Basilica of the Immaculate Conception © Dennis Jarvis
Not strictly Basque country, but part of the nearby Bigorre region, the town of Lourdes is situated in the Hautes-Pyrénées and has been one of the great Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites since the Virgin Mary allegedly revealed herself to a shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858. More than five million pilgrims visit the town each year, particularly in August, from the Catholic nobility to the poverty-stricken sick and ailing.
Pilgrims are sometimes offended by the commercialisation of the shrine (there is a very good trade in candles and Lourdes water) but miracle cures have been documented by the church so it can be assumed this exploitation does not affect the healing properties of the spring in which the afflicted bathe in a grotto. The Virgin is said to have appeared 18 times at the Grotto of Massabielle and mass takes place here every day.
Lourdes itself is ancient and includes several sights of interest for holiday visitors. The Fortified Castle was successively a military fortress, a state prison and, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the residence of the counts of Bigorre. There are wonderful panoramic views of Lourdes town and the sanctuary from high on the fortifications. Since 1921 the castle has housed the Musée Pyrénéen, which exhibits the art, traditions and history of the Pyrénées.
There are some interesting churches to see while on holiday in this religious town. The Upper Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was built in 1854; the inside is as impressive as the magnificent exterior. The oval Basilica of Pius X is one of the world's largest churches, its underground chamber can hold as many as 20,000 people. Mass is held in six languages, including English, every Wednesday and Sunday at 3:30pm from April to October. The Musée Ste-Bernadette is nearby, as is the house where Bernadette was born which, along with the home of her parents, has become a shrine.