June 30, 2013

Pyrenees Mountain Splendor and a Beloved Catholic Shrine

 “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”   Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle)

Carol writes:  We could not pass up the opportunity to take a brief turn south and take in some sightseeing in the Pyrenees Mountains before we headed up the center of France toward the Normandy coast.  Our intention is to leave France at Calais for the ferry crossing across the English Channel to Dover, England, in mid-July.  Then, after spending the rest of the summer and early fall in the UK, our general plan is to winter over in Spain and Portugal, where we hope the milder winter temperatures will be more favorable for camping.  So…in late fall, we will head to Spain by hugging the French Atlantic coast and avoiding at all cost any snowy roads near the mountainous Pyrenees border area.  Thus…it is now or never for a chance to drive through the Pyrenees Mountains.

Having lived at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs for the past 23 years, we are used to splendid mountain scenery; however, we had one of those perfect sunny days on our ride into the Pyrenees that left us awe-struck at their beauty.

Patches of snow still clung to high depressions, and countless engorged waterfalls from the snow melt graced the steep ravines.  At a spectacularly beautiful stop, we traded conversation and mutual picture-taking with a group of three very friendly German motorcyclists who were on a 2-week motorbike adventure.

A few miles further we crossed the border and entered the tiny principality of Andorra, known only to us as one of the first countries (after Greece) that marches into the Olympic stadium with their very tiny contingent of athletes at every Winter Olympics. 

The incredible mountain beauty of Andorra with its very modern ski communities was immediately apparent to us.

In a mere couple of hours we had travelled along the main highway through Andorra and had crossed over the international border into Spain.  Time to get acquainted with road signs and handy informational signage in another language…

Incredible Catalonian scenery was all around us…

We camped for the night in our first Spanish campground and found it very relaxing and less hung up on regulations than the French ones.  The pool area here had no annoying fences, gates, or obligatory nasty foot washes—just a natural setting with a pool surrounded by grass and several families with kids having a good time.  Showers had all the HOT water you could want—without having to push a button every 20-30 seconds in order to keep the water flowing.  Spain was starting to grow on me…

At check-in, our young campground hostess had given us a brochure on a nearby Spanish national park that had impressive pictures of some pretty high peaks.  Our plan for the next morning was to take a drive into the park, perhaps hike a short while and take in what looked to us like magnificent scenery.  Our hostess told us it would be no problem taking our RV into the park.  After being turned back by width limitations on a narrow road leading into the park, we quickly aborted our plans to see the park.  In any case, we saw some mighty fine scenery of the edge of the park as we proceeded along our way.

As we headed north to reenter France, we travelled through several small towns that had very recently experienced a terrible flood event.  Parts of the road were washed out and lots of riverbank infrastructure had taken a huge hit.  In some places houses and businesses were partially destroyed. 

Meanwhile, the river culprit continued to rush along the side of the road in an angry and furious torrent of cloudy gray water, still clearly out of its banks.

After an hour’s detour due to a washed-out road, we were back in France heading north and stopped for the night in Lourdes, where we found out the flood was quite widespread and had occurred only 4 days ago.  We were amazed at the very quick response by French work crews who were totally immersed in repair work along our route.

LOURDES, FRANCE:  Having attended Catholic grade school, I was well acquainted with the pilgrimage site of Lourdes and had always wondered what it would be like to visit such sacred ground.  Tiny Lourdes stamped its way onto the world map in 1858 when a young peasant girl by the name of Bernadette Soubirous reported having visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cave-like entrance along the Pau River.  Over the course of 18 separate visions, Bernadette claimed that the Blessed Mother told her she wished to have a church built on that spot.  Fast forward a century and a half…above the grotto visitation site there are now two splendid cathedrals, one of them partially underground.

The half-mile or so walk to the sanctuary site was lined with somewhat tacky and garish tourist shops that sold every kind of religious statue or trinket that you could imagine.  But, a rosary palace???

For me, this wasn’t quite what the Virgin Mary had in mind; nevertheless, it is a fact that religious sales serve a purpose for some and are big business.  OK, I confess that I did purchase an empty holy water vial in one of the shops so I could fill it with some Lourdes holy water for myself.

A reliquary of St. Bernadette Soubirous was located in a little side niche outside the cathedral.

The natural spring waters that flow through this holy grotto site are said to have miraculous healing powers.  The custom is to fill your water vials and containers with some of the holy water and either drink it or use it in whatever manner you wish. 

The visitation grotto…

Despite all the crass commercialism leading up to the visitation grotto, once we reached the most sacred area, there was a feeling of something special there.  Mass was just finishing up when we arrived at the grotto and so I quickly joined the line of people who were vacating the pews and heading directly into the very small grotto.  We saw nuns, priests, and pilgrims (many of them in wheelchairs) of many nationalities.  Their reverence and unshakable faith and belief in what had occurred there was quite solemn and personal.  It was not hard to get caught up in the moment, and I was glad that we had decided to visit Lourdes.

"Please go to the priests and tell them that a chapel is to be built here. Let processions come hither."  Words of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858

1 comment:

  1. I imagine not many other classmates have added Andorra to their list of countries visited.