He was a long lost friend whom I had not seen or heard from for over 40 years. Back in the 1960's when I was growing up in what was then known as Rangoon, Burma (now officially called Yangon, Myanmar) we became very close and did what most teenage boys were fond of doing at that time; fooling around, drinking beer, chasing girls (most of the time unsuccessfully), etc.

40 plus years later, after re-establishing contact with each other, he and his wife came to visit me in France. It was a very happy reunion after all these years. I was surprised to find out that he had converted to Catholicism after getting married. I didn't hold that against him of course. After all, he used to be my best buddy and I was glad for him. He told me that his wife have had this long desire to travel to Lourdes and wondered whether we could all go together. I agreed almost immediately as I had never been there before.

Lourdes is in the southwestern part of France in the Pyrenees region, not far from the border with Spain. We decided to go by train as it would be a long and difficult car trip from the city where I lived at that time. However, the train journey required a change of trains at Pau which is about 45 kilometers or 28 miles from Lourdes.

We set off early the next morning. The trains in Europe are quite comfortable, and as we were in 2nd class we had reclining seats in which we could relax. Towns passed by quickly on the way as there were few stops except at big cities. One such city was Beziers in the south of France where I used to live for nearly 4 years before moving to Bourg-en-Bresse near Lyon. When I saw the big Saint Nazaire cathedral (the landmark of Beziers) from the train I pointed it out to my friend, and I think he was quite impressed with it. Too bad, we couldn't get off for a couple of hours there. I could have showed him around the city.

When we reached Pau we had to change platforms (here in the US they are called 'tracks') for the train to Lourdes. We didn't have to wait long, and it took only around 40 minutes to arrive at Lourdes because of the relatively short distance. We had already made hotel reservations online and checked in at this hotel not far from the railway station. For a small town, Lourdes certainly has a lot of hotels, most of them within walking distance of the sanctuary. I would say all of these hotels cater to the thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who come to this sacred destination to pay their respects, and worship at the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes.

The following morning after an early breakfast at the hotel, we walked over to the Sanctuary. Inside the grounds there is a Grotto (cave) with a shrine of our Lady of Lourdes at the entrance. When we were there the place was packed with so many people, some on wheelchairs as sick people are reputed to be miraculously healed by the holy water of Lourdes.

I noticed about five or six taps near the Grotto where several people were filling up their plastic cans full of the holy water. My friend's wife who is a devout Catholic took her share of the water too. As for me, since I am not a Catholic I respectfully declined to take any. Both she and her husband also took a quick bath in the water from the Grotto at the Piscine baths, as did many of the other pilgrims. We then went inside the Grotto which was lighted with candles. I could see that it was a moving experience for my friend and his wife.

Knowledgeable Catholics will tell you that in the 19th century, a 14-year old French peasant girl named Bernadette (who was canonized as a saint many years later after her death) experienced a series of visions of a girl dressed in white, and with a blue belt around her waist, who eventually introduced herself as the Virgin Mary. This all happened near where the present Grotto is situated.

There are several churches and basilicas in the huge compound and we took some time walking around and enjoying all the magnificent buildings. My friends (particularly the wife) seemed very contented to be there, and to tell you the truth, I was somewhat also moved spiritually as I strolled around among all the splendid architecture and faithful pilgrims who were present in the thousands.

We finally took leave of the holy grounds and hired a cab to take us back to the hotel even though it was just a short distance from the sanctuary. After a short rest we went out again to have dinner at a restaurant downtown, and the next morning packed our bags for the return train trip to Bourg en Bresse.