Lourdes – Midi-Pyrenees, France

Europe’s Premier Shrine

Every year millions of the faithful and devout flock to this mountain town to the spot where, in 1858, a local teenage girl named Bernadette had eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary in a riverside grotto. France’s most-visited city after Paris, Lourdes has somehow managed to accommodate the crowds while still radiating a certain quiet and benevolent sanctity that disarms the most skeptical.

Despite the building blocks of dormitory like hotels and tawdry souvenir stands selling wind-up virgins and the like, Lourdes and the legions of pilgrims it attracts can still be a moving—at times unsettling—experience. More than 140 countries (many of them, such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, are not known for their Christian population) are represented by visitors who come mainly for the water they believe to have miraculous healing powers.

During the visits by the Virgin Mary (never seen by anyone besides Bernadette), a spring welled up in the grotto and has been running ever since. Of some 2,500 “unexplained heal­ings,” the church has officially recognized sixty-five miracles since Bernadette’s death in 1879 (she was canonized in 1933); about thirty such healings occur each year.

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