Those familiar with the modern story of Lourdes might not be aware that the city had quite a history long before the apparitions of Saint Bernadette and several landmarks separate from the Sanctuary and its associated tourist kitsch. This final chapter in the 'city' portion of the travelogue covers the Fort of Lourdes and the residential part of the city including the train station and surroundings. While some of these landmarks won't likely be part of anyone's itineraries, it was useful to include them and round out this report. After all, the further away from the Sanctuary, the different the city became.
The main focus for this chapter, however, was the Fort of Lourdes, one of the oldest fortress sites in Europe. Dating back over 1300 years, the site was claimed to have been captured by Charlesmagne (according to information provided by the fort itself). As the first photograph shows, the Fort stood way high on a steep hill overlooking the city. The wall lying diagonally across the front was one of several approaches to the Fort, this one being very steep and cobblestone. There was an easier approach that I used around the back of the Fort as I climbed the Rue de la Grotte from the Pont Vieux. When I reached the base of the Fort, I was at the bottom of an absolutely sheer cliff about ten meters high. I then had two choices, either climb a set of rocky stairs to the top across the face of the cliff or take an elevator. After having already done a lot of climbing, I elected to take the elevator.
I was surprised to learn that the Fort had a lot of things to see. It was a full-fledged Museum, garden, and art gallery along with being a terrific vantage point. Basically, tourists were guided through the central courtyard by a marked walkway that went in a circle from the elevator top. There were several small structures that were well preserved. The tiny chapel with its seating capacity of maybe a dozen was beautifully decorated. One of the servant houses next to it was converted for use as a souvenir stand but otherwise well preserved and resembled its original condition. The flower gardens were in full bloom and embraced a whole set of statues of Bernadette and other key Lourdes figures. Finally, the second photograph shows a display of Pyrenean architecture that was located in front of a modernized structure on one side of the courtyard. These miniatures replicated actual landmark buildings found across the mountain range in southwest France. It was not clear whether or not this was a permanent display, so it might no longer be there, but it was very well done nonetheless.
Outside of the courtyard, there were several terrific vantage points. Of course the best was at the top of the tall square tower, which I accessed by a very rickety and tight staircase. The third photograph shows one of the shots I took from the top. It included the Sanctuary and a portion of the Gave River. The main basilica is prominently in the center of the photo, while the oval with the gray concrete stripe was the Underground Basilica of St. Pius X. The rows of bushes right of center was the boulevard leading toward the main basilica shown in the first photograph of the Sanctuary chapter, while the forested hill behind the basilica was the location of the Fourteen Stations. Below that hill was the tourist life support area described in the Pont Vieux chapter.
Looking in the other direction, I got the scene in the fourth photograph of the outer city, where the majority of full-time residents lived. The structure in the center was the Sacre Coeur church, the church of the 'Sacred Heart'. This was an absolutely beautiful church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and as the local parish church (from what we could tell) it appeared to be very active. It was filled with children's artwork at the time of our visit and there was a lot of literature available about parish involvement in various causes.
In the photograph, below the church was a ring of flags. This marked the site of the World War II monument, shown close up in the fifth photograph, and shown as the site of a special memorial ceremony during the second day of the 47th Annual Military Pilgrimage.
This part of the city lay on an upper valley that extended for quite a distance, and it contains most of the local residences and businesses. Along the left part of the fourth photograph but not visible was the train station. The Lourdes station was at the end of a small local run from the nearby Pyrenean cities of Pau and Tarbes, will the rail line following high ground above the north bend of the Gave River -- providing yet another marvelous view of the Basilica and the Sanctuary. The portion of the city from the train station to the Sacre Coeur was otherwise unremarkable in that the architecture was newer block residences and row houses with a number of ethnic markets indicating considerable growth in recent times. Clearly, the city attracted large numbers of immigrants from primarily Catholic countries. Whether or not they worked in the Sanctuary was not clear based on our visit.
Obviously, we spent so much time engaged in the pilgrimage and activities relating to it that we didn't have a lot of time to see how the rest of the city worked. But that was ok. It seemed content to grow and prosper separated from the Sanctuary. While many of the shop owners below lived at their places of work, Sanctuary workers uptown appeared to have a nice quiet, um, sanctuary from the tourist zone and its hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually.
Trip taken 25-27 May 2004 -- Page Last Updated 12 October 2006 -- (C) 2006 Tom Galvin