I arrived in Lourdes, France, trusting that there would be “room at the inn.” The albergue that catered to people walking Les Chemins de St Jacques (The Way of St James) had not returned any of my email requests for a bed. The week before, the Lourdes Tourist Office assured me that the proprietor was out of town and would respond once he returned. So I walked by faith, trusting that even if no beds were available at Accueil Jacquaire “La Ruche” when I showed up, that there would be space somewhere in the mountain town of 15,000 for a pilgrim to lay her head. Hey, even Baby Jesus found a manger to sleep in as his family journeyed to Bethlehem.
Lourdes is known as a center for prayer and healing for the Catholic Church. Six million people travel to the town in the picturesque Gave de Pau River Valley every year in hopes of healing for themselves, friends or family members. In 1858, teenager Bernadette Soubirous saw the Virgin Mary in a muddy grotto not far from the river. The Virgin appeared to the peasant girl eighteen times, and during one of the appearances, the Virgin told Bernadette to drink the water. But there was no source of water in the grotto. Bernadette felt compelled to dig in the mud with her hands, and soon she unearthed a spring. Bernadette drank from the spring and prayed. Later, others were miraculously healed after drinking the water. Today that small spring is the water source for the bath houses where believers are submerged in the healing waters and for the fountains from which devotees drink thousands of gallons of water.
Because the town is now one of the world’s most important pilgrimage sites, I thought it would be a perfect place to start my +500-mile walk from France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The classic route, called Camino Frances, begins in St Jean Pied de Port, France, at the eastern foot of the Pyrénées Mountains near the border of France and Spain and continues across northern Spain to Santiago. Lourdes is only 93 walking miles southeast of St Jean Pied de Port, and I could walk forest trails and farm roads that meander along the foothills of the Pyrénées. (Lourdes to SJPP is 93 miles/149 km.)
Since foot traffic on Camino Frances has increased so much in the ten years since I did my first pilgrimage, I desired to start on a road less traveled. The route from Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port seemed to fit the bill. Fewer people and more rustic accommodations might better mimic my first Camino experience.
However, because the Lourdes Camino route is typically traveled by regional hikers, the only guidebooks that I could find were in French. Even on-line, route-following instructions were in French. Google Translate and other free translation services didn’t seem to get the detailed, cryptic instructions right. “Cut a road and continue straight. After a closed, follow the path paved route and continue the length to the edge of the Louts.” Hmmm… Yet I had printed the cryptic instructions and bound them with pages of maps from the French guidebook, La Voie des Piemonts un Chemin de Serenite by François Lepère and Yvette Terrien.
I reviewed my loose leaf notebook on the Air France flight from Paris to Tarbes-Lourdes airport, still hopeful that I would find a place to sleep that night. Since the Lourdes Tourist Office boasted more hotel rooms than any other city in France, besides Paris, I figured my chances were on par with Baby Jesus – the Lord would provide. I sent up a silent prayer, “Let this go smoothly, Lord.”
I shared a cab with two other visitors, and David, the friendly driver knew the way to Accueil Jacquaire “La Ruche”. I tapped lightly on the door, and when no one answered, I pushed it open. “Bon jour,” I called out. A young American woman came down the stairs.
“Hi, I’m Rachel. We’re making dinner upstairs. Do you want to stay for dinner?” Rachel offered.
“Oh, yes!” I answered. “Is there a bed for me?”
“We have plenty, put your backpack in here,” she said showing me to a room with two bunk beds. “You may choose the top or the bottom.”
“After dinner will there be time to go to the candlelight procession?” I asked. It was the desire of my heart to start my pilgrimage to Spain with the prayer vigil and processional that happens every night at 9:30. Hundreds of people from all over the world come together for prayer, many wheeling their loved ones in wheelchairs or gurneys. I had seen it all on YouTube and wanted to experience it for myself.
“Yes, there will be plenty of time,” Rachel said. “We’ll all go down together, we have several other pilgrims here tonight. Jean Luis and G.G. have the candles here. She pointed to a basket of tall candles with Lourdes-appropriate wind shades.
“Are you just starting your Camino?” When I nodded yes, my new friend responded, “Well, we’ll have to get you your shell tomorrow before you leave.” The scallop shell is a symbol of St. James and is worn my pilgrims to denote that they are on a pilgrimage to Santiago, where the bones of St. James rest.
It was my second lesson of my Lourdes to Santiago Camino: do not worry. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7. So if that was my second lesson, what was the first lesson of this Camino? Well, that’s another story…
Stacey Wittig is a travel writer who is currently working on her second book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Lourdes to St Jean Pied de Port. Order her first book, Spiritual & Walking Guide: Leon to Santiago on Amazon.
Accueil Jacquaire “La Ruche” : 21 rue Pau, Lourdes | Tel: 05 62 97 98 21| firstname.lastname@example.org
Taxi David – VIP Excursions: Tel: 06 81 89 09 88