©Matt Munro/Lonely Planet


The sprawling town of Lourdes, 43km southeast of Pau, has been one of the world’s most important pilgrimage sites since 1858, when 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous (1844–79) is claimed to have been visited 18 times in a rocky grotto by the Virgin Mary.

Now known as the Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes, the grotto is considered one of the holiest sites in Christendom. Over six million people arrive in Lourdes every year hoping to be healed by the holy waters, but the modern town of Lourdes itself can feel rather dispiriting, with a tatty tangle of neon-signed hotels and souvenir shops selling everything from plastic crucifixes to Madonna-shaped bottles.

Outside the theme-park-like atmosphere of the town, you'll find some intriguing sites, including a hilltop castle and various humble abodes where Soubirous resided – which more than anything illustrate the many hardships the lower classes endured in the late 19th century.

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