Away from the Immaculate Conception ice-cream parlour, the Welcome to Paradise gift shop, and racks of glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys, Noël Cannou was getting a moment’s peace. Beside the grotto where the Virgin Mary first appeared to a Lourdes peasant girl 150 years ago, he patiently filled five-litre plastic bottles with the miraculous healing water which he would carry across town to store in his fridge.
“It’s all I drink,” he said. “It’s free, so it’s cheaper than buying mineral water like Evian. I’m not expecting a religious experience, it just tastes nice.”
Cannou, 25, a worker in a local foie gras plant, was born in Paris, but his Indian Catholic parents moved to Lourdes for the spirituality. He filled his bottles from a row of taps beneath the basilica – 48 of the 66 people whose ailments were miraculously cured here had either drunk it, bathed in it or applied it to their bodies.
“Lourdes has a special calm,” Cannou sighed. “You really have to live here to understand it.”
As workmen polish stone Virgin Marys and the Lourdes waxwork museum dusts off its life-size recreation of the Last Supper, the small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees is preparing for a record eight million visitors this year for the anniversary of the Virgin’s apparitions in 1858. Lourdes, Catholicism’s most famous grotto, is now more than a religious phenomenon, it is a tourism miracle that has transformed the local economy and inspired religious sites across the world.
Its hundreds of shops selling Virgin Mary jerry cans, rosaries and everything from Saint Bernadette used tea-bag holders to holy corkscrews has seen it dubbed a Disneyland of God, a paradise of tacky religious kitsch, where even the restaurants have names like the Angelus Snack Bar, and Vatican Airlines flies in pilgrims on low-cost deals. But none of this has dented its broad appeal. Lourdes is the most visited religious site in the world after the Vatican, bigger than the hajj’s 2 million pilgrims to Mecca and with more tourists than Jerusalem.
On Monday alone, 50,000 tourists will visit the grotto. But the year-long Lourdes celebrations could reopen wider religious and political controversies. Pope Benedict XVI has authorised special written indulgences for Catholic pilgrims who visit the Lourdes site this year. The church teaches that these indulgences can reduce time in purgatory. Outsiders see them as a kind of fast-track to heaven. They became notorious in the 16th century for being sold, not earned, helping to trigger the Protestant reformation, and they still divide Catholics. “It’s a very delicate question,” said Jacques Perrier, the Bishop of Lourdes.
The Pope will visit Lourdes this year and, although the details are yet to be decided, the French president’s role in the trip could reignite the row currently raging over Nicolas Sarkozy and the separation of church and state. The president – who is three-times married and describes himself as a “cultural Catholic” and infrequent churchgoer – has outraged defenders of France’s secular republic with recent speeches in praise of faith, religion and France’s Christian roots. In one address in Riyadh he broke all taboos of presidential avoidance of religion by mentioning God 13 times.
His critics accused him of trying to blur France’s strict separation of church and state, and adopt an American-style mix of faith and politics. This week 60 secular groups and unions launched a petition to defend secularism against the president’s use of God.
The philosopher Régis Debray said of Sarkozy’s religious emphasis: “The republican model is already in very ill health; Sarkozy is hastening its end.”
Lourdes has always been neutral in France’s rows over church and state. “The French state never felt threatened by Lourdes,” said Perrier. “The state does not support the sanctuary financially, but it tolerates us. We’re in a little corner in the mountains, the people who come here are often ill – and you can’t attack the ill. The sanctuary also brings money to the state indirectly.”
Just how much money the grotto brings into the region is glossed over by officials, keen to avoid a negative image of money-spinning from religious trinkets. The town of around 15,000 has six million annual visitors and the most hotel beds outside Paris.
“The image can be pejorative, but this is not Disneyland, there are no businesses inside the sanctuary. There’s a frontier between it and the independent shops outside. You could spend 24 hours in the sanctuary and not spend one centime,” said Franck Delahaye at the tourist office.
Philippe Bianco, head of the Lourdes union of souvenir sellers, was organising the rosaries in his shop before the rush of Monday’s pilgrims. “Our biggest sellers are anything to do with water: plastic Lourdes bottles, Virgin Mary shaped bottles or jerry cans,” he said. “It’s not an easy trade. With competition, prices are low and we’re open seven days, all year, even Christmas. If there was no demand we wouldn’t be here.”
Claudia Francisco, a Brazilian engineering lecturer, had spent €60 (£45) on dozens of religious medals and was returning with a suitcase full of miraculous water bottles wrapped in shopping bags. “Frankly, after being charged to go into Vatican museums, I don’t find Lourdes too commercial. At least the shrine is free,” she said.
But one 34-year-old from Biarritz had worked as a waiter in a Lourdes tourist snack bar for five years. He said: “I’m leaving, because I can’t stand seeing another revolting, badly-cooked burger sold to innocent British people for €6, when the wholesale price was 50 cents. It’s taboo to say it round here, but I’m disgusted by the greed.”