20 Years ago this Month (Part III): French Finale
Updated: Jul 3, 2021
As magical as Montserrat had been, it was time to turn the bus north and traverse the Pyrenees. We had two more stops to round out our whirlwind week. Before departing Spain, our lofty elevation enabled us to see the urban spread of Barcelona, about 35km distant, backed by the brilliant Mediterranean.
As we neared the French border, the Pyrenees rose white-capped around us, a forbidding but fascinating mountainscape.
Everyone in the group had gotten to know each other well by now, and relaxed conversation within the bus belied the dramatic landscape outside its windows. Elisa's voice then announced we were crossing the French border at the tiny town of Puigcerdà. Just as at the Portugal-Spain border, there was no fanfare, but rather a simple sign stating our new country, as if we were going from New Hampshire to Vermont.
The bus ride was long - probably second lengthiest of the entire trip - but incredibly scenic. Again, my grainy pictures are almost dismally poor, and give the reader very little idea of the majesty through which we motored. Google Maps claims the trip from Montserrat to Lourdes would take about five hours, but on a bus I'd think it was quite a bit longer.
After passing through a town called Foix (fwah) with its castle whose foundations date back to the early 10th century (just learned this in 2020!), we turned west for the first time and traversed lowlands and fields, the Pyrenees still making their distant presence felt to our south. Finally we arrived, exhausted, in Lourdes.
Site of the 1858 vision of Mary by impoverished local girl Bernadette Soubirous, there is tremendous inspiration to be found in visiting Lourdes' grotto, sanctuary, and surroundings. The number of officially "approved" healings that have taken place here is mind-boggling.
However, as uplifting as the place was historically and spiritually, the level of tackiness in its shops and tourist-related madness was disheartening. I realize that in capitalist societies there is money to be made from the millions of annual visitors, but the number and type of storefronts almost bordered on disrespectful.
To make matters worse, since this was the low season for visitors, probably 3/4 of these souvenir shops and restaurants were closed up, cold metal overhead doors shut tight against the lonely, chill wind. When combined with the return of stone-hued skies, there was an eerie, abandoned quality about the place. We heard our own footsteps on silent streets, our eagerness to explore tempered by the almost apocalyptic vibe. I remember visiting a McDonald's that evening just to say we did; all I had was a chocolat chaud.
To make matters more bizarre, I overslept (something I very rarely do) and missed Mass on our one morning there. For all its many merits, Lourdes had been a odd introduction to France to say the least. As we made our way to the local airport, I gazed out the giant window, the bus engine humming reassuringly beneath us for the last time. We wistfully parted ways with Elisa, pleasant source of so much knowledge over the last week. The pilgrimage wasn't over yet, however. Next and final stop: Paris.
The first-time visitor to Paris - especially a wide-eyed 18-year old - is constantly in awe. By that I don't just mean 'hey, that's a nice-looking building' but pure, naïve, slack-jawed astonishment. To me it was Lisbon all over again, except turbocharged.
In travel, sometimes it's the humble or unexpected discovery that makes the grandest impression. Evening's soft light gilding a copse of wildflowers; the gleeful cry of a child who's scored the winning goal in an impromptu alleyway soccer match; the acrid, comforting scent of a charcoal cookout on an endless summer eve. Then there are other times when the power of world-renowned landmarks blows you back in your seat, makes you utterly incredulous of your surroundings. The beauty of travel is that we're free to observe and appreciate all of these without reservations. Savoring a quiet evening of Beethoven or rocking out to Van Halen can be equally enjoyable.
Paris' brilliance is that its world-class attractions coexist perfectly with its workaday streetscapes. I was mesmerized at every moment. A sleek, onyx-clad woman scrutinizing the morning paper on a Seine-side bench, sun slicing through wisps of cigarette smoke. Ninety seconds later, a billion-dollar view of the Eiffel Tower proudly peering from behind elegant stone facades. Sixty minutes later, gawking at some of humankind's most enduring masterpieces in the Louvre's hushed chambers. Overwhelming does not even begin to describe it. If I wasn't hooked on travel already, my lifelong love of it was confirmed within a few hours in Paris. Nay, minutes.
We hit the tourist circuit hard in our precious few days in the French capital: Notre Dame, Le Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur. I purchased a beret on the Champs-Élysées. We ascended to the Eiffel's soaring wrought-iron heights - at night. We ate like kings and queens. Andrea and I strolled, conscious that in a few days' time we'd be back in a nondescript American high school learning history from a snooze-inducing book.
Three days in the City of Lights represented an infinitesimal portion of my life, but my impressions have lasted 20 years, and will continue to endure after 40 or 60. It was the perfect introduction to European travel. I've only been outside North America twice since, seeking off-the-beaten-path encounters whenever possible.
To this day I'm profoundly thankful for the experiences I had on that pilgrimage. Corny as it sounds, I think my favorite part of being in Europe was the acute consciousness of being in Europe. On our last night in Paris, I kept thinking to myself "I'm in Paris right now!" - it just didn't seem possible then; it barely seems possible now.
The bus rolled back into the St. Joseph parking lot in torpid Laconia late on the evening of November 11. Andrea had conked out next to me on the ride from Boston, and I'd nearly done the same. Physically the trip ended right where it had started, but experientially it was a one-way street. Just like any good journey should be.