue and white, a contrast to the damp, cave like overhang of the grotto itself. Churches sprang up in abundance in the years following the visions, beginning with the Basilique du Rosaire et le l'Immaculée Conception in 1871 1883, and then the enormous Basilique St Pie X, an underground church that can hold 20,000 people.

Secular attractions include the Chateau Fort and small Musée Pyrénéen (€3.20). The castle was an English stronghold during the 14th century and the museum contains interesting displays about the flora and fauna of the mountains, how farming works there and the history of mountaineering.

There are huge numbers of hotels in Lourdes, around 350 in fact, which translates as about 32,000 available beds. The cheapest options are in the small streets around the castle. Try the boulevard de la Grotte, rue de la Fontaine, rue du Bourg and rue Basse, for example. Busy periods include any important feast days and from August to October. In the winter many hotels close down as the town is extremely quiet. Restaurants close at about 22h30 in Lourdes, so get your supper in early! Most hotels offer and may even insist upon you taking half board, especially during high season.