Lourdes, 37km southeast of Pau, has one principle function. Over seven million Catholic pilgrims arrive here yearly, and the town is totally dedicated to looking after and, on occasion, exploiting them. Lourdes was hardly more than a village before 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous, 14-year-old daughter of a poor local miller, had the first of eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary in the Grotte de Massabielle by the Gave de Pau. Since then, Lourdes has become the most visited attraction in this part of France, many pilgrims hoping for a miraculous cure for conventionally intractable ailments.
Myriad shops are devoted to the sale of unbelievable religious kitsch: Bernadette and/or the Virgin in every shape and size, adorning barometers, thermometers, plastic tree trunks, empty bottles that you can fill with holy water, bellows, candles and illuminated plastic grottoes. Clustered around the miraculous grotto are the churches of the Domaine de la Grotte, an annexe to the town proper that sprang up in the century following Bernadette’s visions. The first to be built was an underground crypt in 1866, followed by the flamboyant double Basilique du Rosaire et de l’Immaculée Conception (1871–83), and then in 1958 by the massive subterranean Basilique St-Pie-X, which can apparently fit 20,000 people at a time. The Grotte de Massabielle itself is the focus of pilgrimage – a moisture-blackened overhang by the riverside with a marble statue on high of the Virgin, where pilgrims queue to circumambulate, stroking the grotto wall with their left hand. To one side are taps for filling souvenir containers with the holy spring water; to the other are the bruloirs or rows of braziers where enormous votive candles burn, prolonging the prayers of supplicants.