Triplogue - Spain and French Pyrenees
With special Lourdes Pilgrimage Dossier!!!

Click on image to see full-sized version

Possibly the friendliest groundstaff of any airline, Delta -- "biggest hair in the air"


Newton, Manny and David, our men in Barcelona


The relaxed weekend at the beach that we had envisioned as our reward for pedaling so hard through Florida ("the Redneck State’) was not meant to be. All of the hotels in and around Jacksonville Beach were booked by prom-goers, softball clubs and fraternity parties, so we were sent packing after our brief one night stay at the beach. We did make it down to Saint Augustine in friend Randy’s veryfast car. I was curious to see our intended destination and what is billed as "America’s oldest city." Unfortunately, what remains of the historic old town has been all but obscured by a barrage of tourist hype. The "oldest schoolhouse" houses a gift shop. The "oldest courthouse" is now a Ripley’s Believe-it-or-not Museum. Talent-free musicians pollute the streets, and busloads of tourists search for bargain souvenirs.

We ended up spending that night in downtown Jacksonville, where I watched to sun set over the St. Somethingorother River. Since it was Saturday night, I felt obliged to check out the queer scene, and took a cab to a club called "3D." It was a cavernous and empty place, but soon I was talking to a guy called Patrick, a white schoolteacher who taught African-American history to black students. I thought he might be able to enlighten me as to the thought processes of rednecks. "What makes them so mean?" I asked, but the best response Patrick could come up with was "That’s just the way they are." More edifying was my conversation with a boy who insisted I call him Thumper, even though everyone else called him Richard. He was 21 and had an eight-year-old daughter living somewhere with her mother. It seems Thumper married at age 12 a woman seven years his senior after making her pregnant. They split up when his wife caught him in flagrante delicto with her brother –a Southern story if there ever was one.

Savannah was an interesting place, with an amazingly elegant and timeless town center. Our first evening there we went to a highly segregated queer bar, where we treated to a rather pathetic little drag show, after which I continued my investigations into redneck culture. I met a couple at the bar who introduced me to a kind of whiskey called "blend." Both of them managed restaurants in town and had grown up in redneck families. They said that rednecks made excellent lovers, which would surprise me, and were actually rather sweet, given the right circumstances. I think they wanted me to discover this for myself, but I graciously turned down their offer. When I started to talk to Garrick, a black boy who had just moved there from Colombia (in one of the Carolinas, I think) to manage a BP station. He said he thought that the people of Savannah were mean, but didn’t elaborate. I think it made him nervous talking to a white boy in front of his friends.

The next day we walked around the many squares that characterize Savannah, marveling at the old live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and the carefully restored homes. We stumbled upon Clint Eastwood and his production crew, on their first day’s on-location shoot of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", based on the book that inspired our visit. Clint looked pretty haggard, wrinkled and skinny and I wondered how anyone could still consider him a sex symbol.

The trip on to Atlanta went by quickly with Fred driving our $10-a-day Taurus. I entertained myself with the GPS system, which helped us find Pat’s house. Pat –formerly known as "Aunt Pat"—is an old friend of my family’s, a connection which Fred and I exploited in order to get a dose of homier living. Her house provided a great staging ground for our departure for Europe, and her hospitality was unsurpassed. She even provided us entree into Atlanta’s bewildering homo scene by way of her dentist friend, Dr. Dick. At Blake’s bar, where we went no fewer than three times, we felt underdressed in jeans. Everyone had that over-groomed, just-out-of-the-shower look and I suspected that most of them vote Republican.

For my birthday Fred got me a haircut at a fabulously chi-chi salon, where the ultra-glam receptionist gave me a tour before sheparding me to my chair. I also got new biking gloves and a glittery blue saddle, purchased from a dyed-and-tatooed poser called Booger. We also gorged ourselves in upscale eateries like Annie’s Thai Kitchen, Indigo, and Zocalo, where the host’s welcome was especially warm. An unexpected surprise came when I was able to cash in our tickets to Europe and use a free companion coupon, saving us enough bucks for two extra weeks on the road…

At the airport we were pleasantly surprised by the service of Delta’s counter staff. The Japanese woman (Komiko?) who weighed our bags (more than 60 pounds each of gear, not counting the bikes or our handlebar bags) was very funny, and waived the fee for the bike boxes. A friendly homo –whose name unfortunately escapes us now— helped us box the bikes and scored us some seats on the full flight. Once in the air, I could only think of getting out of the claustrophobic plane and back into breathable air. Our fellow passengers seemed to consist entirely of retired American package tourists and loud and smelly Spaniards. I didn’t manage to sleep at all, and felt like hell when we finally made it to Barcelona.

We thought we’d ride into town from the airport, but by the time we had assembled our bikes, it was raining pretty hard. Plus we learned that the safest way into town was via the freeway, and that there was a train; so much for integrity… As we pushed our bikes up the escalators and out of the train station in central Barcelona, people waved at us and gave us thumbs-up signs. The traffic on the streets to our hotel was horrendous, but I never felt threatened, and the hotel staff went out of their way to accommodate our bikes. After a shower and a delicious lunch (though Fred mistakenly ordered tripe and pouted through that part of the meal), we were liking Europe. It definitely felt different from the vast spaces of the US, especially in the cramped alleyways of the Barri Gotic, where we were staying. We wandered around for a while and took a coma-like nap before checking out the rather miserable Monday evening homo scene. The first place we deemed worthy of a stop was called "La Concha", its walls covered with photos of Barcelonian singer/actress Sara Montiel. In another bar that doubled as a queer youth center, we met Gino from Uruguay (whose card vaguely states "show businéss") and young Malik from Calais, in France, who moved to Barcelona to work in a bagel shop. We poked our noses into a few other places, but they were absolutely void of life, so we opted for dinner in a lively tapas bar before hitting the hay.

The next morning at breakfast we met a trio of American homos from Tampa, and then ran into them later on the roof of Gaudi-designed La Pedrera, where they invited us to have dinner with them later. Fred and I went on to visit Gaudi’s yet-unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia temple. Climbing the stairs we ran into a couple of cuties from Emory college in Atlanta who recognized us from the plane (I hadn’t noticed anyone under forty) who deemed our project officially crazy. Over lunch in another tapas bar we talked to an Italian named Lorenzo, who works for a network marketing company and tried pushing his product on us.

Manuel, David and Newton made excellent dinner companions. Manny is a Cuban-born pediatrician, and Newton is his cute and subtly outrageous student boyfriend. They had tons of energy and stories, while their vegetarian bachelor friend David was more phlegmatic. We took them to La Concha to show them the Sara Montiel shrine, and then called it a night, since they had a plane to catch the next morning and we were planning to hop on a train.

14 May, 1997, Lleida to Fontllonga, 64K

After spending nearly 10 days off our bikes I was ready to get moving even though the time spent in Atlanta and Barcelona was far from restful. The night before our departure from Barcelona was no exception. Andrew’s sore throat had him tossing and turning and the excitement of finally getting underway kept me awake as well. (In Andy’s case it might not be his sore throat that kept him from sleeping as he said. My personal theory is that he is having troubles resting because of the guilt of knowing that he is in violation of the two underwear rule. Since our trip to New York he has had as many as four pair after "mistakenly" taking two extra pair from there. He is only one pair over limit after having given me a pair when one of my two pair failed – Calvin Kleins are not meeting the BikeBrats test)

We had the choice of taking a train at either eight or twelve. The choice was obvious and we rode to the station after a leisurely breakfast. ("Why are the BikeBrats taking a train?," you might ask. Have we become the TrainBrats? No, we have not changed our mode of transportation, only our mindset. The US portion of our trip was intended to be pure. We were to ride every mile crossing the states using only pedal power. After the U.S. we always intended to use alternative forms of transportation when necessary or desirable. Riding across the Atlantic did not seem very practical, so we flew. Riding in and out of big urban areas exposed us to the most dangerous and unrewarding experiences so we decided to start our voyage in Europe in the countryside of Spain.) The ride to the station was shockingly painless. The Barcelonans were as easy going behind the wheel as they were in person. There were no mishaps, confrontations, disasters or, for that matter, any occurrences worth noting on the way to the station which made me question our reasoning for taking a train in the first place. The drivers gave us lots of room, were very courteous and aware of our presence. At the station we got our tickets and picked up some cash and waited at the platform for our first "cheating" of the trip. As I walked through the terminal it was hard not to notice the Mormon Elders arriving fresh from the US for their mission in Spain. They all had shiny new suits, name tags, fresh haircuts and that "I just can’t wait to have three wives" look.

At the platform we were waiting at the wrong end and had to dash madly to the other end of the train in order to board our bikes. Getting the 90+ pound devils onto a train is a bit of work in of itself but it was further complicated by a goofy Spanish passenger. The conductor had instructed us to go to the last car and put our bikes on there. We were about the only folks around on that part of the train. In the doorway of the last car there were eight folding seats. Our plan was to put our bikes in this area and hang out with them on two of the seats. The only "fly in the ointment" was the passenger who had his heart set on sitting in this area of all places on this empty train. It made it very hard to find a place for ourselves and our bikes. Finally the conductor came through and told us where to put the bikes with or without the cooperation of the fool who scowled as we followed the conductor’s instructions. He exited at the first stop, freeing us to have our way with our bikes. This turned out to be the only difficult Spanish person we’d met so far.

Upon arrival in Lleida we had a quick snack and hopped on our bikes and pedaled into the countryside and were on our way to the Pyrenees. Ancient farm ruins dotted the roadside as we road through the arid foothills. The pavement itself was rough but not very trafficked and the foliage and scenery were amazing. Wildflowers –including millions of red poppies-- carpeted the shoulders. We climbed gradually, passing through picturesque villages surrounding classic European central squares housing cafés and churches. Our route began to follow the Noguera River up into the foothills, where a system of hydroelectric dams have formed a chain of lakes along our route. The green waters of the Noguera dumped into the lakes rendering an unforgetable emerald color. The day’s long steep climbs rewarded us with panoramic views of the lakes and mountains that were truly spectacular.

After 60k, a few steep climbs, little sleep and a long train ride we were ready to stop. Miraculously we came upon a hotel in the middle of nowhere that had rooms looking down upon the verdant hillside and green pool below. We both felt wimpy for not having ridden further but were happy to stop at such a beautiful spot. The restaurant of the hotel provided some entertainment. So unaccustomed to entertaining guests they hadn’t prepared a menu. Compounding the confusion was our waitress’ horrible English which she insisted on practicing on us. We couldn’t get her to explain anything in Spanish so it took us nearly thirty minutes just to order. In the end it was worth it; we had our first of many copiously huge Spanish countryside meals and went to bed full of the sights, smells and tastes of Spain.

Click on image to see full-sized version

Room with a view

Click on image to see full-sized version

Boozing it up, a Catalan tradition

15 May, Fontllonga to Rialp, 72km

Even with the sun shining through the window and eight hours of deepest sleep under my belt, I had difficulties getting out of bed this morning. Hoping my sore throat and general lack of energy wouldn’t impede my riding, I dragged my ass out of bed and went directly in search of coffee. It was surprising to find the restaurant/bar so active, considering that we were the only guests in our unfinished, isolated hotel. We quickly noted that all of the other patrons were male (where do the Spaniards hide their womanfolk?) and that we were the only ones not drinking beer.

Just as we were about to hit the road, we met a fellow cycle tourist heading in the opposite direction. He was a Dutch guy with an impossible-to-pronounce name, on his way from Toulouse to Lisbon. We went through the usual mutual butt-sniff and I was pleased by his admiration of our equipment.

A few miles down the pike the road penetrated the Portell dels Terredets, where huge granite cliffs rise several hundred meters straight up from the riverbed. When we emerged we were greeted with an entirely different view: before us lay a vast green valley, and for the first time, the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees were visible in the distance. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the valley’s capital, a jarringly bustling town called Tremp, where we stopped for coffee and oranges and put on rain gear. Alas, our sunny day had disintegrated once again into rain.

Lunch was a few kilometers further uphill, in another busy town called la Pobla de Segur. We ate in what may have been the town’s only proper restaurant open for lunch, and were bewildered by all the bottles set out on the other tables. Their presence soon became apparent, however, when a huge group of highway workers came in. On one side of us was a table of four consisting of two young yuppie-esque engineers who obviously came from the city and who didn’t seem too pleased by their posting in the mountains, along with two grubbier dudes who were presumably their foremen. On our other side was a table of ten workers who got progressively more drunk throughout the many-coursed meal. My attention was diverted from this entertaining spectacle, though, by another group across the dining room who were passing around a sort of glass wineskin. I asked them what it was and the answer was something like "porra." Among these men was the establishment’s owneer, who explained to me that it was "tipicamente catalan" and enabled its user to get drunker quicker since the wine goes straight from the vessel to the gullet. After demonstrating the use of this device, he insisted that I try, and when I managed to get a drink with only a few dribblings on my chin, what sounded like the entire clientele of the restaurant burst into admirative applause. A woman who worked there began laughing more loudly than I’ve ever heard anyone laugh; it sounded like the braying of the donkey. The owner told me that she too was "tipcamente catalana." When I said she sounded more like a burro than a mujer, he started laughing too. We could still hear her as we pedalled our way out of town.

Even though the weather still sucked, the scenery continued to be awesome. We passed through a series of deeply-cut gorges, the most impressive being the "Desfiladero de Collegats" and the river turned from tranquil green to gushing white. Throughout most of this section of the journey we had the old road along the river to ourselves, since the auto traffic was diverted through newly cut tunnels, built by none other than our luncheon neighbors. We recognized some of them –including the drunk guy with a huge bandage over an eye—and they waved at us as we passed by in the rain.

In Sort we made another coffee/hot chocolate stop. Next to us workers were putting the final touches on what will soon be an Internet café (had it been completed, we would have popped in and bookmarked our site on every machine, as we have in other places). We were planning to ride as high as we could in order to make tomorrow’s ride easier, but only made it four kilometers to the next village, where a posh-looking place tempted us to get out of the rain. I made the mistake of opting for full pension, since it trapped us into dining with two huge groups passing through the valley in buses. After a glorious sauna, swim and siesta, we hit the dining room –a cavernous, utilitarian sort of place filled with the screams of hundreds of hyper schoolchildren getting a dose of the great outdoors and the sputtering of hundreds more elderly peasant folk on their way to Lourdes. The whole experience felt like an updated chapter from "Canterbury Tales." Both groups were weary pilgrims who had stopped (presumably with reservations) at a roadside inn, where the innkeepers worked desperately to maintain a thin veil of respectability over their operation. The food could only be described as "institutional", with the chef’s resume almost certainly including some prison experience, yet the tuxedoed maitre d’ was positively obsequious, seemingly oblivious to the bedlam all around him. It was if he fancied himself overseeing a first-class resort at Gstaad or something.

Afterwards, while my stomach tried to digest the evil lump that had been dinner, I channel-surfed, and was delighted to stumble upon the "X Files", though the Spanish woman who dubs Skully makes her sound like a gasping bimbo. It made me think of my friend Georges in Paris who does the voice for Mulder, and how I’d be in my former homeland in just a couple of days.

16 May, Rialp to Vielha, 77km

Our day began at three in the morning as the children staying at our summer camp/hotel ran down the hallways thumping on doors and shouting. We somehow managed to get some sleep after that, but we were both still suffering from our colds and the night was again not very restful. The children had cleared out before we went to breakfast but their stay was in evidence. All of the doors to their rooms were open and the maids were trying to undo some of their damage. In their rooms furniture was scattered, trash was strewn upon the floors and drapes were pulled down from their curtain rods.

Breakfast was even more uninspired than dinner the night before. Cellophane wrapped pastries, canned fruit, toast and yogurt were all they had to offer. We discovered that teens were not the only loud Spaniards. The aging Spanish tourists who had been bussed in were shouting at one another at the tables adjacent to ours so loudly we could hardly hold a conversation. When we suggested to our waitress that things should be calmer with the children gone she laughed rolled her eyes and gestured towards the "children that still remain" meaning the old folks in the dining area.

Starting the day riding was difficult knowing what was in store for us. We knew that after lunch the gradual uphill would turn sharply more steep and that we’d spend over 20 kilometers climbing the last 1200 meters to the summit. Regardless of the work that lay ahead of us and the heavy weather we started off and were rewarded with more dramatic scenery in the gorges of the Noguera. The treacherously deep and unstable canyon wreaked havoc on the roads in some places, so the roads were replaced by tunnels. Luckily the old roads still ran along the river and were reserved for use by pedestrians, cyclists and horse carts and they treated us to spectacular views and uncrowded passage. So distracting, the scenery caused Andrew to miss seeing a Volkswagen-sized boulder on the road and he hit it squarely, bending his front rim. It was damaged enough to cause an annoying noise but not enough to end our trip.

The cool damp day consumed my energy and we had to stop frequently for hot beverages to maintain energy. After one of those stops we saw the hundred teenagers from our hotel suiting up on the riverbank for a whitewater rafting trip. I was jealous of them, recalling that I had never had a field trip from school so interesting. The air went from being damp to outright precipitating on us off and on as we ascended.

The light rain subsided as we began the steep part of our ascent and we knocked off the first two kilometers of the climb before stopping for lunch. Lunch was another huge midday meal, this time exquisitely presented. The main course of lamb chops was served on a sizzling slab of slate resting on fresh pine branches. With our tummies full of sheep we hit the trail, we had 1000 meters more to climb before our day would end. Speaking of sheep, we came across one that had been hit by a car just as a motorist stopped to take it from the road. Couldn’t help thinking that it would make great chops.

The road was impressive, very well graded with a fine surface passing through lovely terrain. Every direction we looked we were distracted by something. Trees, the gorge, snow capped mountains and falls all kept us from thinking about the 3000 foot ascent we were subjecting our legs to. The clouds began to thicken as a restaurant/bar and shrine we had been told of came into view. As we approached it the rain fell lightly on us. I was looking forward to getting something warm in my stomach and out of the rain for a few moments when we discovered that the establishment was closed for holidays. Just as we were about to get back on our bikes Paul and Breda appeared from nowhere. Apparently they had been riding the same route as we had this day. They are an Irish couple spending their holidays riding the Pyrenees for three weeks. Breda’s saddle looked a little sad so I gave here my old one that I had kept after installing a new softer one the day before. We shared a snack and some conversation until we noticed that big black and mean clouds were descending upon us. We had 300 meters more to climb and decided to do them before it rained. We spent the next minutes watching the intrepid couples’ behinds as they cranked up the hill ahead of us. Just as we made the pass the sky began to open up and dump cold rain on us. There was no shelter to be had as the restaurant there was closed like the last one. We put on our rain gear and rolled down the other side of the mountain. Even with the wet weather it was glorious if not bone chilling. After whipping down the road for 30 minutes we had eaten up 23K of road past countless little ski villages and made it to Vielha which was the final destination of the day for Paul and Breda. After a little convincing Andy agreed to call it a day there too.

We dined with Paul and Breda, who told us about the sorry state of marriage in Ireland. Divorce was just legalized a few months ago and can only be granted after five years of separation. To keep things from getting complicated none of the young marry. The church and religion were the "whipping boys" of our dinner and provided us with endless laughs. After our meal we went in search of a whisky, stumbling into a hooker bar accidentally. The regulars were wearing nothing but underwear, garter belts and bustiers. A little too racy for us, so we found a place on the central square and had a cocktail outside, the air having become surprisingly balmy.

Click on image to see full-sized version

Our departing guests receive a new seat! Congratulations, Breda.

Click on image to see full-sized version

Andrew says "good-bye" to spanish wildlife.

17 May, Vielha, Spain to Tarbes, France, 124km

At breakfast we learned more about the Catholic church’s stranglehold over Ireland from Breda and Paul. Abortion being illegal on the Emerald Isle, many women are forced to travel to England for the procedure. Ireland wanted to make this illegal as well, and were only stopped by their constitution. Paul also told us about being a fireman in Dublin, and how his job mostly involved paramedic work.

Reluctantly, we hit the road well past ten in the morning. Big drops fell intermittently from the sky and Fred was tempted to stay another day in Spain. I told him it was all downhill to France, though, and soon we were screaming down the uppermost reaches of the Garonne/Garona river, which flows all the way to Bordeaux. The sun even appeared for a while to re-energize us. The border was marked by an enormous grocery store, where I insisted we stop to spend our last pesetas. Inside, all of the customers were French, taking advantage of Spain’s lower sales tax. The most popular item by far was Pastis 51; the guy checking out in front of me had over ten bottles of the stuff. I stuck with staples, though: water, oranges, chocolate, gum, and a Pez dispenser for Fred.

The mountain villages of France looked distinctly different from those we saw in Spain. While Spain’s villages had been compact, colorful and lively, the first villages and towns we pedalled through in France were deserted, randomly organized, gray and shabby-looking. We stopped in one such place called Saint Béat for lunch in a bar. Realizing we had no cash, we asked the inbred-looking barman where the nearest AT M was, and it turned out to be a woman in a hardware store overseeing a drawer full of cash. The meal was copious and uninspired, served by an impertinent, ill-mannered young girl. And the coffee was undrinkable. I told myself and Fred that we could stop in one of the next villages for coffee.

But there was no coffee to be found. We rode through village after village and none of them seemed to have a café. Where we really in France? I had read somewhere that the Pyrenees was one of the poorest regions in the country and that many people had deserted the countryside for the towns. It reminded me of Auvergne, another gorgeous mountainous part of France we’ve cycled through which had a dearth of cafés.

Near the village of Izaourt, we turned off the main road onto a narrow, rolling, winding affair that was the quintessence of the cycling nirvana I associate with France. It took us through and around villages, meadows and woods, vaguely following the valley of the Neste river. Rain made us stop in la Barthe-de-Neste, where we found shelter under some old arcades. Alas, there was no café to be found, but we did find an old guy who ran a little auberge who said he could make us a pot of coffee. He watched soccer in the adjoining room while we read the paper and pet his crippled old cat. "She’s fifteen years old," the old man explained, "and she has a sore back." He went on to tell us that the locals were very appreciative of the rain, since they had been experiencing a drought since February. The unseasonably hot temperatures had made everything bloom six to eight weeks early. He brought us out a bowl of cherries as if to prove this, though I still had a hard time believing him while shivering in the cold rain.

Finally, we gathered up the courage to go back out into the stuff, putting on our dorky-looking rain pants for the seven-kilometer ride to the nearest town with a train station, where we figured we’d choo-choo into Tarbes. Once at the station, however, we learned that the SNCF was on strike (yes, we were definitely in France now) and that no trains were running from there neither that day nor the next. We were told to try another town further down the road; maybe there would be trains there. With black clouds on the horizon and frequent thunderclaps, we wondered if we’d make it before getting dumped on. And for a while I thought we would. The road was a dream: sixteen kilometers of steady downhill through lush forest. But by the time we made it to the bottom it was pouring. And the stationmaster at Tournay sang us the same song: no trains today.

But Tarbes was only twenty kilometers further, and the rain did seem to be letting up, so we decided to push for our original goal, where the Spartacus guide promised a queer restaurant called "L’Opera des Hommes" which turned into a disco on Saturday night. It was a tough twenty km, though, including a seemingly endless gradual uphill. For the first time since leaving San Diego, we resorted to the emergency packets of GU we had brought along –a sticky sugary substance designed to provide athletes with energy. I told Fred I’d never considered myself an athlete, and nearly gagged on the stuff. It didn’t seem to help much either, though we did make it to Tarbes, cranky, hungry and totally exhausted from the day’s long ride. The town was grey and ugly, with an annoying dearth of places to stay. We ended up at the "Hotel des Touristes", with a tiny claustrophobic room up five flights of stairs. The beds were predictably awful, with the mysterious "penis pillows" that are so ubiquitous in the French countryside. Yes, we had made it to France, and I wasn’t so sure I was happy about it.

18 May, Tarbes to Pau, 66km -- With special Lourdes Pigrimage Dossier!!!

Breakfast on the central square in Tarbes validated that it was a ghastly town. The center is dominated by an enormous parking lot, which played host to a flea market on this sunny Saturday. Townspeople picked among the cheap goods as we had a coffee and digested a few pastries.

The best thing about Tarbes was the road out of there. It was wide with a shoulder that became a dedicated bike lane. As we made our pilgrimage to Lourdes, bicycle clubs out for a Sunday ride passed us in the other direction and ignored our waves and greetings. It was not until we rang our bells that we got some reaction from our fellow bikers. The sun warmed us, I’d forgotten what it was like to ride under ideal conditions and was thankful for the reminder that cycling could be an unqualified joy.

Soon we rolled into the McDonald’s of religious experiences. When I saw a roadside sign advertising the fast food establishment’s downtown Lourdes branch I suggested we pop in for a McMiracle. Tempting as it was, we avoided McDo’s once again and headed for the grotto after a quick pizza lunch. The road that winds down the hill to Bernadette’s folly is inundated with souvenir stores hawking only postcards and Mary-shaped vessels to hold the sacred water from the shrine.

If you know the story of Lourdes, are religious or believe in Mary you can skip this paragraph. Lourdes is famous because this loony little girl named Bernadette imagined she saw Mary in this grotto by the river where the townspeople threw their trash. She began to go there every day, continuing to see the countenance of Mary. She told others about it. Rumors spread and folks started coming from surrounding villages to gawk at Bernadette having hallucinations. The townspeople got mad and the local law enforcement began to hassle Bernie. Then she really lost it and began to rub dirt and trash on herself while talking to Mary. Somehow while she was digging around in the rubbish she accidentally discovered a spring in the trash grotto (Miracle one). A little bit later Mary appeared and told here that she was "the immaculate conception." This turned out to be important to the Catholics who were looking for some way to figure out how Mary’s birth could be virginal in addition to Jesus’ (Miracle two). Mary told Bernie a little later that folks should come to Lourdes as their pilgrimage and that the water was healing (Miracle three – the most profitable one, and the reason they did not throw her into the loony bin, Bernie becomes a marketeer for the church).

Six million suckers a year come to Lourdes. Enough to justify an international airport that sports direct flights from places like Ireland. There is even a TGV (very fast) train from Paris that stops just a few hundred meters from the hoax. Many may wonder what awaits them if they make their own person pilgrimage to see this awesome sight. It is sort of like Disneyland, but people really believe they are going to see real buccaneers on the "Pirates of the Carribean". As you enter the charming riverside compound you see the cheesey cathedral ahead of you. It sits on the cliff above Bernie’s grotto. On the way to the church is the disabled visitors center, complete with hundreds of wheelchairs to accommodate handicapped visitors. We saw as many wheeled back away from the grotto as wheeled there. No cures on this day.

Just below and to the right of the church is Candleland. Here you can purchase (I mean make a suggested donation for) a candle to place near the shrine. Andrew stole a three foot long one and carted it with us to the line for entry into the grotto. The line moved quickly as ushers pushed people through. They showed especially pathetic visitors the best places to rub the rocks to receive its magical power. After passing through there is a bin where you can toss your candle and the attendants say that they will eventually light it for you. Andrew and I strongly suspect that they actually take the candle back to Candleland so that it can be resold. Just in front of the grotto is a VIP (very important prayer) area where believers chant, pray, kneel, sing, drool and imagine Mary in the Grotto saying something like "I am the ultimate marketing tool."

Between Candleland and Pirates of the Grotto is Lourdes waterslide equivalent unit. Here thousands line up to fill up their Mary shaped bottles with tap water. Housewives push the infirm out of the way to douse their aching feet with the blessed water that the townspeople are washing dishes and flushing toilets with. They lug gallons of the stuff all around the site with them. No wonder no one was cured. I knocked over some dude with crutches to fill my water bottle with the some and posed for a photo. Just beyond the grotto is a bath house where the infirm can pay to be bathed in the holy healing waters of Lourdes. Outside people sing and pray while they wheel them in dry on one side and roll them out wet and poorer on the other.

The saddest part about Lourdes is that it is not even very interesting. You’d think that if the church was suckering this much money for candles out of cripples they’d make it as spectacular as the Vatican. They could just loan Lourdes a few little trinkets to make it more interesting. And for god’s sake, where are the refreshment stands? All you can get is water and that must be fought for….

We escaped after purchasing the requisite postcards and water bottle. Minutes after leaving we were winding down river to Pau. The scenery was phenomenal though the road busy. With the wind at our backs and a gradual downhill we’d made Pau in less than two hours. We’d intended to stop for a coffee but nothing was open on Sunday until we reached Pau. Another spectacular of sorts was underway in Pau. The grand prix de Pau was in town. One of the last Formula Car races that still utilizes city streets. Auto racing seldom draws my favorite crowd, but Pau seemed accustomed to the event and the city handled the crowd well. We even managed to get a hotel room in the center without much difficulty. One hotel that couldn’t find room for us told us to come back if we couldn’t find anything and they promised to figure out somewhere for us to stay, even if it had to be the basement.

We had dinner in the old quarter near the Chateau on the terrace and watched the sky turn colors as we ate desert. We watched the slow cars race around the center as the sun star

ted to set. Andy kept insisting that he could drive faster than the racers, maybe even bike faster…

Click on image to see full-sized version

"Hey, can't you see I was here first!"

Home Page Contact Andrew and Fred About their adventure

© 1997 Frederick Felman and Andrew Broan, All rights reserved. No part of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from authors or their agents.