Monday, October 5, 2009 - Elciego to Lourdes

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October 8th 2009
Published: October 9th 2009
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Our original intention was to have a very short driving day to Pamplona, stopping at a couple of Rioja towns in the process. But after a chance remark about Lourdes, we looked and saw that we could detour through France, see Lourdes, and proceed through the Pyrenees, seeing Andorra on the way (we realized it was unlikely that we would get another chance to visit that country). It meant visiting Pamplona without spending the night, but that turned out to be a good choice.

We started our day with a tour of the Marques de Riscal winery. Our hotel was the luxury hotel on the grounds of the winery, designed by Frank Gehry (designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum). The tour was entirely in Spanish, so I did not understand a word of it, but Lucie understood enough to know that the wine casks for storage were made of American oak, which I thought unusual.

Since we had time, we decided to go ahead and visit one of the Rioja region towns we had originally included in our itinerary. We chose LaGuardia, a walled town which is entirely closed to vehicular traffic because it is completely undermined with wine storage caves. It had the usual quaint charm of such places. We somehow failed to locate what is said to be the best Gothic cathedral door in Spain.

Driving to Pamplona took us through undistinguished plains and rolling hills into the city I have wanted to visit since reading THe Sun Also Rises. We parked under the bullring and walked part of the route of the running of the bulls during the Fiesta de San Fermin every July. Although Pamplona is now a fairly large city of about 200,000, the route is narrow and lined with shops. It is easy to see how the bulls run. There are published instructions on how to run with relative safety. (Don't get near bulls that get separated from the herd, don't get caught in eddies, run in the area of the straightaway just before reaching the bullring because they are running more slowly there, etc.) During the Fiesta, a rocket is sent up every morning when the first bull starts out, another when all are out of the holding pens, another when they all reach the bullring, and another when all are safely penned up at the ring. Reportedly, it is one of the biggest festivals in Europe, and reputedly one of the drunkest. I have made my pilgrimage, but don't see a lot of reason to go back to Pamplona, since I don't think there is a lot more of interest there.

We then headed to the coast, going by Biarritz, and turned south toward Lourdes. Previously an undistinguished village in the foothills of he Pyrenees, Lourdes became a place of pilgrimage for the Catholic faithful, particularly the Marianists, after a series of visions of Mary seen there in 1858. Out collecting wood with a friend and her sister, Bernadette Soubirous, a diminutive 14 year old girl, heard a sound of two gusts of wind from a small cave, and went in and saw an apparition of a girl dressed in white with a blue sash, whom she described as being no larger than her own small stature. She initially withheld discussion of this with her mother, but later was forced to tell of it when her companions told about it. She was beaten for her trouble. She did not claim that the vision was Mary, and referred to it as "that thing". She took some holy water to throw on it in a later visitation, and it merely inclined its head, rathr than being driven off, as would have been the case with a vision of the devil. There were a total of 18 visitations, never seen by anyone except Bernadette herself. During one of these, the vision told her that she (the apparition) was the Immaculate Conception, and that a church should be built on the spot. Various healings were attributed to the intercession of Bernadette, and she was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1933. The Church has investigated and approved as miracles 76 healings attributed to her intercession, medical recoveries which they feel are otherwise inexplicable. The movie about her called The Song of Bernadette won the Oscar for Jennifer Jones as Bernadette.

We got a text from my good friend Marianne 30 minutes out of Lourdes teling us that her husband was very ill and in the intensive care unit. We prayed for him at Lourdes. I am not a believer in miracles. He is better now. You can draw your own conclusions.

I am glad we visited Lourdes, since it is a place of such great pilgrimage. But I won't be going back. It is a sad and tawdry place. Just a few feet away from the peace of the grotto, the commercialization begins, and it carries on in earnest. The town of 15,000 receives about 5 million visitors per year, and appears to be totally given over to the business of separating the faithful from their money and providing as little as possible in return. It is not unexpected that there will be some commercialism, but this is worse than Coney Island. It is almost exclusively visited by tour groups as far as I can tell. If your want a spiritual experience, visit your local church. If you must go on a pilgrimage, go to Fatima. If you must go to Lourdes, then get i and out as quickly as possible, and stay elsewhere at night.


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