The Lourdes prayer

Closer to God am I. It is hard, in truth, not to think it when you are among the clouds 2,877m up the French Pyrenees in the Pic du Midi.

Or to jump up and down on the skywalk even when there is a sign telling you not to.

But I feel lighter of spirit, aside from the altitude and the bottle of dry white Clos de La Vierge and I almost single-0handedly conquered minutes before with my cep-stuffed Asterac Chicken in the Le 2,877 restaurant, the highest in Europe.

But this is a feeling of elation which only comes from completing a spiritual journey.

Nor was THIS where I’d imagined I’d feel closest to a celestial being on this trip.

Perhaps it’s a delayed reaction. His holy grace seeping through my soul.

It had all started in Lourdes a day and a half before.

It was unseasonably wet when we arrived off Ryanair’s new summer route from Dublin with a superannuated fleet of of pilgrims and a none too young party ourselves, bar an eternally smiley Tipp Twentysomething who was under strict instructions to bring back some holy water for her Gran.

As the heavens opened over Lourdes Castle and the River Gave de Paul valley below I couldn’t help thinking we had displeased HIM. This damnable rain was definitely not the water I’d come from.

Bur hope springs eternal.

And anyway we are not here to sunbathe… there will be plenty of time for that in the outdoor Japanese spa pools of the Pyrenees.

Instead, warmed by a rich, meaty French veal meal and full red wine against the damp Lourdes night we join the Torchlight Procession encircling the Esplanade of Notre Dame basilica.

All eyes are on a sisterhood of nuns, or colony of penguins, carrying a lighted box aloft with a statue of Our Lady encased in it, to the altar.

It won’t be the last statue of the Virgin Mary that we will see in Lourdes over the next day.

Each pilgrim is carrying a candle they have picked up from glass boxes on display next to a donation box which they then encase in a paper holder akin to a Chinese take-away carton.

Which is little defence against the drizzle and it gets soggy while you have a job stopping the night breeze blowing the flame out.

Still it does have the words of Ave Maria on them and across a range of languages, and the Credo in Latin.

For everyone else there is the international language of the sign of the cross and Amen which covers us as we listen to the distant figures of the celebrants.

Flags are draped on the staircase like a Catholic Eurovision Song Contest, Poland, Malta, Latvia… but alas no Ireland… maybe we got knocked out in the semi-finals.

We might not have flags out tonight but we are here all right, here in numbers, and making our voices hard, mostly voices from west of the Shannon to be fair.

And whenever Irish people gather for a celebration of Irishness, and Lourdes is Granny Irish, then St Patrick isn’t far behind. In this case behind the Esplanade, his gift shop vying for custom with St Laurence O’Toole and St Therese and any number of others as far as the eye can see.

Unusually, and unfairly, St Patrick has no place in the pantheon of holy trinkets being sold though. St Expeditus, St Benoit and St Gilles (me neither) do.

The must-buy itms though are your holy water cartons to fill up at the taps of the Sanctuary and your statue of Our Lady (choose from thousands, all the same). Candles do a brisk business although I pass on buying the 6ft one at #140.

Oh, and then better get something for the grandkids ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’ pastilles and mints are a bargain at €7 a pack.

We’ve brought our own woollen GAA plaits too, how would they be able to tell we’re Irish otherwise or which county we’re from.

And we pick the others out at breakfast at the Grand Hotel Gallia & Londra. I half expect them to dig out the Barry’s ta too, the strong French coffee tends to stick to Irish teeth and dentures.

I like to start the day religiously with a shower when I’m at home but here in Lourdes, and indeed the Pyrenees, it’s all about the baths.

And so having to forego my douche as I’d slept in – that blasted hour difference – I wondered to myself if I could sneak in a quick dip down in the holy baths near St Bernadette’s Grotto. Maybe between time slots fro the pilgrims.

Alas no, my aliments only being self-inflicted I cold only look on to an empty bath which our ever-helpful guide Monseigneur Xavier managed to get us in to see.

The bath looks unremarkable while whatever magic there might be in the water is beyond even th great scientific minds… but I’m told it is cold. 12 degree Celsisus.

Whether there was a miracle taking place next door when we visited behind the curtain or some poor out’ soul was wrinkling up in the cold water I’ll never know unless I see a name and today’s date added to the board of cures the next I visit the Museum.

Alas we don’t have time to wait around for a miracle, we have the Pyrenees to climb.

Or Andre, our driver, has. Andre may well have taken the waters himself… his fit physique belies his 56 years while he still plays rugby for Lourdes.

The Pyreneeans are obviously mountain men and women and think nothing of cycling 2,115m up to the Col Du Tourmalet, the most climbed by cyclists in the Tour de France where they deserve their photo next to the Giant Cyclist.

I cheat, borrow a bike and put on a bedraggled look.

I let the cable car take the strain too up on th 2,877m to the Pic du Midi. I have no more strenuous activity in mind than indulging in the wars of Le 2,877 I mentioned earlier.

Should you be of a mind you can always book ahead and stay the night, watch an uncluttered starry night and wake up the whitest snow-peaked mountains.

Much as I procrastinate, they need to lock up. Next time.

I stayed in a range of accommodations which it was clear were set up for skiers with a quirky pair of wooden boards adoring a wall in the Mercure Sensoria in Saint-Lary Soulan.

I was stumped though by the shower which scooted me from above and sprayed me from behind and the sides.

Again like Lourdes they do baths better here in the Pyrenees and there can’t be many better ways to relax than by gently swimming from Japanese bath to Japanese bath… each pool gets warmer by degrees.

All set in a landscape of Pyrenees mountains and Genos-Loudenville lake.

You can get too comfortable though. I’ve come to Lourdes and the Pyrenees to be cleansed and purified.

I hit the sauna and a cooling-down pool but have to leave when a young couple start grinding in front of me.

On my way back to the changing room I pass by a bucket and a chain and pull it. It’s the cold, cold, fresh water of the coldest Pyrennean waterfall .

Old-style but it makes me feel ten years younger.

Now, that IS a miracle!

TRAVEL FACTS

How to get there: Ryanair flies to Lourdes twice a week from Dublin over the summer season. Our return flights were about €120, but look out for offers. Visit www.ryanair.com.Where to stay: Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres. Lourdes. www.grandhotel-gallia-londres.h-rez.com. Le Lion d’Or, Cauterets. www.hotel-cauterets.fr/en/the-lion-d-or.
Hotel Mercure Sensoria, Saint-Lary-Soulan. www.mercuresensoria.fr. All hotels are about €120 per night.

What to do: Visit Lourdes Castle for panoramic views and medieval history. €7.50. www.lourdes-visite.com.
PIc du Midi, Pyrenees. Walk the skywalk and the Observatory (€45). Stay the night and get out at sunrise and immerse yourself in the Pyrenees. All-inclusive cost of a single room from €439pp until September 15, double room €469pp. Visit www.picdumidi.com.

Spas: Les Bains du Rocher, Cauterets. www.bains.rocher.fr.
Balnea Thermes, Loudenvielle. www.balnea.fr. Both about €18 per spa.

Where to eat: Grand Hotel Gallia &Londres. In Lourdes. Quaint, old-style surroundings with contemporary cuisine – fish is a speciality. Try the starter fo strips of smoked salmon, fennel dill crunch, lemon cream and a main of cod and chorizo risotto with piquillos and a saffron coulis.
Les 100 Culottes, Lourdes. Sit at a long and high table and take on the burger de poulet et maison frites (chicken burger and house chips to you and me).
Le 2877, Pic du Midi and La Grange Restaurant, Saint-Lar.

Important websites: www.en.lourdes-infotourisme.com, www.lourdes-france.org, www.tourisme-hautes-pyrenees.com.

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