Edited and done May 19
Dear Friends and Families,
it will take us nine days, it seems like leaving Rioja means we are
heading home to Bavaria, but first we need to pass leisurely out of
Spain and through southern parts of France. On Monday, May 6th,
we left Briones before breakfast, since we had a full day of driving
ahead. An hour or so on the road and it was time for coffee and we
pulled off the road at a place called Puenta la Reina and discovered a
charming little village with a nice bakery for rolls and
coffee. It was a good choice to leave Briones early.
From there, it was freeways past Pamplona and intermittent
highways beyond. The "intermittent" refers to the mix of
completed four-lane freeways and old two-lane connectors in
uncompleted sections. For fun driving we preferred the two-lanes, but
we need to make progress so the freeways were good too.
Eventually we stopped for lunch at Jaca, Spain, and worked in a quick
visit to the cathedral. Nice church, but I do think I am
saturating on such monuments. Not good when heading to Lourdes.
From Jaca, we took down the top and headed straight north into the
Pyrenees. Even with opting for a tunnel versus the highest part
of the mountain pass, the drive was spectacular. On the French
side, we decided to avoid freeways and take side roads over to
Lourdes. I'm not sure that was a wise decision, since some of the
roads were barely wider than our little car and, nonetheless, we needed
to share the path with oncoming trucks and pilgrims. The roads were rough,
further beating up our 12-year-old Boxster. Porsche builds good
cars, but we may be pushing our luck.
Eventually we did find the religious goal of Lourdes, parked the car and went to find out where the Helgon Hotel*
was, exactly. It turned out to be in the middle of dozens of
other hotels, very near the Lourdes church and grotto and it had no
associated parking. The clerk simply said "park on the street"
and, with no obvious options, that's what we did. We put faith in
the holiness of the place to keep our little jewel safe, unlike in
Briones whose flour-bomb incident was fresh in our minds.
* I'm not sure if "Helgon" is some sort of word play on "hell gone" but, in Lourdes, it should be.
After moving the car to a nearby parking place, we lugged our stuff to
the top floor of the Helgon and settled in. The room turned out to
be clean and relatively large, maybe because it was equipped for three
pilgrims, not just two weary travelers. We rested a little and
headed out into the holy city, but that's the next part of this story.
|Helgon room and terrace view
little history. Both Marianne and I were raised as
Catholics, in Catholic schools through high school, and we had of
course heard of Bernadette of Lourdes. The story goes that
Bernadette, a poor miller's daughter, saw the Virgin Mary in a series
of 1858 apparitions in a grotto at the base of the French
Pyrenees. Her apparitions and subsequent holy life caused her to
become an inspiration during and after her life. She was
canonized as a Catholic saint in 1933 and the Sanctuary of Lourdes became one of the major pilgrimage sites for the Catholic religion.
During our visit, we wandered among the pilgrims. On the first day, there were hundreds or thousands of members of the Order of Malta,
a medieval group that started as European Crusaders and has continued
in role of helping the sick and poor. Their presence and the
presence of their invalid charges, lent a formal air to the goings and
comings around the grotto and the churches. After they left,
there were still plenty of church faithful to attend the continuous
series of services, ending with the candle-lit "Marian Procession" in
The grotto site itself is crowned with a tall and narrow, multi-level
church that inspired me to get up early enough to take some pictures in
the morning light. I ended up wandering around to see the place
in the day and even a bit at night.
|The evening Marian
Processions were popular. The Order of Malta uniforms gave a
different feel on the first day from the "regular" folks the second day.
There was also an atmosphere surrounding the Sanctuary that I could
only classify as "circus-like". The narrow streets around the
religious grounds were filled with hotels, restaurants, and trinket
shops - dozens of trinket shops. Even on church grounds and
inside the church itself there were vending machines for papal medallions and
kiosks for selling the candles that decorate the site and the
Even inside the grounds and the church.
We left Lourdes with mixed feelings overall. Was this a
commercial circus or simply a place for the Catholic faithful to gather
and be inspired. Maybe it was not our religious taste, but who
are we to judge? An interesting place, in any event.
Lourdes, we left the Pyrenees behind and drove to ancient hill towns above Toulouse, to the
"Galliac" area. In the village of Castenau de
Montmiral we booked the Hotel des Consuls, a quiet 18-room, family-run hotel with a very friendly and helpful staff. We also ate at the two
restaurants in town, both unfortunately affected with more French
snippiness than we had experienced in years.
Since we hit in the middle of May holidays, there was little to do but
wander the quiet streets and check out the ancient buildings, some
better repaired than others, and enjoy the vistas a hill town provides.
Our first out-of-town excursion was up the road, past herds of bikers, to Puycelci, a bit
larger hill town that seemed more lived-in and friendly. That's
probably the impression we got when we had a good lunch at the Bistro Tarnais au Cabonon. We walked off our meal looking at buildings, including some that seem like good projects for someone, just not for us.
Hotel des Consuls. Our first room and its view.
Streets and views around town.
The next day we went to Albi, a good-sized town with the amazing Saint
Cecile cathedral, as tall and massive a church as we have ever seen in
Europe. The first stone was laid in 1282 and building continued
for almost two-hundred years. The outer brick walls are ten feet
thick at the base and soar 120 feet above, creating the impression of a
massive defensive fortress. Inside, ornate details fill the space
with paintings, statues, and a carved stone dividing wall, a rood
screen for church techies, everywhere. While I took
lots of pictures, thanks to my little camera's great low-light
capability, reading more about the church later made me realize we
noticed only part of the interior. We may need to return.
Puycelsi (French) or Puycelci (English)
Town houses, done and yet-to-be-done.
We saw teenagers examining this phone booth as if they had never seen
one before. Could be. (When was the last time YOU saw one?)
Saint Corneille, 14th-18th Century village church, complete with Joan
of Arc, a blending of church and state not usual in current
We tried to gather some fixings for dinner at the downtown market, but
even food shops close between noon and two pm, a practice that seems
universal in rural France. After the lunch break, we visited the museum
featuring the work of Albi-native Toulouse Lautrec. Despite
myself, I enjoyed the collection, despite crowds. In our other
walking around, we concluded that Albi is about as well
preserved/reconstructed old French town as we have seen. Next
visit, we will need more time.
we just hung around the Castelnau hotel, enjoying patio picnics better than snippy restaurants. We stayed four days, our
longest hotel stay of the trip, and enjoyed just resting, not compelled
to do more than enjoy the French ambiance and wine.
breakfast, we met Marianne and Mike, a similar-vintage French-Dutch
couple who shared fun stories of their overseas life. In the end,
we exchanged promises to stay in touch and they invited us to visit
their Rome-area home. We'll see, maybe another trip.
Sunday, we had a long drive, halfway home, to our favorite little
hotel in Beaune. This was a Sunday at the end of a vacation week
in France and traffic was a bit heavy. When Gertrude warned us of
slow highway traffic ahead, we detoured onto a small road that followed
a canal leading into Beaune. It was a very pleasant change from
the bigger toll roads.
Madame Chartres at La Villa Flourie welcomed us
like family and we immediately forgot our eight-hours driving in our
somewhat-cramped little car. A walk into town helped get out the
kinks, as did an early dinner with lots of local Burgundy wine.
We reviewed the entire trip over the meal and had to admit that
all the little villages, hotels, restaurants, churches, and scenic
roads had been wonderful, even if our memories of everything were a bit
Now we just had to make it to Germany and home. Next diary.
John and Marianne