Friday, October 12, 2012

Les Pyrénées

As our time in France draws to a close, I have become more and more desperate to fit in as much travelling as our other commitments will allow. In addition to this, I have vowed to eat as much saucisson as I can before we leave.

Ag and Mom were gracious enough to come and visit us here one last time, so we decided to include a bit of whirl-wind week of travelling into their three week stay. And our destination was the lovely Pyrenees. Yes, I know we live right next to mountains here, but as Keith said; "They're not real mountains." For us real mountains means dense forest and snow. Lucky for us we got both on this trip.

We started our journey in Lourdes to visit the spring of St. Bernadette. The town itself is not terribly remarkable and is full of souvenir shops trying to sell you everything from rosaries and icons, to fridge magnets and post cards. Although the streets leading up to the sanctuary are crazy and completely commercialized, the sanctuary itself is quite peaceful. I was really impressed with the calm and sense of prayerfulness that encompassed the entire site. The main aspects of the sanctuary including the grotto and taps where you can access water from the spring are all outside. Surrounded by trees, hills and a river, the sanctuary is in harmony the nature around it. The chapel (below) is a dominant, but not austere, building with two long ramps that extend from it to form a semi circle which hugs the main square. This choice is not only architecturally interesting but also allows the sick to access the chapel. 

The sick are the VIPs of Lourdes. There are benches everywhere for people to sit down and rest, and you see volunteers everywhere pushing wheelchairs and carts to allow the sick to access the different points of the sites. They are given priority in lines to visit the grotto where St. Bernadette had her visions of our lady and where the spring appeared. Seeing so many severely ill people in one spot was a bit sad, but I also found Lourdes incredibly inspiring. People who visit this sanctuary are not your average tourists, they are there because of their faith in God and his ability to heal. Bernadette was so poor and so young that she had nothing but her faith in what she, and no one else, saw. She did not know who the white lady who appeared to her was, but yet she trusted her. This type of trust and hopefulness was really for me what Lourdes was all about.

The other thing that impressed me about Lourdes was its truly international feel. We witnessed processions and prayers in multiple languages, and saw people from around the world. Above the sanctuary there is a way of the cross, that has larger than life statues depicting each station staggered along a steep climb to the summit of a hill. As we ascended we heard groups praying in at least five different languages. I really appreciate being reminded from time to time about the universality of the church. This is truly a place of pilgrimage where crowds are present, but nothing is rushed and calm dominates.

We also took the time to visit the fort of Lourdes which had a dominant view of the sanctuary and surrounding countryside. Although it was a rainy day, the clouds just enhanced our views of the valley. The fort houses a museum of Pyrenees culture which included everything from traditional costumes to advertisements for skiing from the early 1900s. These were graphically interesting, but with slogans like "Only seven hours from Paris" gives incredible insight into how much travel has changed. 

Our next stop was Andorra. To get to this small country on the border of France and Spain we had to climb the continuous cutbacks to reach the Pas de la Cas pass 2000 m above sea level. The scenery was fantastic and we were amazed at seeing cows and horses grazing on the steep mountainsides around us. In fact just after entering the resort town of Pas de la Cas traffic stopped for the cows who were grazing in the middle of a traffic circle and on the grass growing on the meridian. So yes, the signs are appropriate.

Andorra definitely has "real mountains." When we got out of the car at the top of the pass, it was actually snowing and suddenly our shorts and sandals did not seem like the most appropriate apparel. Although the economy of Andorra used to depend solely on farming, since the 1970s it seems to depend on two things: ski tourism and duty free shopping. 

The mountains are beautiful and when I saw at least four ski resorts within a fifteen minute drive, I started to kick myself that we hadn't decided to visit in the winter. Instead of skiing we went on a couple of hikes through snowy mountain meadows and along winding cliff sides paths to a waterfall. 

The food in Andorra was also absolutely wonderful. After walking around all day, mountain fare of local saucisson, lamb and peas with streaky bacon was much appreciated. It is the best of both worlds a bit French, a bit Catalan. Really you can't go wrong. 

The license plate above shows the coat of arms which actually has two cows on it. The Catalan flag and Foix flag represent the combined cultures of the area and the Bishops Mitre highlights the fact that Andorra is a dual principality ruled by the Bishop of the region and the French President. 

As I mentioned above, Andorra is a duty free zone. People from France and Spain come here to get cheap alcohol, cigarettes, groceries and gas. The serenity and nature of the little towns and ski resorts is in complete contrast to the capital, Andorra La Vella, which is basically a shopping centre. Everything is new and modern  with high fashion stores lining the pristine streets. When we passed through Spanish customs and we said we had nothing to declare, the customs agent began to frown until we explained we were Canada tourists.

After some driving through northern Spain and many fun tunnels through mountains (the longest was 5km), we arrived at the Monastery of Montserrat. Perched on the side of a mountain, the monastery is accessible by a cog -wheel train or by an ancient cable car. The same mountain is home to various other small chapels and hermitages, which are now a bit more accessible from the two funiculars, but in ages gone by the whole mountain would have been a place of solitude and climbing up to any of these true penance.

Montserrat is the home of a religious community, but one who has invested time and money into preserving Catalan culture. With a museum and Catalonian boys choir, it highlights the independent spirit of the region. It also houses the Romanesque statue of Our Lady of Montserrat, otherwise known as the dark Madonna, who is the patron Saint of Catalonia. 

Although the main Cathedral and buildings were busy with tourist and bus tours, we found the walks to the different chapels quiet. It makes me reflect on the balance that needs to be struck in allowing visits to these magnificently historical yet spiritual sacred places. How do can the history be shared and at the same time maintain a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere?

All the buildings seem to tottering on the edge of the mountains.

So Barcelona, your will notice that all of my pictures are of the amazing Sagrada Familia Church. It is an exquisite building by an architectural master, Antoni Gaudi. It is really one of the most interesting buildings I have ever been in and I could have taken pictures there all day. In Barcelona, it was the only thing I took pictures of because it was pouring the whole time we were there! To combat this we took a bus tour to give us a sense of the city without having to get wet, but it seems like everyone else had the same idea and we ended up sitting on the top of a double decker bus with open windows and only a vinyl canopy covering our head. Every time we turned a corner the rain that had pooled on the canopy above us fell down and then blew onto us. It was a bit of an adventure. 

 Regardless of the weather, I did enjoy myself. The openness and architecture of the city is unique and I would love to go back to truly explore it properly. The highlight for us was actually the Museum of the History of Catalonia. It only cost us two euros each and had a wealth of information from pre-history to the modern era. We could have stayed for hours, but unfortunately these places do have to close. 

As I now deal with some of the realities of moving continents and the somewhat unplanned year ahead, I am already planning a few more escapes before we return to Canada! Stay tuned.

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