Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My Lourdes!

Heading back north, I prodded Adam into making one last stop, Lourdes. A family member of mine had been there a number of times with her nursing students and highly recommended it, and after further reading about the hype around this place, I was intrigued.

Back in the 1850s, an young girl, Bernadette, saw 18 apparitions of Mary in the town's local grotto.  Even if a crowd was standing with her, she was the only one who could see and hear this beautiful lady. On one such account the spirit asked her to go and drink from a fountain within the grotto which at that time, did not exist. At that same moment, though, water came gushing from the rocks, and it is this water source that has attributed to 1000s of miraculous healings. One source tells me the church has only officially recognized around 67 as real miracles (with many more under investigation), but there have been over 8000 cases reported of healing of some sort. As you can imagine, it took the church a few years and some skepticism to officiate Bernadette's sightings, but in the end, they officiated the sighting and followed one of Mary's requests and built a church over the grotto. Once the first miracles started occurring, 1000s of pilgrims began flocking to this sight to get a look at the grotto and hope to be healed as well by it's powerful waters.

A garden of rosaries (St. Bernadette pictured)
As the guidebooks say, this sight will put any believer or non-believer in awe. It is said that this town receives around 5 millions of visitors each year (to a town of only 15,000) from all over the world, and is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Europe (hard to believe, I think, next to Rome, but whatever). As Adam and I tried to snake our way through town, stuck in traffic, and surrounded by store after store after store of religious nicknacks, we started getting prematurely annoyed by the whole idea. Ahhh, just another tourist trap!

Once we parked, though, and started towards the church, I couldn't believe my eyes; there was a nonstop stream of wheelchairs, all with their own lane on the sidewalk, going to and from the church. Holy crap, this is for real! People really are coming here to be healed! I don't thing I've ever seen such a diverse group of sick, disabled, crippled group of people, all speaking different languages all together at once. Maybe this place really does have some magic?

Filling up on some magic drink
The church that was built over the grotto was absolutely gorgeous. And I've seen a lot of churches (which all seem to look the same after awhile), but this had a certain fairytale castle look to it. I loved it. Below the church was the line to fill up your water jugs with the healing waters as well as the line for the grotto. People will fill filling everything from tiny 1 oz jars to 3 gallon jugs. We simply refilled my water bottle and chugged away. Healing or not healing, it at least saved us from dehydration on a hot day. (but let's hope it had some healing powers to it!) But this whole idea of miracles still had me mystified. Next, we shuffled into the line for the grotto. In actuality, this is simply a small cave on the side of the cliff, but it was incredible how smooth the stones felt after years of millions of people running their hands over them, saying a prayer. I was most impressed by this 'tourist spot', for everyone around treated it with such respect. The crowd was in a reflective silence, and it was quite emotional seeing the line of cripple and sick in their wheel chairs coming up to get a glimpse, seeing their families in tears. wow.

Basilica of the Rosary, built over the grotto

A marvelous church built over a grotto
Plaques along the side of the church in about 20 different languages
reading "Come and drink at the spring, and wash yourself there"

All us pilgrims

Prayer candles
We thought that was it, but continuing along the cliff, we came across stand after stand of prayer candles.  Ah ha! so THAT's what all the stores were selling. There must have been 1000s of candles in all sizes from tiny tea lights to human sized giants. We even saw a sign saying that you could purchase these online and have them lit here. Ah, the idea of online pilgrims! Genius. The Catholic Church does it again. Beyond that, we saw another crowd of people split into guys and girls, and realized this was where you could bath yourselves in the spring. We couldn't really see how this happened since it was all behind closed doors, but I read somewhere that some 400,000 people come bathe themselves each year here (though not all of the miracles have happened because of the should read about the scientific banter about all this)

In the end, Adam and I both agreed it was a great stop to make, if anything, just to see what the power of belief does to a town and to its visitors. In addition, it also gave me the chance to understand a bit more about the difference between our two religions, as I took for granted the idea of Saints and pilgrimages, and the rosary, all that stuff really is a Catholic thing.  Good thing, I suppose,  that someone had a Catholic along for the ride to shed some light on all this : )

Monday, August 27, 2012

Into the Mountains

Somewhere, France

I think of the Colorado Rockies as giant mountains of boulder-y rock, snow caps, and brownish reds looming over vast pine forests. In contrast, I was imagining a smaller version, but more grey out of the Pyrenees, the range that separates Spain from France. I was spot on, and an afternoon of cloud cover that drizzled on us only drove the point home.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Basking in the Basque

From the Dunes, we navigated down the coast and immediately got slammed right in the middle of a traffic jam. The French traffic really is insane over the summer, and it really is true that the entire country goes on holiday all at once, flocking like sheep to the south. On our way to Lauzerte about a month ago, the rest stops were ALL madhouses. In the states, these places are usually creepy places to avoid, whereas here, they're necessary mental breaks from the insanity on the highway. People were parking three deep in semi's parking spaces, every inch of grass was taken up by a picnicker.

We seriously did not have time for this crap for we had a beach to get to! (just like everyone else) Our next stop was St. Jean de Luz  near the border of Spain. I had been told it has an amazing beach, and by the looks of google satellite, it looked like quite the spot to fulfill some beach time need. Once we finally got to town, it was already getting late and we didn't have anywhere to sleep yet. The campgrounds in town were about as expensive as cheap hotels, so we said screw that. We drove further and further from town being rejected at each campground we stopped. It's sad when you start to recognize the same cars going place to place with you and also being rejected. The campgrounds, like the rest stops were all just bursting at the seams with vacationers. It was all really insane. Even FURTHER from the beach, we finally found a place that was able to take us for the night. Exhale. By the time we got changed, sat in traffic for over an hour to get BACK into town, it was already almost 6pm. Thankfully the sun stays out here until about 10pm, so we got a couple of good hours relaxing and people watching.

The beach really was something like out of the movies. SOOO packed, and colorful, and full of activity. Full of cabanas and striped umbrellas, and people half dressed or not dressed at all...and that guy walking through selling roasted nuts as if we were at a baseball game. No longer were we in the world of the scrawny/pale Parisians; here we had a whole rainbow of body types, all feeling carefree in the sun. Ah, so here's where all the 'normal' people are ; )

Trying to get that big catch
The Harbor

St. Jean de Luz is located in the upper left blue region.
The rest of our road trip took us through the remaining
blue regions through the Pyrenees.
We packed up shop after a bit of sun, then went for a stroll around town. Quite a cute town, indeed, with it's French/Basque architecture, culture, and food. The streets were packed with people and shops, but you didn't get that sense of over kitschiness. It was nice.

So as I mentioned, we were now in Basque region, an area that stretches through northern Spain and covers this little corner of southwestern France. Reading a bit about these guys, their history is fascinating. They have maintained their own language, Euskara...which looks totally greek to me with all its X'z and Y's and Zs...culture, and geographic position for 1000s of years and are in constant protest both peaceful (more of the French side) and hostile (more of the Spanish side) to break away and be recognized as their own country. Since their language seems to predate any influence of european dialect and none of their mythical stories include any accounts of 'the big move' (like most cultures experience sometime in their existence), evidence points to the Basque having been settled on this same ground, for a very very VERY long time. It is believed they are actually direct descendants of cro-magnon man! With as niche as their language seems to be, I was surprised to see it as an option in Google Translate! The tend to be the opposite of Parisians, big, thick, and strong, and apparently consider winning games of strength a form of honor...tug of war. cart lifting....we saw a sign for a festival with log chopping. Awesome. And every town, all adorned in the Basque colors of green and red, will have a pelota court (see here for a video about the sport!) and hopefully a bakery with their famous almond custard cake, Gateau de Basque.
Traditional wear
The Basque make some amazing cheeses
At the Musee du Beret
Unfortunately, we didn't get to see anyone in their traditional garb like these guys (thanks google search!), but we did see an abundant amount of berets. Little did we know, these funny little hats, originally designed in France for the local peasants and Basque sheep herders, were actually invented and produced in the tiny southern town of Nay, the beret capitol of the world! (mind you, a handful of other countries do the beret thing as well, so you can't quite call it exclusively French) It's said that the only remaining 2 factories of France are located near this town. Though we didn't have time to go through the entire museum, we had to make a stop for photo's sake. Man, the sun was bright that day.

Following our introduction to French beach-going and a bit of Basquism, we continued east into the Pyrenees to see what all the hype is about....secluded Basque towns, sheep, breathtaking views, shear mountain cliffs, lush's an area that is blanketed in mystery and awe, superstitions and success stories (this strip of mountains thoughout the ages has provided the perfect secret access across borders for vagabonds, thieves, the persecuted (such as the Jews in WWII), or anyone else trying to escape one country and start anew in another. It was time to take off the swim suits and put on the hiking gear.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Da Dunes

Dune du Pyla
Dune du Pyla

Bridgette and I took a road trip recently to see a few sites around the southwest of France. First on our list was the Dune du Pyla, or the "Great Dune of Pilat," to add the epithet and alternate spelling, which is about 60km from Bordeaux along the Atlantic coast. This beast is about 1.5 miles long and 350 feet tall, making it ideal for burning out quads grown in Illinois, and also ideal for concentrating winds for some sweet paragliding. Sorry, but we did no paragliding ourselves, just sat and observed the crazies around us doing so.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Foire Canine

A quick one here: Sunday was the foire canine, or dog fair. From what we've heard, it used to be held up here in the village, and after mass (it's always on a Sunday), a few select dogs would be blessed by the priest in the church a few doors down. Heh!

But these days the fair takes place just outside of town, so we drove a few minutes and checked out the scene. The dogs were predominantly hounds, which are fun dogs to see, but we were hoping for a bit more variety. There were two young St. Bernards that reminded me of that 90's kids flick, Beethoven.

Anyways, the dogs were caged up, trying to get what shade they could on a very hot day, and some were ready for the camera. In one pen, they were taking turns standing / laying in the drinking water.

Unfortunately, the density of the animals were sending my allergies into an uproar, so our time there was cut a bit short...

Okay, so this guy wasn't in the fair, but he seems to be one of the locals in the village.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunflowers, Pigeons, and Shakespeare

Lauzerte (we're somewhere in the middle of that)

I have described Lauzerte to people as "a medieval village on top of a hill surrounded by vineyards and fields of sunflowers." This is no exaggeration, and the past few weeks, especially with the hot weather, have seen the flowers turn dry and saggy. Luckily, I snagged some photos of the fields during one of our hikes around the countryside, just before they really turned ugly.



Besides taking their seeds for munching, their oil is harvested and very common in the grocery stores alongside the many other types of vegetable oils for sale. They're happy plants:


While on that same hike, we came across a funny looking building:


After some research, Bridgette later found that these were used as pigeon houses 200+ years ago, which explains the sparse, thin, tall, openings and a simple interior. The farmers would use the pigeons for food (yum?), but also for their droppings as fertilizer. Now, why raise the coop off the ground on mushroom-capped columns? To prevent your local prey from taking your delicious, feathery dinner! (The mushroom caps prevented clever climbers from outsmarting the farmers.)

Lauzerte features much live entertainment, as we've mentioned before. Recently, a travelling theater group, Antic Disposition, came through the square and put on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which we happily took a seat for and enjoyed on a beautifully calm August evening, right outside our door.


That play is "stupid," as one of our new British friends remarked. And I'd have to agree that it achieves a special level of silliness, and one that goes to explain where Brits get their unique sense of humor. This same person also commented (something along these lines) on her fellow Brits as looking completely ridiculous lining up for tickets before the play's start. "ah, you can tell the Brits are out once you start seeing a queue forming. Look at them looking like idiots, all standing there waiting while no one's even at the table to sell them anything..." (The French don't know the concept of lines. You should have seen the mad rush at church when it came time for communion. Everyone piled out of the pews at once like it was a free-for-all. I was astounded, and a bit scared of being trampled) Regardless, the play is completely entertaining, hilarious, and the production we saw was very well done for a travelling, outdoor group.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

There goes the baker with his tray like always....

Our home for the summer
Yes, this little ditty has been stuck in my head over and over as I look out over the town and think, yep, this is just about like the scene in Beauty and the Beast as Belle frolics through her most perfectly provincial town.

Life here is certainly from another world, and it's crazy to think that for only being here a short while, this place feels so much like home. You start to recognize a handful of people walking through town, and they actually stop to chat. We only get about 50% of what they are saying, but a lot of smiling and nodding and adding in a comment here and there seems to move the conversation along alright. Unless you're the British cook who runs the restaurant next door. Then the talking's easy ; ) Some of our favorite characters, though, include Pierre and his little dog Lu who dine at the restaurant next to us everyday for both lunch and dinner. He knows a little English, but mostly speaks slurred French to us as he explained he's a retired engineer who lives in the only other house on the square (besides ours). His little dog follows him around like a little mop, and it's all so precious. Then there's Marcel who apparently lives in the retirement home down the street, fumbling through the square, pants hiked, sometimes sporting a beret (perfect, right?), trying to chat with everyone . He came up to talk to us on our first day in town and spoke the most jumbled language we've ever heard. Adam and I could only stare in disbelief. We later learned from a neighboring American that unfortunately, he's been somewhat slow his whole life, and is really just bumming for a cigarette. The next time he came up to us, we could at least tell him we didn't smoke. Then there's the random guy who stands around in the square by himself, belly hanging out, headphones in, fanny pack in tow, smoking a pipe. Or the guy who always sets us shop near our door on market days to sell sausages and gingerbread. Or the round man who sells all his round cheeses. You could easily make cartoon characters out of all these people.

At the photo exhibit housed in the neighboring town's
Marie (Town Hall). 
On the other hand there's a whole community of English speakers here as well. With the help of our landlords and their American friend down the street, we've met a whole handful of Brits these past couple of weeks who have so welcomely opened their arms to us inviting us over to everything from drinks to dinner to a private opening for a photo exhibit. And with these meetings and chit chat comes the gossip. OH the gossip in town amongst this small group of retirees. She left him for this french guy, so they're no longer friends, or this couple can no longer be around this couple because such-and-such happened in the goes on and on. It's great. One night we had a couple people over to our place for drinks before a play on the square that evening (another post in the making), and with our doors opening out onto the square, all of a sudden we had a few more randoms show up, bring a bottle of wine, and hang out for a bit. We loved it.

Adam and I realize that here we are, meeting all these people who have retired, gutted old boulangeries or farmhouses or whatever, and settled themselves in the beautiful countryside to spend a chunk of their retired days....exploring, cooking, drinking, blogging, photographing, painting, learning a language ....oh wait, kinda like what we're doing now. It's a good exercise to see how others are doing it and to practice ourselves how we really enjoy spending our own time to know how to do it once that concept of a 'job' goes away in the future. The reminder that there really is a whole other life waiting for you beyond your career is inspiring.

Ok, a bit more of life around town.....

Vista of clay tiled roofs speckle the hill. The architecture and vegetation give this
region a  much more Spanish/Italian feel.

Images surrounding the 'Pilgrims Garden' - items to look for along the Compostela Route 

Every Thursday night the town hosts the 'Marche Gourmande' in either the upper square (outside our door) or the lower square (midway down the hill) where food/wine vendors come to sell their wares. A band is usually involved as well which makes the whole atmosphere feel like a french form of Octoberfest. This is a view out our window on one of these Thursdays. 
We have yet to try this stuff. We think it's a plate of snails in cream and truffles cheese sauce? It doesn't look healthy at all so it must be good.

Every Saturday, the 'normal' marche sets up on the square. These are some more sniper views from our window . Needless to say, most any day of the week, there's always something to spy on down below. 

Garlic Guy!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Les Nuits de Lauzerte

Les Nuits de Lauzerte

The Nights of Lauzerte is a two-night art festival that takes place right outside our door. In fact, when we popped out to see what was going on, we found ourselves behind the festival tape.

Les Nuits de Lauzerte

The fest takes place throughout the streets of the village surrounding the main square (Place des Cornières) and inside the various galleries and participating establishments. The square was full of the typical food and drink vendors, box office, and a crowd of wanderers, slowly trickling through the entrance. Being resident locals (ha!) we were gifted with passes for the two nights from the mairie, which was certainly kind of them, so we sauntered with the crowds into the candle-lined streets.

Les Nuits de Lauzerte
Les Nuits de Lauzerte

Projectors were arranged throughout the village, illuminating entire building facades with vibrant colors, textures, and sometimes scenes that transformed the feel of the town into something otherworldly.

Les Nuits de Lauzerte
Les Nuits de Lauzerte
Les Nuits de Lauzerte

The galleries displayed paintings, installations, photographs, and scultptures.

Les Nuits de Lauzerte
Les Nuits de Lauzerte

And dancers had a few stages for live performances.

Les Nuits de Lauzerte
Les Nuits de Lauzerte

Despite a little bit of rain on Saturday night, we managed to see most of the exhibits and shows, and we certainly had a wonderful time seeing the town changed into something quite different and exciting!

Les Nuits de Lauzerte
Les Nuits de Lauzerte