Guess which town in France has the second highest number of hotels (after Paris). Go ahead, guess. Did you guess Marseilles (France’s second biggest city)? Wrong. How about Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse… all with populations over four hundred thousand? Wrong again. Maybe Cannes, what with the film festival, or Nice, with all the beaches. Nope. The town with the second highest number of hotels in France is Lourdes, population 15,000.

In case you’re a godless commie or something, and have never heard of Lourdes, you should know that in 1858 a young peasant girl named Bernadette saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto on the edge of town. On the VM’s instructions, Bernadette dug in the ground until a spring appeared. The water from that spring soon started working miraculous cures. Since then, an estimated two hundred million people have visited Lourdes, with five million more coming to pay their respects and get healed every year.

The Catholic Church recognizes sixty-seven bona fide miracle cures in Lourdes. Ever ready to provide vital travel information to my readers, I tracked them all down and learned some interesting facts.

First, don’t get your hopes up. Sixty-seven cures in one hundred and fifty years, given the number of people who visit, is nothing to crow about. Furthermore, the last one was in 1987 (multiple sclerosis). But what’s worse is that when you start looking at the details you realize that almost forty percent were for tuberculosis of one form or another, and that the biggest year for cures was the first, 1858, when seven people were cured. Between 1858 and 1960, Lourdes averaged roughly 0.6 healings per year, since then, despite an enormous increase in the number of visitors, the yearly average falls to 0.08. The number of accidental deaths on the roads, etc. due to all that pilgrimage dwarfs that number.

Oh well. The faithful will say that it’s not about healing anyway; it’s about veneration. Many of the locals, however, apparently think it’s about business.

I had visited Lourdes myself some twenty years ago or so and I had been much impressed… less with the piety of the place than with the with the businesses that flourish in its midst. I recently returned to Lourdes thanks to a skiing trip in the Pyrenees, the mountains separating France and Spain. There are a couple of very nice ski areas near Lourdes, and I had spent a few days in one of them with my two sons (my wife decided a few years ago that although skiing is fun, it’s not fun enough to put up with the cold, so ever since then all skiing in our family has been purely masculine). We decided to sacrifice our last day of skiing in order to visit Lourdes.

It should be said from the start that my sons are not religious. My elder son, who is entering college in pursuit of his goal of being a nuclear physicist, expends a fair amount of energy on creationist websites trying to convince their members that they are wrong (despite my insistence that he’s wasting his time). I used to be pretty religious, but that was a very long time ago, before I discovered rational thought and sex (I paraphrase a Jesuit priest who was once a professor of mine). Given our generally skeptical frame of mind, we were perhaps overly sensitive to outward signs of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine even the most ardent fan of religious paraphernalia being anything less than numbed by the sheer magnitude of the local tourist trade.

The grotto in which the VM appeared to Bernadette has remained in its pristine state, aside from the white metal benches in front of it and the great hulking cathedral-like church built into the rock on top of it. We were in Lourdes outside of the main pilgrim season, which runs from April through October, and furthermore, the weather was awful, but still there were a number of the faithful praying in the rain in front of the grotto and walking forward to touch its walls or to get miracle water from the taps nearby. The grotto is near a beautiful little river, the other side of which houses a complex of modern buildings consisting of chapels and meeting rooms, as well as the “Tent of Eucharistic Veneration”, which contained only big stacks of chairs. Another complex houses various welcome centers for the faithful, as well as the “museum of miraculous cures” in which all sixty-seven certified miraculous cases are outlined via photos on the walls (my personal favorite is Evasio Ganora, an Italian farmer who was cured of cancer in 1950 and then died when crushed by his own tractor a scant two years later. Talk about celestial irony).

But we had primarily come to see the souvenir shops. It must be said that they hadn’t really changed much over the past twenty years. Even their wares were similar, with the ubiquitous little plastic bottles shaped like the VM in which you can bring back your Lourdes water (you screw off her crown to fill them). These come in a variety of sizes, although the largest of them tend to give up on depicting the VM, and are really just big jugs, of up to ten liters, with her image stenciled on the side.

Another favorite item is rosary beads, including enormous strands with beads the size of walnuts. These glow in the dark! There are a lot of glow-in-the-dark items, including many of the numerous statuettes of the VM (and a few of the pope, although his don’t glow—maybe John-Paul II, who was much more charismatic, had glow-in-the-dark statuettes). There are also all kinds of candles of all different sizes, and numerous little plaques, postcards and pictures of the VM, including one large 3D thing that changes images if you move from side to side, just like those little cardboard squares we used to get in Crackerjack boxes. This shifts between Mary and Jesus depending on your angle, but unfortunately most angles give a little of both, resulting in an horrendous three-eyed bearded hermaphrodite.

More arcane items, all of which sport images of the virgin included…

• Bells
• Spoons
• Collapsible portable drinking cups
• Ashtrays
• Mugs
• Watches
• Pencil cases
• Playing cards
• Baseball caps
• Key chains (one of which associated an image of the VM in a horseshoe: a strange juxtaposition of Christian and pagan imagery)
• Coffee mugs
• Cigarette lighters
• Snow-filled paper weights
• Candy
• Gourds
• Little fake cameras with images of the VM when you look in the viewer
• Penknives
• Egg cups
• Bookmarks
• Napkin holders
• Napkins
• Handkerchiefs
• Teapots
• Placemats
• Nightlights
• Bibs
• Corkscrews
• Bottle openers
• A set of steak knives
• Potholders
• Slippers
• Pens, including some in which the VM floats down to Bernadette if you tip them
• Plates
• A backscratcher / shoehorn contraption
• Wallets
• Refrigerator magnets
• Sword-shaped letter openers
• Big paper clips
• Dishtowels
• Thermoses
• A little fountain that you can plug in and that gurgles and lights up

The list goes on, but these stood out. What also stood out were some rather unusual mixes of souvenirs. For example, one of the souvenir shops was run by an old man wearing a Yankees baseball cap and an enormous ring with a silver skull. Along with all the virgins, he also sold combat knives and an “Operation Desert Storm” shoulder patch. His shop was near a tattoo parlor, which was unfortunately closed… I would have loved to have interviewed the proprietor. Across town, a different souvenir shop proprietor likewise sold his virgins along with weapons, but these included not only nasty looking knives, but also throwing stars, swords and brass knuckles.

Mary asked Bernadette to pray for the poor sinners of the world. I’m not sure the sinners have benefited in quite the way she intended.