Once checked in, we were given yellow ORP money pouches and scarves, which our guide told us to wear so we could recognize one another among the crowds.
The town of about 15,000 is set in a valley underneath a 14th century castle and Pic du Jer, a 3,000-foot Pyrenean peak with a lighted cross at the summit. Because of the terrain, Lourdes has an upper and a lower district, connected by winding streets and elevators.
Bernadette's poor family home and the parish church where she was baptized in 1844 are in upper Lourdes. The grotto where she is said to have seen the Virgin Mary is below, together with hotels, shops and restaurants that pilgrims favor because of their easy access to the sanctuary.
We stayed in the lower town at La Solitude, a well-oiled package-tour hotel that was anything but solitary. The lobby was usually stacked with luggage and pilgrims waiting for buses or flights.
As soon as we arrived, we had lunch in the basement dining room. I was seated at a round table with a couple and three other solo travelers, including the rotund, complaining man who, thus far, had been given a wide berth by everyone. The Roman matron next to me, a loving middle-aged couple at my other side and the South American missionary across the table were delightful companions. But we all kept our heads down when our irascible table mate started to eat before everyone else was served and talked with his mouth full.
He didn't understand why he hadn't been put at the head table and commanded the waitress to bring him quiche Lorraine instead of the spaghetti puttanesca we were served. Granted, the pasta was bad. But, as Bernadette said, "You should never hear a religious talk about food. It shows a lack of an internal life."
AT THE GROTTO
After lunch, in a drizzling rain, I walked to St. Joseph's Gate on the south side of the park-like sanctuary that lines both sides of the Gave River and is surmounted by Massabielle hill. Once across Rosary Square, the sanctuary's central gathering place, I followed the crowds to the grotto, tucked into an 80-foot cliff on the river side of the hill.
A line of pilgrims carrying flowers and candles waited near the altar at the base of the cliff to touch the rock, while others filled plastic jugs with water from the holy spring that pours from a row of spigots nearby.
I found a place on the esplanade by the river, so I could see over the heads of the people clustered around the grotto, a crevice about 20 feet above ground level.
In 1864, a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed there, dressed in white with a blue sash, just as the little visionary described her to Abbe Marie-Dominique Peyramale, her parish priest. When the statue was unveiled, Bernadette politely said, "It's beautiful, but it isn't her."
Pictures of the grotto have been so widely disseminated that when I finally got there I felt as if I'd seen it before. Still, it moved me. Sequestered in its simple, natural setting, it is the precious heart of a sanctuary that is now home to two dozen other places of worship.
The neo-Gothic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is the most conspicuous. Perched, Oz-like, atop Massabielle rock, it is reached by two long, curving stone ramps that embrace Rosary Square like the wide open arms of the Madonna.
The high basilica is fronted by a huge, glittering gold crown that sits on the dome of the crypt, another place of worship built into the rock. Below it is the Rosary Basilica, lined with mosaics and tablets commemorating Lourdes healings, like that of John B. Flachs, proclaiming that he was cured of deadly cancer in 1974.
Late that afternoon the ORP pilgrims assembled for Mass in the Chapel of St. Maximilian Kolbe just off Rosary Square. During the short, simple service it seemed to me that we coalesced into a congregation, a good reason for taking part in a group pilgrimage to Lourdes.
One of our number read the Gospel and the priest gave a homily in Italian that was beyond my comprehension. I felt like a duckling among swans until we got to the Lord's Prayer, which I'd recognize in any language.
That evening, the missionary and I got to the dining room first and tried to move to another table. But the people who had sat there at lunch arrived, and we had to return to our previous places. Except for the impossible man, who remained oblivious, our table mates laughed when we sat back down, like two escaped convicts put back in prison.
Then we were served quiche Lorraine as a starter.
My eyes opened wide and I said to the curmudgeon in baby Italian, "Look, it's quiche."