Tag Archives: france

Miracles and moments in Lourdes

Fifteen kilometres from the holy theme park that is Lourdes I veer off the D937 at the sight of castle turrets poking out from behind trees. Closer inspection and an illegal U-turn reveals a picturesque Pyrenees village called Lestelle-Betharram, which comprises a boarding school, a Baroque church and not much more.

The fairytale castle turns out to be a series of magnificent stone follies set along a path that zigzags up a woody hill. These house the Stations of the Cross extravagantly carved representations of Jesus’s grisly journey and I follow them to the top, where a young man in a Scouts uniform silently points me towards a simple church. It’s so peaceful up here, eye-to-eye with the surrounding hills, fat with foliage on this early summer morning.

Opposite the church, three empty crucifixes gleam white like bones in the sun. As I’m making my way back down the steep path the stillness is broken by boys on mountain bikes, brakes squealing and tyres slipping on golden leaves. In their wake, the place seems rejuvenated, enlivened by the fearlessness of youth.

When I reach the seventh station, I wonder if I’ve lost the plot I can hear angels singing. It turns out to be a troupe of Scouts led by a priest in black robes. They are singing a Latin hymn in three-part harmony as they slowly proceed up the hill. They pause before the station and the priest gives a sermon. I don’t understand the words but his voice has me in a trance and I close my eyes and say “amen” with the boys. Nothing exists except the voices of the choir as they carry on singing.

An hour later, I’m in Lourdes trying to choose between a Mother Teresa tea towel and a St Bernadette snow dome as a gift for my nanna. This village, where the Virgin Mother appeared to St Bernadette, is overrun with souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants serving every cuisine from the Catholic Empire.

There are pilgrims, of course, millions of them every year, and tourists too. Down in the Sanctuary, you see the former being carted around in blue wheelbarrows and the latter snapping pictures of the devout at prayer in the gaudy church.

I pass a scrum of pilgrims jostling to fill official and unofficial vessels with holy water and find myself at the place where it all began. I don’t join the queue of people waiting to be admitted to the cave where Mary is said to have revealed herself to the young shepherdess but watch on as a woman cries out to the Virgin, pressing her palms to the walls.

At that moment, I hear music heralding from above. It’s the sound of bagpipes reverberating off the cliff-face above the cave. With the sound comes a procession of Scottish pilgrims wearing tam o’shanters as they’re pulled towards the cave in their blue carts.

The bagpipes stop and a priest gives a Scottish sermon. When the music starts again, the pilgrims are helped through the cave and I realise: on a big scale or small, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Something About Mary, The Sun-Herald, May 3, 2009

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A fight where the bulls win every time

I MET a girl once who had been trampled by a bull at Pamplona’s San Fermin festival. As she proudly showed me the nasty grazes from the beast’s hooves, I thought: it’s just not for me. The idea of running in front of a one-tonne, panicky bull just doesn’t appeal.

So it was with much relief that I found myself high above the makeshift arena in Bayonne, watching the daily highlight of the annual fete. In the sand-covered car park below, the crowd of young men steadily grew. This was the Basque region of France and the whole town was decked out in Pamplona-esque white outfits, with red sashes around their necks and waists. The oversized red beret and half-drunk bottle of red was a nice French touch as a fearless bloke prepared to take on some angry beast. He and the brave youths of the region linked arms to form a human corridor into which the beast was released.

As this is the gentler, French side of the region, the opponent was a small cow – albeit one with long, sharp horns. A crowd formed around her and she waited for a moment, assessing the situation, then put her head down and charged, scattering the men like seagulls. The crowd cheered wildly when one of the participants managed to cling onto the cow’s back for a few seconds, then sucked in with collective sympathy as another was trapped beneath her digging horns. For the most part, the animal charged and the men ran; not so much the running of the bulls as the chasing of the cow.

All Hail the Lord of the Ring, The Sun-Herald, April 1, 2007

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Cheese superstars from the Auvergne

THE BIG doors close behind us and we’re underground, enveloped in cool, moist air. The smell is overwhelming: heady, frowsty and thick. It’s an unmistakeable, unforgettable odour. With the flick of a switch, row after row of fluorescent lamps blossom overhead, revealing two long benches that disappear into the distance; resting here, as far as the eye can see, is cheese.

Felix Malvezin strides ahead, then stops to carve off three chunks of cantal for each of us to chew on; each piece is about the size of a good wedge of brie. We munch our way along the tunnel, Felix pointing out the new arrivals, with their whitish-yellow skins, and the mature cheeses, covered in a reddish bloom.

For 30 years this old railway tunnel was forgotten, save for local kids who would run into the cavernous darkness as far as they dared. In the 1960s this and four other disused tunnels in the vicinity were turned into caves, maturing cellars, for the famous Auvergne cheeses.

Quality in Every Whiff, The Sun-Herald, November 26, 2006

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Wild camping in the Camargue

‘So this is camping sauvage,’ I thought, placing two fresh croissants and a baguette on the table. I called out that breakfast was ready and Jon emerged from the bright, blue Mediterranean, just metres away. Where else, but France? Where exactly? Beauduc beach, the Camargue.

Almost entirely flat, the Camargue is a landscape of vineyards, rice paddies, great etangs, marshy deltas and salt flats, that stretches from the glorious Roman city of Arles down to where the Rhone rivers meet the sea. The entire area is a Parc Naturel Regional and we’d heard that it was the perfect place for camping ‘wild’.

Roughing it in the Camargue, Motorcaravan Motorhome Monthly (UK), May 2007

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