Friday, 17 June 2016

Neon Warfare In the Name of the Lourdes

Lourdes, France
November 2015
A small town with a population of 15,000, Lourdes receives over 5 million visitors a year due to what I call "freaky religious fanaticism". That may sound harsh, but hear me out.
Before a 14-year-old peasant girl called Bernadette had visions of the Virgin Mary, Lourdes' greatest attraction was its Château fort de Lourdes - a castle that has been rebuilt and reinforced many times over the centuries, and was at once point besieged by Charlemagne. Clearly Lourdes needs no fancy relics like Toulouse!
And indeed, relics are not what brings religious visitors to the town, but rather its healing spring. The story goes that young Bernadette (at the time malnourished as she was the eldest of nine children in a badly poverty-stricken family) had a vision of a lady in white by the town grotto. Naturally, no one believed her, even when the visions continued. Some thought her mentally ill. After a two-week stint of daily visions, the apparition told her that she was indeed the mother of sweet baby Jesus. Miraculously, the nasty grotto water suddenly ran clear and the more gullible townsfolk bathed in its now holy waters.


They decided to rename Mary "Our Lady of Lourdes" due to these visions. Although several people interviewed Bernadette after her visions ended and proclaimed her to be slow in the head, the church officially declared the visions to be real and legend spread of the magical grotto water. Pilgrims journeyed from far and wide to partake. Unexplained healings occurred, and Bernadette felt overly swarmed with admirers. She moved to a nearby village where she worked in a convent for the rest of her life, dying at the age of 35 from tuberculosis. Apparently, Our Lady of Lourdes promised Bernadette happiness in the next life (pity about her actual life then).

We knew before arriving that it was a so-called holy site, but thought we'd take a look anyway and perhaps enjoy the bizarre spectacle. There were some very nice little cobblestoned streets, perfect for fake drinking tea on!

And yet we quickly discovered an abundance of shops selling what looked to be Our Lady of Lourdes souvenirs and trinkets. There were virginal cups and saucers, virginal postcards, virginal candleholders, virginal magnets, virginal necklaces, virginal pens and virginal keychains. I wish I was making this stuff up!

One thing that all the shops had in common was a huge selection of Our Lady of Lourdes statuettes of varying sizes, and bottles to fill with holy water from the hallucinogenic grotto.

Another bewildering sight was the vast number of pharmacies dotting the streets. For the sick and injured who didn't achieve holy grotto healing, the pharmacies must have been making a killing.

Lonely Planet likens Lourdes to a Catholic Las Vegas, as virginal trinket shops need to use more and more neon to stand out among all the other shops selling the same rubbish.

Look how much rubbish!

It wasn't just the souvenir shops either. This hotel and carpark and salon de thé and pizzeria serving panini and ice cream also got in on the neon action.

Despite all the weirdness, there were some beautiful sculptures in the town. Of course all were of a religious nature, at least they weren't of Our Lady of Lourdes standing piously with her blue sash whispering sweet nothings to a teenage peasant girl. No, instead this one is of the virgin talking to a priest while someone nearby dies. Bit more gruesome.

On our way to the basilica we spotted a few more chances to get a souvenir! These machines would take your hard earned money and in return would spit out a coin of exactly zero value with the face of a famous holy person on it. I'd take Bernadette myself - at least she has an interesting backstory.

One of the vision-induced demands Bernadette relayed in a trance-rambling was that Our Lady of Lourdes wanted a chapel erected right next to the grotto so that everyone could worship properly. Over the years the chapel transformed into a large Disney-like basilica. Ol' Mary would be proud.

Circling around the back of the basilica, we found the much-anticipated grotto. Lo and behold! We chose not to kiss the rock or drink the holy waters, preferring to save the magical healing powers for those who really needed it. All around were vending machines selling candles for the grotto, ranging in size from tea light to light saber (no kidding, some were legit 3 feet high).

After that, we peeked inside the basilica, but it was so super weird that we left with haste and pulled double-chin faces attempting to convey just how bizarre it was.

Lourded-out for the evening, we walked back to our hotel past the shiny Ukranian Catholic Church. Luckily for us, Lourdes has the second highest number of visitor accommodation in France outside Paris, so we had found a room for an affordable rate. When we checked in, the receptionist spoke no English, but seeing that our passports were of the Kiwi persuasion enthused "Les All Blacks, wooo!" as we had just won the Rugby World Cup two days before.
In the bathroom there was a sign that read "Dirty towels = On the floor, Cleany towels = Hanged". We followed instructions, lest we be condemned to a fiery hell or early death by tuberculosis.

Today's post was almost called: Salvation In a Bottle (2 for 1 deal!)