Lourdes City Guide

The reported appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous over one hundred years ago has turned what was once a sleepy market town into one of the busiest tourist sites in France. More than five million pilgrims and tourists visit Lourdes every season, and the town is second only to Paris in having the greatest number of hotels – 270 to Paris’s almost 1,500. Before the apparitions were reported in 1858, Lourdes was most noted for the fortified castle that rises up from a rocky escarpment at the town center. Its total population then was only 4,000 inhabitants. Since then, Lourdes has become one of the world’s major Marian shrines, which attracts millions of pilgrims hoping for a miraculous cure. The importance of Lourdes in the Roman Catholic Church was underlined by the fact that the late Pope John Paul II visited the shrine twice – in 1983 and in 2004. When the 50th Jubilee of the first apparition was celebrated in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI authorized special indulgences to pilgrims. The major pilgrimage season in Lourdes lasts from Easter to November; tourists wanting to avoid the rush may wish to visit during the off-season, just after Christmas. Due to the religious nature of the town, leisure is mainly restricted to sporting activities. Tourists can enjoy the Lourdes Golf Course, an 18-hole, par 71 course which also includes a practice range and putting green. They can also go on nature walks across the Pyrenean Piedmont landscape, 90 km of footpaths marked with signposts, or sightsee along the Green Path, a 17km road that will take you past a medieval tower, a nature reserve, a castle, markets and an abbey. Skiing is also available year-round in some of the highest resorts in the Hautes-Pyrénées region. Other sporting activities available are horse riding, tennis and swimming. Gourmands can enjoy sampling the many home-made products available in the area. Local specialties include ‘water sweets’ made with water from the grottos of Lourdes and flavored with lemons or aniseed, cheeses made from the milk of goats, ewes or cows and Le Jurancon wine. But those simply looking for an inexpensive place to eat can find affordable meals in Lourdes’s many cafes, which offer light snacks such as pizza and larger meals ranging from chicken, duck and steak dishes. Tourists can avail of souvenirs from a range of shops located in the narrow streets leading to the grotto; items for sale include water bottles, rosaries, statutes, videos, candles and even mugs and fridge magnets. Of course, visitors must participate in the many daily religious activities, including the nightly candlelight procession and the procession of the sick to the Underground Grotto every afternoon. You can also join the choir singing in the International Mass, which is celebrated in six languages – English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German, but you will have to arrive ninety minutes early to be able to participate in rehearsals. The town is extremely pedestrian-friendly, with many pedestrian-only streets; help is also readily available for disabled tourists. If you come by car, however, it is advisable for you to park at the outskirts of the city and just walk to your destination. If you’re coming from other French cities, Lourdes has a train station with trains coming from Paris, Pau, Toulouse and Bayonne/Biarritz. If you drive from Paris, then it is about nine hours via Toulouse and the A64. If you’re flying in, the nearest airport is at Tarbes-Lourdes, a twenty minute drive from the town. There is also the shuttle service TOURSUD, which takes seven passengers between Toulouse and Lourdes.