Morlaas to Lourdes – a immeasurable journey to another world
I woke at 6:00am. No pages this morning, just a quick pack and breakfast, then out for the bus. Francois and Cloudine were up early too. They’ll walk to Pau and then take a BlaBlaCar tomorrow to Toulouse and fly home. What a lovely thing it is to meet them again. They had been my companions in the evenings for 8 out of 10 nights. I tell them it has been a great way to walk at our own pace but sharing meal times in the evening. But the dissolution of the posse is complete, or so I believe. We all go back to our other lives, our other ways.
There was a slight anxiety about getting out to the bus-stop on time for the bus, as I really wanted to be in Pau early to give me the maximum options for trains to Lourdes. And even though there is a bus stop out front of the pool, the bus does an interesting route around the town, and I had to make sure I waited on the right side of the road. Everything was fine, I was out waiting just after 7:00am I got on it at 7:15am, right on time and I was off and away.
After walking for so long, there is a kind of relief that comes from sitting in a bus, knowing the huge number of steps you are covering so swiftly. My knees feel better already! But the leaving seems too quick somehow. We speedily ascend a small hill out of Morlaas and turn right into a road that directs our gaze to the Pyrenees … again! The site still impresses and captivates me – more so the closer I get. To my left the sun is half peeking over the horizon, bathing the little valley with a subdued orange haze. As soon as I see it we have left Morlaas behind.
I arrive in Pau half an hour later, but am worried about which stop to get off at. In the end I stay on the bus right to the train station. I am immediately impressed by this city, and am glad I came here on the way to Lourdes. I get off the bus to get my train ticket at the gare, right across the road from another river – be like water, be near water.
I have a bit of time before the train at 13:14pm. It sounds like a strange departure time, but it will depart on the dot. French trains are fantastically prompt I’ve found, as are the regional buses.
My next surprise for the day is a funicular. I love them. In fact, I love anything on tracks. How perfect. I have been on a couple before. There is a great one in Hong Kong that takes you up to Victoria Peak, Hong Kong, and there is the steepest one in the world in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia that takes your through lush forest undergrowth. Pau’s is petite, tres mignon – short and sweet, and a bit of a thrill, because if you look over the edge, the drop is sheer. I take the little tramcar to the top of the cliff on which much of the town sits, and find a cafe for 2nd breakfast with a course of wifi. There are a series of touristy cafes that look across a balustraded cliff-top straight towards the many peaks of the Pyrenees. The haze surprises me, but it is so very beautiful. What a great place to sit for a while.
It looks like I’ll be lugging around my pack, but I reckon that’s OK because I’m not walking very far today. It is a relief already. Perhaps I will catch up on my blog. In the cafe, they’re playing Air, Sexy Boy. What a blast from my 1990s past that is. I love that album, Moon Safari. It too is on my playlist.
After hanging out on wifi for a while in the cafe, I decided to don my pack, and take a little look around. I walked out, away from the mountains and found a large square. After a little more walking I found, quite by accident, the L’église Saint-Jacques and took a photo of the stained glass. Patricia was on duty at the time, wandering around the church, and she asked me if I wanted a tampon in my credential. We had a nice chat. She is retired and planning to walk. I asked what her work was, and she said she was a professor of theology at university. I told her about my detour to Lourdes, and she suggested we could pray for each other. I agreed, after all, she’d given me a tampon!
Back out in the hazy day, the church says goodbye with it’s bells.
I took a quick loop back around to the west, past the Chateau but without time to go into it, and was fascinated by a network of streets underneath the level of the town I was on. I wondered how I’d get there because they didn’t seem to show on the map. A secret city! Back around to the Boulevard des Pyrénées for more sunny vistas of those mountains, then down the funiculaire to the station. I got a saucisson and pickle baguette, but my stomach didn’t agree I should’ve eaten it.
I’m sitting in the hall waiting, and three pilgrims walk in – I can’t quite understand what they’re doing, but we chat for a little bit.
A child starts playing the public piano labelled ‘A Vous De Jouer’, (It’s your turn – I presume, to play) over in the other corner of the hall and not long after, who should I see? Sophie and Virginie! Jamais deux sans trois! Things always happen in threes. This goodbye has now stretched for several days. They greeted me with the same teases as always, then we sat together on the train. They were going through Lourdes all the way to Toulouse.
The mountains meet you first. Then as you approach in the train, you travel down a valley, and get an amazing view of the Basilique de l’Immaculée Conception in the valley. Sophie spotted it first. It is beautiful. I have always loved travelling through mountains on the train – maybe it was growing up on the Belair line where the train line cut through hills for the later half of the trip from Adelaide to Blackwood. I remember travelling from Paris, south to Florence through the mountains and being captivated. I tried to put off the thoughts that it was now only a week before I would walk into them to the end of my journey. My knees don’t want to go there, and my heart doesn’t want to leave the way. I was getting nervous about my stop, and Virginie was telling me ‘Don’t worry, be happy’! We said goodbye, this time for the last time, and promised to stay in touch. As the train drew away, we waved and carried on – an exuberant end to a wonderful 10 days with these two fantastic women.
Lourdes – I was excited. Walking out of the station, I had no idea where my hotel would be, so I just walked in the direction of the huge basilica I’d seen from the train. Virginie had said that there was the gare, then the town, then the basilique, then the grotto. She was right. I was quite surprised by just how many hotels there were, confirming what I already knew of the millions of pilgrims who visit here each year. Reading later, Lourdes’ number of beds is only second to Paris. A dog and cat were on an awning on one hotel. Gorgeous painted on windows of a trompe-l’œil. Next, as I walked even closer to the epicentre, I was just stunned by how many shops there were selling religious paraphernalia. The Cathars would have a field day!
La poste was a harbinger of useful information because I stopped to take a photo of a phamacy with a van and the Virgin, and across the road I happened across a shop-front for Centre D’information Jacquaire. I, of course went in. They had lots of books about the various routes of the way, St Roch, St Jacques and information about hébergement (accommodation). There actually turned out to be two pilgrim places in Lourdes, and if I wasn’t such a conscientious person, I could just have not shown at the hotel, and gone to one of them. It certainly would have saved some money. The shopfront had only been open a matter of weeks, hence there was no information about them along the Arles route, but I’m sure they’ll get that organised soon enough. Sylvia assisted me with finding my hotel, which was recommended by Bernadette and Patrick in Revel.
I walked down the tiny street, which looked tinier draped with so many crosses and icons, and found my street, which descended past Bernadette’s birthplace in the mill, and found my hotel. I installed myself there. There was wifi, but I worked out it didn’t extend to my 4th floor room. I left my pack, and decided not to shower because I’d just need another one after walking around all afternoon.
It was hot in the sun, and although there were many people about visiting the holy sanctuary, the basilica and grotte, it was strangely peaceful and calm. I could feel it as soon as I got off the train. We don’t yet have a measure for the energy that millions of people over a hundred and fifty years might bring to a place through their prayerful meditations, but you don’t have to be a sensitive soul to feel it in this place.
The commercial exploitation assaulting my senses like resounding gongs and clanging cymbals, wasn’t successful in lessening the impact of this sacred place. I’m not Catholic, and I’m not particularly religious, but when you can feel the spirit of peace in a place and offer up your own prayers and thoughtful contemplations, it is an experience to be treasured. Lourdes is a haven and sanctuary for pilgrims of all types. Religious, sick (I saw one pilgrim on a hospital bed and many more in wheelchairs) or just devoted, many flock here seeking grace. It was a very moving experience and when you can bodily feel the calmness, it is hard to deny it’s potential for healing.
At any time, in this vast complex, there are probably several masses going on in the mass of venues, but I went inside downstairs first, Basilique Notre-Dame du Rosaire. It has gorgeous mosaics outside at the gateways and over the doors, and then also on the inside. Despite being subterranean, there is a muted lightness about it. There was a mass being held, conducted by a priest in a purple hat – from Ireland from the sounds of it. Behind him was the most beautiful mosaic of a woman who reminded me of a cross between Cate Blanchett and a friend’s little niece, who by all accounts could be another incarnation of St Bernadette herself. He was delivering the homily, and it was an interesting account of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant, which takes me back to Soreze and Dom Robert’s amazing tapestry of the Annunciation. Everything is connected, isn’t it.
I stayed for the offering, in which a whole band of singers and musicians played a very Celtic-feeling group of songs accompanying my sniffling tears, and prayers of the faithful. I left before communion. I said prayers for Yvonne, Patricia and my Parker family who have recently lost a cousin/nephew in a farming accident.
I ventured out into the sunlight and down the path to go behind to the grotto. I joined the line, as it didn’t look too long. For a few minutes the kids behind me were prattling on, however after a while the ‘silence in the grotto’ signs were heeded and we all patiently and silently stood in line. It was just like the film, Lourdes. People snake around under the overhanging walls, running their hands along them. So many hands, it has become smooth and is wet in parts where the moisture comes to the surface. I was hoping to catch a drip to the head, but alas it wasn’t to be. The spring itself is covered by a perspex cover, but as you walk around there are also drips from the ceiling, a continuous birth of water into the sunlight. It is a very reverential and prayerful route and all respect the silence. I was reminded of the Oriah Mountain Dreamer talk I listened to the day before on my walk – that there is the greatest intimacy in shared silence. That’s certainly how it felt, and that’s certainly a very good observation.
How often I just speak for the sake of filling in the space, with nothing really important to say. It is worth pondering more. After you have been along that wall, you emerge at the other end of it, and if you continue to walk away from the town, you pass through what is like a sideshow of burning candles. Once past this, there are baths that you can go through as well. I was nearly going to, but it didn’t seem like the right time to go for me. Instead I walked to get some ‘holy water’.
After this, I ascended the very long left (it was partly in shade), arm that reaches out to get to the top basilique, Basilique de l’Immaculée Conception. I was coming closer and closer to the huge gold crown that stops the dome of the first basilica I went in below. It isn’t as beautiful as the one below, but it was interesting because it was the original one. It was dark and ancient. I don’t know what that says about immaculate conception. The whole complex has grown like topsy, because more and more people come every year and this one tiny chapel wasn’t enough (by tiny, I mean it only seats 500 people).
After this I thought I’d wander back to say hello again to Sylvia, but got lured by the singing I could hear coming from the subterranean chapel, built to increase the congregational capacity yet again. Reminiscent of concrete brutalism the Basilique Saint Pius X juxtaposes hung pictures of many saints around the edges of the space. It is enormous, and the giant angular struts supporting the ceiling make you feel like you’re walking around underneath a giant spider. Big change indicated here, well potentially anyway. It suits the purpose – seating vast amounts of people for mass masses. Around the outside there is a ramp which descends to the mid-point of the oval shape were the chapel is at it’s narrowest. Then the ramp ascends again toward either end of the oval. If you look across the auditorium as you are walking you see there are even more posters in the central arena of the space, so no matter where you are, you will be in eye-shot of at least a couple of saints, apostles or martyrs. As I got towards the bottom, I don’t think my eyes failed me, but there across the cavern was our own Australian, Mary Mackillop. I can’t remember whether she is a saint or just called Blessed. That’s terrible, having worked at a Catholic university for a decade. I shouldn’t be admitting my total ignorance. I kept walking and was more interested in Hildegard of Bingen, St Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena , Theresa of Avila and St Dominic, avowed converter of Cathars.
After finishing with the apostles, saints and matyrs I was outside again and it seemed that even the Air Force pay respect to St Bernadette. The crack of a super-fast jet doesn’t seem to dent the vibe though. I walked back up the little street to the St Jacques information shop to ask Sylvia whether she knew of any restaurants selling crepes sarrasin. She didn’t know, but I found the restaurant next door, a funny little place, had sel (salty – savoury) crepes on its menu, and so I ordered a salmon, creme fruit and basil one with frites. The decor was intriguing – red walls, and statues of Mary next to Dali’s Tarot universal. A bet each way perhaps? It was a good enough meal with a little kir. A bit of a splurge in Lourdes.
I left with a full stomach and dropped in to Mary’s pharmacy for some Baume St Bernard – which Francois had encouraged me to use the night before. It is basically like deep heat, and helps with any aches from the walk. I found it did sooth to a certain extent, so I’ve added it to my armoury of lotions and oils. I have Aveda Foot Relief – pepperminty goodness for my feet, Weleda Arnica Massage oil for my muscles and now St Bernard. Oh, and Aveda Blue Oil Balancing Concentrate for my nostrils. My feet, knees and mind are well cared for.
I ascend in the small lift back up to my room, which has a window into a tiny atrium, but no view. The carpet is so buckled in the corridor, that this route has to go down in my book as rivalling the chemin. I wonder how many drunk and disoreintated tourists have tripped on it. Attention a la marche!
I had a shower and washed my clothes, which I wring in the towels that are supplied. If you lay down wet clothes into a spread towel, then roll it up, then wring the little sausage, your clothes turn out nearly dry. I have only a postage-stamp sized towel that I use to dry myself with, so it is not enough to do this to my clothes each night, but Francois and Cloudine had those great synthetic towels that they did a little washing-wringing ritual each night. This goes on the list for next time – a proper towel. The reception were affronted by my question about whether they had a laundry, but maybe it was just my bad French. I utilised all the hangers in the wardrobe and the curtain rod to hang my clothes overnight in the open window. I did some writing, then decided to go downstairs to use the wifi. I successfully posted Day 6. Yay!
Addendum: Centre D’information Jacquaire – Lourdes
When I have asked at some pilgrim gites on the way, whether there are St Jacques pilgrim gites in Lourdes, people haven’t known. I assumed that everyone is a pilgrim in Lourdes – to see the place where humble youngster, Bernadette saw her vision, and to taste and bathe in the waters of the natural spring there. So when I arrived in Lourdes, and was wandering the streets looking for my hotel, I was surprised to see a shopfront titled Centre D’Information Jacquaire and the blue and yellow symbol of my way.
They had only been open for one month and they provide accueil (reception/welcome) for St Jacques pilgrims on the many routes through Lourdes. What this means is that they can refer pilgrims to hébergement in Lourdes and along the routes. The major ones that go through Lourdes are the Voie du Piemont GR78 and the GR101 which I crossed just outside of Maubourguet. But it means also that pilgrims like me who have a credential, and are doing a way, but make a side trip, can also find accommodation that is cheaper than in the many hostels and religious hotels.
I spoke to Sylvia, a volunteer who had walked the Camino Frances in two parts in previous years. She showed me the contacts for two places that take St Jacques pilgrims. The office is well equipped with maps of Lourdes and many books about the various ways, and about Lourdes. I was really impressed. And they also stamp your credential.
Gite La Ruche – 21 rue de Pau (open 1st April – 30th October) with 9 places at 15 Euros per night.
Centre Assomption – 21 avenue Antone Beguere. I’m unsure the cost of this one. Minimum stay of two nights, but that is sometimes common, and means that a pilgrim can rest in Lourdes without having to worry about the usual need to move on every day.