Nestled at the foothills of the French Pyrenees Mountains is the market town of Lourdes. The town rose to worldwide fame in the mid-19th Century, after local peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous claimed manifestations of the Virgin Mary. This led to an unprecedented rate of tourism that has placed the small town on a par with the French capital, Paris. But if you don’t fancy yourself as a religious fanatic and your idea of a mini break to romantic France is more fromage-focused, we’ve got you covered with these alternative things to do in and around the town.
Wade through the countless gift shops selling Virgin Mary sellotape dispensers and plastic rosary beads and hunt down the markets that make Lourdes a haven for foodies. Les Halles is a charming covered market in the heart of the old town selling fresh and local produce, traditional foods and wine, and has done since the early 19th century. It is open daily in the summer with restricted opening times throughout the winter months. There is also a weekly market held on a Saturday and markets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays where you can get your fill of fromage.
Take the funicular railway to the peak of Pic du Jer – a mountain which towers over Lourdes. The train was originally built back in 1900 and it’s still fully functioning now. It takes 15 minutes to ascend the mountain. At the top, the panoramic view is of the rolling leafy foothills of the Pyrenees and the vista stretches all the way to the city of Pau in the west.
Okay, I know we said no pilgrimages, but this spectacular candlelit procession is a phenomenon not to be missed when in Lourdes. Not only is it an example of the pure dedication of the pilgrims who amass in this part of France, it is a spellbinding illumination of the town’s streets which are bathed in a golden glow every evening. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people armed with candles and torches congregate before walking the winding boulevard that leads to the crowned statue of the Virgin.
This public garden exudes all the grandeur and opulence of 19th Century France and is well worth a trip, just a speedy 15-minute train journey from Lourdes to the town of Tarbes. The garden was designed by the reputable gardener of the King of France in the 18th Century and is complete with aesthetic features fit for royalty. Explore the garden’s orangery and its beautiful Moorish style towers and statues before settling on one of the pristine lawns near the picturesque cloisters – the only remnants of a 14th-century abbey – for a picnic of baguette and saucisson (you are in France, after all).
The Betharram Caves
A modest 15 minutes away from Lourdes by train you’ll find this incredible network of caves. Visitors begin the journey underground on a bus, followed by some walking, before things get surreal with a short boat trip and an underground train ride. This extensive cave network has been open to the public since the turn of the 20th century. Over the years, the site has developed into a real tourist hot spot, with dynamic lighting that highlights the stalactites and adds to the theatrical experience.