Lourdes, France – July 15, 2011
Well, after 27 years of following the Tour de France, I can say I have seen a stage finish in person!
As we walked out of our apartment in Pau, France, we saw two Tour de France vehicles for race officials. Being bright red, they were hard to miss. We were on the road to Lourdes, the finishing city, this morning at about 08:00. It was about a 55-minute drive. When we arrived we were in the city center. We found ourselves in between the same barriers in which the racers would be in several hours.
After finding a place to park, we walked to the tourism office and got a map of Lourdes. As we left the tourism office, we found a kiosk selling race souvenirs. Between the four of us, we ended up buying 208€ (US$254) worth of Official Tour de France merchandise! Yikes!
Lourdes is a world-renown city, and that is not just because it appears in the Tour de France periodically. The city is much better known for one of its daughters, St. Bernadette, to whom the Virgin Mary appeared when the Saint was but 14.
St. Bernadette was born on January 7, 1844, one of nine children. When she was 14, a younger sister, a friend and her went to gather firewood. In a small grotto, above a rose bush, the Virgin Mary appeared. Only St. Bernadette could see Mary. Over about a two-week period, she returned to the grotto daily, seeing the Holy Mother each time. After Bernadette drank the water of the nearby spring, washed in it, and ate some of the herbs that grew there, the spring began to flow clear. On March 2, 1858, the Holy Mother instructed St. Bernadette to build a chapel at the site of her appearances.
Diagnosed with tuberculosis, St. Bernadette ultimately died on April 16, 1879, at the age of 35. She was beatified in 1925. Pope Pius XI canonized her in December 1933.
Since we had many hours to pass before the finish of the race, we decided to explore Lourdes. We began walking to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. While on Rue Basse, we marveled at the hundreds of metal barriers set up along the race route. No doubt, over the course of the three-week race, workers deal with hundreds of miles of barriers.
When we got to the main street, Boulevard de la Grotte, we stopped and had a croissant and coffee. After we finished our coffee, we continued to walk along the main street toward the shrine.
The Boulevard de la Grotte is an interesting street. Both sides of the street are full of Lourdes souvenir shops, restaurants, and hotels. Every one of the shops sells all sorts of religious mementos of ones’ pilgrimage to Lourdes, including various sizes of bottles and water containers. Many pilgrims, ourselves included, leave Lourdes with some of the holy water from the shrine.
Walking along the main street, we came across a museum at the childhood home of St. Bernadette. It was only a few Euros each to enter. On the upper floor of the house, I was amazed at the number of small marble tiles that were attached to the wall, on each one was written merci (thanks), from those that have experienced an answered prayer or a miracle as a result of their pilgrimage.
We discovered that from her home to the grotto, the location of her apparitions, is about 862 meters (a little more than one-half mile).
As one approaches the west end of Boulevard de la Grotte, one can see the main basilica at a distance. The scene and the sounds at this point seemed surreal. It was almost as though the Ousse River was more than a beautiful stretch of water. Almost magically, at the river, one leaves behind the cacophony of the main street; the traffic, the noise, and the bustle, and enters instead into a lush, calming, and beautiful oasis in the city.
We crossed the St. Michael Bridge over the Ousse River. At the entrance to the shrine, there are several angel sculptures.
After entering the shrine’s property, the first thing one sees is a grassy area with a large crucifix in the center. This is known as the Breton Calvary Cross. When we were there, there were numerous crosses in the grass. Each cross was left by a pilgrim or a group of pilgrims. There were at least 100 crosses there. Each cross was handmade and individually unique. Written on each one was the name of the parish, or group, or diocese that had brought the cross to the site; for example, Dunkeld Ecosse; Diocese of Digne; Church of the Annunciation, Dublin, Ireland; Diocesi Tortona; and some in both Japanese and Korean.
From the Breton Calvary Cross to the basilicas is easily 500 meters (roughly one-third of a mile). It was fascinating to me to make that walk and watch the basilicas looming ever larger.
As we walked, our first objective was to see the Grotto where St. Bernadette had experienced her apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The Grotto is on the north side and below the Immaculate Conception Basilica. There are about 100 meters of land between the Grotto and the Ousse River. When we were there, that entire area of land was full of pilgrims participating in a mass at the Grotto. It sounded to me like the mass was in Italian. Many of the pilgrims in the crowd were in various types of wheelchairs. One of the more unique wheelchair models is one that is available at the shrines. It is a three-wheeled bench seat for one. The single wheel is at the front. That wheel connects to a pull handle like one would see on a wagon. The bench seat has a sunroof that one can raise or lower depending on the weather.
We made our way to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (upper). We did go in to look around. This was the only worship space we entered in which no mass was in progress. The plaza outside the basilica offered a unique view of the Grotto mass below. After looking around, we went to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary (lower). We entered and found a mass in progress.
We departed the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes at about noon, walking back up the Boulevard de la Grotte. We sat at one of the sidewalk tables of a cafe not far from the one we had stopped at earlier in the morning. We had lunch and a drink and sat to relax for a while.
After lunch, we walked to the finish line of Stage 13 of the Tour de France. We did not linger there because there was no place from which to see the race, it was all VIP seating. So, we backtracked to the 200-meter mark and staked out our place along the barricade. That was at about 13:45. Unfortunately, the winning rider, Thor Hushovd, did not come by until about 17:05! It was a long three-plus hours! To help pass the time, there were all sorts of activities on the road in front of us. Various companies were handing out samples of beer, bottled water, Bic pens, candy, newspapers, hats, noise-makers, etc. It was a carnival atmosphere. The Nesquik marching band marched by us a couple of times. There were several amateur bike riders that went back and forth several times. Lastly, as the time for the riders to arrive got closer, there was a parade (caravan) of vehicles. These vehicles were sort of like floats in a parade; although they were not completely covered and decorated like one would see in a United States parade. There were just over 160 vehicles in the parade.
In addition to all that activity, there were plenty of people to watch too. On the other side of the road, a man and a woman picked a spot along the barricade almost exactly opposite our position. They unfurled a banner touting Mark Cavendish, an Australian sprinter. They taped it onto the barricade. Within minutes, a police officer came by and made them take it down.
Apparently, nothing can cover the advertisements that were already in place with the sponsor’s name. However, directly above them on the roof of a garage, several people had gathered to watch the end of the stage. They had a Norwegian flag draped over the side. They were not required to remove it. They were obviously fans of Thor Hushovd.
The first rider that passed our position was the Norwegian sprinter, Thor Hushovd. It was easy to spot him because he wore the rainbow jersey of the World Road Race Champion. He went on to win the stage, covering the 152.5 kilometers (95 miles) in just under four hours.
The profile of Stage 13, courtesy of Pro Cycling Stats (https://www.procyclingstats.com/race/tour-de-france/2011/stage-13/today/profiles).
Not far behind Hushovd, we spotted the yellow jersey, worn by Thomas Voeckler. Voekler first donned the maillot jaune after completing Stage 8, taking it from none other than Hushovd! Even though Voeckler did not win State 13, he retained the yellow jersey because of his overall time in the general classification.
After watching about the first 100-or-so riders (out of 198) ride by, we began to walk back to the main street. We found another cafe, sat down, and had a drink. Once again, the people watching was enjoyable. From there we walked back to the car and drove back to our apartment in Pau.