I wasn’t really expecting much more from Lourdes than prayers and pilgrims; simply because that’s most of what I’d heard about it. And, yes. There are a lot prayers and a lot of pilgrims there. Countless shops sell even more countless variations of the Virgin Mary. Virgin Mary holy water bottles in a plethora of size choices. Virgin Mary keyrings. Virgin Mary coin purses. Statuettes. Bracelets and beads (many of the Rosary variety, of course). Medals and mugs and everything in between.
But there’s an awful lot more to Lourdes and the surrounding area than what most people hear, and I thought I’d let you in on some of that…
I stayed in Lourdes’ oldest hotel - the Grande Hotel Moderne, and believe me when I say it's anything but modern. I mean that in the best possible way. This is the Frenchest hotel I’ve ever been in, very Louis XVI, elegant and opulent with rich mahogany everywhere, chandeliers and marble stairs, that sort of thing. The hotel's restaurant is great (but very busy, so book in advance) and you couldn't be more central.
At the cathedral and the grotto. Or if you’re not the praying kind, just visit them to appreciate the work that has gone into them, the frescos and the gilding, the architecture, and of course the faith that keeps this one of the most visited sites in all of France.
You don't have to be a pilgrim to appreciate it. During my visit I watched a choir of nuns sing Ave Maria, down where people (many of them quite ill) waited to be blessed in the Lourdes baths. It was beautiful and moving, and a memory of Lourdes that will really stay with me.
The city, from the observation point on Pic du Jer. You can walk there from the city centre n about 20 minutes, a pleasant walk if the weather is fine (bus is €2.40 if it’s not). The funicular that takes you up Pic du Jer is 100 years old and very lovely, and it costs €12 return to ride up and down the mountain. The view from the top is really something, and there’s a little restaurant up there where you can grab a drink (I’d probably get lunch back down in the city).
The stars, at Pic du Midi. Pic du Midi is in a town called La Mongie about an hour from Lourdes, with a daily bus service available to get you there and back if you haven’t rented a car. You can take a cable car to the top of the mountain, where you’ll find an incredible working observatory at 2,877 metres. You can visit the observatory museum and planetarium, enjoy the stunning views from Pic du Midi’s unparalleled vantage point, and even have a bite to eat in the observatory’s excellent restaurant. Access to the observatory for a day visit (including the cable car) is €40 for adults which is a little pricey but I think this is one of the best things to do in Lourdes and the Pyrenees, and well worth it.
Marmots. No, really. The Pyrenees Animal Park has Marmots, and you can feed them vegetables and cuddle them, and they are very cute. It also has bears and wolves, however cuddling them is not advised. What you can do, if you want to get a little closer to them, is spend a night in a special glass-walled cabin built into their enclosure. From here you can watch what they get up to at night from the considerable comfort of your giant, plush bed. If you don’t want to spend an entire night there, just make sure to give yourself a few hours here to wander around the beautiful park and see the huge collection of animals.
At 'Au Bon Acceuil'. It’s in Bartres, about a €15-20 taxi ride away from Lourdes, but well worth the spin. Get a taxi even if you have a rental car (you’ll definitely want to sample this place’s wine menu). It’s an impressive restaurant whose meals would not look out of place in a Michelin star restaurant, but whose prices are more reflective of a middle-of-the-road Italian place. Their three course menu for €20 is easily the best money I’ve ever spent on food, and the service was perfect, from the wine suggestions right through to the bartender ordering our taxi for us when we were ready to leave. Don't miss this place.
To beautiful Lake Gaube in the Pyrenees. It’s about an hour by car from Lourdes, and you can take a cable car halfway (or the whole way) there if you like. The first cable car will bring you as far as Pont d’Espagne bridge and waterfalls. Take a gander at these, and then make your way up to the lake – hiking it takes about an hour. It’s truly stunning, a calm pool of beautiful bright turquoise-blue, the kind you only see with glacial lakes like this one. The perfect spot for a picnic.