Nowadays, Lourdes has more hotel rooms than any other French town or city apart from Paris. It receives around five million pilgrims and visitors a year. See some of them in my first photo - lined up at an open air service - in their wheelchairs, pathetically hoping to be "healed" by spring waters from the sacred grotto. You see people filling bottle after bottle with holy water, drawn from pipes that run out of the holy spring and there are massive candles you can light too - some of them so big it takes two men to carry them.
In Lourdes, I felt like an alien. All these busloads of people from all over the Catholic world. Did they really believe the legend - something not far removed from a fanciful fairy story? Inside, I was utterly bemused. For me it was like visiting Madame Tussauds - that kind of curiosity - but for the other people, the nuns, the cripples, the rosary-rocking water gatherers and grey-haired coach travellers - Lourdes was something different - something they so desperately wanted to believe in that just being there strengthened rather than diminished their religious belief. It was quite scary.
Like a growing percentage of earthlings, I repudiate all religious belief and live without a god or any expectation of an after-life. We of the non-religious creed that puts people and earthly happiness first would even go so far as to blame religion for millions of deaths in hundreds of conflicts which grew out of religious bickerings, misunderstandings and jealousies. Regarding faith - I have faith in the essential goodness of people, faith in the beauty of nature and in man's creativity, faith in tomorrow, faith in our oligation to make the most of this life, relishing experience and finding peace... or am I starting to sound like a preacher at Lourdes? A St Bernard perhaps?