I titled this chapter of the Lourdes travelogue "Pont Vieux" after one of the bridges over the River Gave that led us from the Sanctuary to a combination hotel-souvenir-museum-restaurant district in the southern part of town. The bridge was emblematic, marking a separation between the Holy Lands of Lourdes and the life support structure for the many pilgrims. This area was also separated from the rest of the city and its permanent residents by the valley that wrapped around the Sanctuary to the east. It was in this section of town that several (except for one) key landmarks relating to St. Bernadette Souribous reside. The first part of this chapter covers those locations. The rest is devoted to the shopping and tourism facilities that have surrounded other historical landmarks along the Gave Valley.
The first point of interest is the Souribous Museum, located not far from our hotel, which was on the Boulevard de la Grotte leading directly to the Sanctuary. Just about the hotel was an intersection with a side road called Rue Bernadette Souribous that curved and paralleled our road (our hotel window at the back overlooked it). The museum was just off the intersection, built inside one of the houses that the family lived in during Bernadette's childhood. The first photograph shows what the museum was about, a recreation of life in the Souribous household. Also included were recreations of Bernadette's bedroom and the mill where her father worked. A couple of rooms were reserved for dedications, including a reprint of a very old photograph of the girl surrounded with hundreds of engraved plates to her with only the word Merci or thank you. For me, the most telling part of the museum was the mural depicting the family tree. Bernadette had seven siblings in total, but only three survived beyond infancy. Another reminder of how different the world was in the mid-1800s.
The other two landmarks to the Saint sharply contrasted. Further down the same road was the house where Bernadette was born, called the Maison Paternelle de Bernadette. This was a beautiful white house with a fashioned brown balcony decorated with spring flowers. Well, at least that's what it looked like in 2005 -- it might not have been that beautiful in Bernadette's time. But the interior was big and it seemed like a successful family of six fit in their comfortably. However, the family would fall on hard times and would have to take refuge in a very different type of setting. The second photograph shows the interior of a one-room apartment called "the cachot" which translated to "the dungeon" as it once served as a prison cell. This tiny room was no bigger than a regular children's bedroom in an American home, yet the family of six lived, cooked, and survived in there for quite some time. It was during their stay in the cachot that Bernadette had her first encounter with the Virgin Mary. The cachot was located directly south from the Souribous Museum on the other side of the Fort. There were several other landmarks that the tourist literature offers as the "Footsteps of Bernadette" tour, and these are included in the Fort and City chapter.
The rest of this section of the city was largely devoted to tourism, particularly caring for the needs of the thousands of pilgrims that descended on the Sanctuary every day. The hills of the fort divided the life support area into two. As mentioned above, we stayed in a hotel in the northwest on the Boulevard de la Grotte. This part was heavily inclined and seemed less busy. The other end was the happening zone down in the southeast. This flat riverbed zone had block after block of places to go, eat, shop, and stay.
The third photograph shows one of the main roads in this district, the Rue de la Bernadette. As the picture shows, this road had a lot of souvenir stands, especially of Catholic items -- rosaries, crucifixes, and bottles to capture the holy water that flowed freely from spigots in the Sanctuary. Photo studios were plentiful as the demand for group photos was high (see Pilgrimage Day 2 for example). Currency exchangers were also plentiful despite the Euro, although the holy shrine of Lourdes was not absent the sins of awful exchange rates.
This road led to the scene in the fourth photograph, taken on a bridge over the Gave River. This was the Pont Vieux from which this chapter was named. This part of the city had the bulk of the hotels. These were high-rise structures perched on the valley walls overlooking the prime café, bar, and restaurant district. Eateries (called 'brasseries') lined both sides of the river there. Nearly all cuisines were covered in this part of town (as opposed to the northwest which was predominantly traditional French). The photograph included a familiar French tourism sight, a white and blue train that took pilgrims on a tour of the city (although they were not permitted on Sanctuary grounds, at least not while we were there).
Interspersed among these establishments were several other religious landmarks. At the Pont Vieux was the Church of Our Lady which was erected (according to the gilded letters mounted on her facade) in the 1870s, after the apparitions. The fifth photograph was taken further up the river along Rue de la Grotte overlooked the old convent, the Couvent des Clarisses, the yellowish gray structure in the center of the photo. This convent was not open to the public when we were there. The Rue de la Grotte brought us directly to the base of the Fort, described in the next chapter.
The museums were a must-do, even though they were smallish and perhaps expensive for their size. They did a good job of laying out the conditions that Bernadette endured as a youngster. As for the rest, those who enjoyed shopping had no problems pursuing their fancies, and I doubted anyone starved in modern-day Lourdes. But, I found the non-touristy areas of the city more interesting, as the next chapter on Fort and City will show.
Trip taken 25-27 May 2005 -- Page Last Updated 10 October 2006 -- (C) 2006 Tom Galvin