This weekend was another wonderful French May holiday. I believe Monday’s holiday is for Pentecost, so much for Laïcité. If you are unfamiliar with that term, it is basically like separation of church and state in the United States. As it has been explained to me, it is slightly different in that in the US, we have the freedom to practice any religion we choose where in France, they have the freedom from other people’s religion. Just like there are constant political situations that test the separation of church and state in the US (hello, I am from Alabama where Roy Moore was removed twice from office for refusing to separate church and state), they also exist in France. Most recently, it has been around where Muslim girls should wear their head scarfs. They are not allowed to wear them in public schools but the public schools still give a public holiday to a basically Catholic holiday. Anyway, you can see the religion laws are complicated everywhere.
Speaking of religion, we decided to take this extra holiday to do a little exploring in the Pyrenees since we hadn’t made it there yet. It turns out Lourdes (yes the city of Catholic pilgrimage and the name of Madonna Ciccone’s daughter) is right in the foot hills of these beautiful green mountains and only a 2 hour train ride from Bordeaux. Oh wait....that is if the trains were running. We had a ticket from Bordeaux to Pau (right outside of Lourdes where we planned to pick up a rental car) but the SNCF (kind of like Amtrak) has been on strike since April 1. Basically they strike for 2 days and run mostly full schedules for 3 days and then repeat the cycle. The SNCF runs about 1 out of 7 trains on strike days. We were unlucky to have booked one of the 6 trains they were not running that day. In fact they canceled all trains to Lourdes and Pau on May 19, so we rented a car to drive from Bordeaux. It was only about a 2 hour drive so not so bad, other than the fact that we were out the money for the Pau rental car since we had selected a non-refundable option.
We still wanted to see Pau so we planned to stop off there for lunch but every road we tried to take into the city was blocked. It turned out the Grand Prix of Pau was going on that weekend so we had to just eat at a McDonalds in the outskirts of Pau. Before you judge, I will have you know that McDondalds are quite fancy in France. You order at a computer like terminal your self and then receive a number. The nice folks working behind the counter then bring it to you at your table. They even have falafel and potato wedges (the curry sauce you can get to dip them in is pretty darn tasty) on the menu, so it’s actually quite good.
When we finally arrived in Lourdes that night, we were ready to stretch our legs and explore the city. I knew the legend of Our Lady of Lourdes as a good Catholic and Madonna fan, so I knew Mary had been seen somewhere near the city. We headed about 100 yards from our AirBNB and saw the masses of people. We jumped in line behind the masses and followed the crowd down a road lined with gift shops containing rosaries and water bottles so you could collect holy water from the very spot where Mary was seen 150 plus years ago. The funny thing was the crowd wasn’t just ordinary people. About 33% of the folks were in military uniforms ranging from navy to army and from every country you can imagine. Turns out we were there for the 60th International Military Pilgrimage in Lourdes (http://www.warriorstolourdes.com/en/index.html). Military bands were even there playing music, it was pretty amazing.
The second day involved a one hour trip up the mountains to Garvarnie, a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a national park surrounding the area due to the unique land features left by the glaciers over a million years ago. There are these incredible bowl like structures (http://summer.gavarnie.com) that’s were left by the receding glaciers. In order to get there, you have to hike about 1hour along a beautiful creek gorge. The elevation change is noticeable but not too bad. The view is absolutely worth it. We were there in May so there was still plenty of snow near the top of the bowl but the water was beginning to melt. It was cascading down the sharp rocky peaks down to a snowy bowl at the bottom. The literal mouth of the creek was underneath that snowy bowl so we joked to our son that he finally got to see the Mouth of the River (an Imagine Dragons song).
The whole experience was so different that my usual mountain travels. My sister and parents live in Denver and we visit them at least twice per year. When my plane lands in Denver, I can feel the moisture being sucked out of my skin and disappearing into the air. My nose gets a little bloody and I fight a semi-headache for 3 or 4 days. I always attributed that to the altitude but perhaps it is actually the arid climate. Today we were at roughly the same altitude as Denver but in start contrast to the foothills of the Rockies, the land was green and full of beautifully blooming flowers. It was incredible because the flowers were blooming right up to the melting snow line. The snow was trying to desperately hold tight to it’s wintry grasp, but the spring flowers were unafraid to reach right out to the edge of winter’s retreat. It was beyond breathtaking. We were only able to hike one of the many trails. I now have yet another place in France I must visit again some day