In 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant girl, was collecting firewood in a rocky bluff by the River Gave de Pau in the little town of Lourdes. She saw the figure of a young girl, surrounded by light, in a crevice. Speaking to Bernadette in the local dialect, the apparition asked her to return to the cave. During 17 subsequent visits over the next five months, Bernadette came to believe the apparition was the Virgin Mary, who told her to dig with her hands and release a hidden spring with waters that would have curative powers. After she had done that, Bernadette was instructed to bring local priests and have them build a chapel on the spot.
Four years later, church officials authenticated Bernadette's vision and almost immediately believers began making pilgrimages to see the grotto and drink from the spring. Some who came found cures for their suffering, leaving their crutches and other tokens behind in the grotto, enhancing its reputation for miracles. It has become as sacred a place to Catholics as the Ganges is to Hindus or Mecca is to Muslims.
The Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, nestled in the south-western part of the Hautes-Pyrénées, draws pilgrims from around the world, from the wealthy to the poor.
The revered site also known as the Miraculous Cave and the Cave of Apparitions sees the suffering faithful immersing themselves in the grotto's 17 pools. There are six for men and 11 for women.
Between Palm Sunday and mid-October there are torchlight processions each night. Pilgrims carrying banners walk along the Esplanade des Processions, a spectacular sight under the nearby snowcapped Pyrénées.
Each year 100,000 sick and infirm pilgrims journey here, praying for a miracle cure. Since 1858 the church and medical establishment have confirmed 66 'miracle cures' cures which cannot be scientifically explained. But in reality, most who arrive with a disease or disability leave in the same condition.
Lourdes has become a tourist town, and not a particularly tasteful one. There are tacky souvenirs everywhere you look and more hotels than any other French city outside of Paris.
Best Western Hotel Beausejour Lourdes is located right in front of the train station in the heart of the town. Renovated in 2003, the hotel is one of the oldest in Lourdes, with 45 rooms spread over three floors. Le Parc Restaurant and La Belle Epoque Brasserie offer fine, quality dining and the hotel has panoramic views of the Pyrénées and the city.