Religious Holidays and Pilgrimages – Lourdes, Fatima, Camino de Santiago & Medjugorje
While visiting Kerala in Southern India we were invited to witness a ceremony known as Theyyam, a ritual art form, elements of which date back thousands of years. We knew little of what we were going to see, except that this was a performance with spiritual significance. The ceremony had been going on for some 20 hours by the time we tumbled out of our little minibus at 4am. We huddled together in the darkness at the edge of a field listening to the eerie sound of beating drums and high-pitched chants wondering what we’d let ourselves into. We walked through the field, ducked through some trees and emerged into a clearing dominated by a small colourful temple, before which was a large crackling bonfire. Hundreds of people surrounded the fire, men beating drums, the crowd chanting, as five men dressed only with cloths around their waists stoked the fire.
We stood at the edge of the crowd not wanting to intrude in their ceremony, but it didn’t take long before some of the younger villagers took an interest in our disheveled group. Children took our hands and brought us to our knees painting red dots on our foreheads and tying delicate flower bracelets around our wrists. They quizzed us in pigeon English about where we came from, touching our faces and clothes admiringly. I’ve no idea what they found to admire in our tired faces and tatty clothes, which paled in comparison to their unblemished faces, wide dark eyes and immaculate, colourful saris. We passed time giggling and gesturing to one another in a feeble attempt to communicate. Our host finally led us over the the temple, where a figure balanced on a stool, his face intricately painted to resemble a mask and his head adorned with an almost comically large, elaborate head-piece that stretched out past the width of his body and towered above. He wore what looked like a grass skirt around his waist.
The crowd formed a line bringing gold coins to the figure, asking him questions, for he had all the answers now that his body was inhabited by the spirit of a God. He had, we had been told earlier by the children, been meditating for days and had reached a certain state where he became the spirit of a particular God and thus had super powers and wisdom. The procession of people continued for well over an hour and eventually the Theyyam disappeared into the temple, re-emerging to the sound of the drums when darkness began to lift.
Led by the four scantily clad men, fire sticks in hand, it was obvious he was in a meditative state. I found myself holding my breath as he walked slowly towards the fire and the drums and chants quickened becoming almost frenzied. Suddenly, he was thrown onto the fire, pulled out rapidly by the men using a rope that was wrapped around his waist. He danced between his immersions into the fire, not in an attempt to put out flames, but as part of the ritual. I said a silent prayer the paint coating his body was flameproof as he leapt into the fire over and over again.
Smoke wafted into the crowd until our eyes streamed. I watched the faces of the children, the men and women watching the ceremony and I saw respect, admiration and reverence. I wondered is that what I had looked like when I was a child in mass.
I love that each religion has its own rituals and ceremonies, many of which are elaborate, magical and sometimes a little out there, but essentially I think we all believe in the same thing. We like to know there is something more powerful than us out there, something or someone that watches over us. In the western world we have had our own miracles and it is to the places where these miraculous events occurred that pilgrims go each year. This morning on Ireland AM I was talking about some religious holiday destinations – Fatima, Lourdes, Medjugorje and the Camino de Santiago. All information from the slot is below.
Lourdes is a small town at the foot of the Pyrenees, made famous by a young woman, Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 had eighteen Marian apparitions over a period of 6 months. Crowds were drawn to witness the apparitions, however, it was only Bernadette who saw and spoke with our Lady.
Today, Lourdes welcomes over 6 million visitors each year, coming for both spiritual and physical healing as the water in Lourdes is said to have healing powers. Visitors partake in walking tours around the town visiting the places of importance connected with Bernadette and within the Lourdes Sanctuary the grotto where many of the apparitions took place still seeps water in which people bathe themselves to avail of its healing powers. The Catholic Church has acknowledged 68 miracle healings over the years.
March to September are the peak times to visit Lourdes, with Easter being particularly busy and people tend to stay for between 3- 5 days, taking part in the walking tours, daily mass and torchlight processions in the evening.
Lourdes has the second highest number of hotels in France, after Paris. It is not only those wishing to do the pilgrimage that come to Lourdes, but there are a large number of young people who volunteer and go to help people in the town by pushing people in wheelchairs, helping to bathe people etc.
It is one of the most popular religious holidays for the Irish, with over 50,000 people visiting Lourdes from Ireland each year. You can visit Lourdes independently, flying from Dublin into Toulouse and then taking the train 2 hours to Lourdes. However, most of the arranged tours will fly you directly into Lourdes airport and all your transfers, accommodation, guided tours are included.
Getting there Flights Direct to Toulouse from €40 one way
Hotel Accommodation from €80 per night
Joe Walsh Tours – Book a religious holiday with Joe Walsh Tours between March 29th and April 5th and mention Ireland AM and be in for a draw to win 2 free seats on a standard pilgrimage to Lourdes (5 nights), Fatima (7 nights) or Medjugorje (7 nights)
Cassidy Travel – Packages from €644pp including flights, transfers, guide and 5 nights accommodation
According to legend, in the 9th century a shepherd discovered the remains of what was believed to be the disciple, St James. What emerged was an important pilgrimage for Catholics travelling from all over the world to pray at the resting place of the disciple. It became a very popular pilgrimage in the 14th and 15th century and today over 100,000 people do the pilgrimage annually, whether for spiritual or lifestyle reasons.
There is no set starting point to the pilgrimage as pilgrims used to leave from their homes, but The French Way is the most popular route, starting in a small French village, St Jean Pied de Port, passing through the Pyrenees, into Rioja in Spain and across to western Spain. The route is over 800kms and you would want to allow 30+ days to complete the walk, this is allowing for approx 25kms walking per day. However, The French Way can be done in stages, the most popular stage being the Camino Last 100kms, which starts in Sarria and finishes in Santiago de Compostela. Probably 70% of people doing the pilgrimage do this section. There is also a route travelling from Lisbon, Portugal up the coast and across to Santiago Compostela.
The route is well marked by yellow arrows and detailed maps are available online or purchased on arrival so many people choose to do the pilgrimage independently and even in the remoter areas you will find a hamlet or village every 20-25kms. There are pilgrim refuges set up along the routes, run by the local communities where pilgrims can avail of free accommodation. However, accommodation in these refuges are not guaranteed and cannot be booked, so only those setting off early in the morning will be lucky enough to get a room.
Companies like Caminoways.com provide a service where they book your accommodation along the route in B&B’s and country houses, arrange bag transfers so you only have to carry a small knapsack with your daily requirements making the journey slightly less arduous. They run guided or self-guided packages and have experienced people on the ground to help out in the event of any accidents.
To start The Frency Way fly into Biarittz and take the train to St Jean Pied de Port, or to do the last 110kms, fly into Santiago and take the bus to Sarria, starting the pilgrimage from here back to Santiago. This stretch is not as challenging as The French Way, it is hilly and foresty, but there are no major inclines and it’s a steady walk with plenty of villages with little cafes and bars to stop in for refreshments.
Getting there Flights Direct to Santiago from €40 one way
Hotel Accommodation from €30 per night
Caminoways.com Packages from €570 per person includes: 7 Nights in 3* Countryside hotels/ Luggage transfers/Airport transfers to/from/On-the-ground assistance 24/7
Caminoways.com 10% off packages for Ireland AM viewers who book a Camino Ways Holidays and mention Ireland AM when booking with caminoways.com
Map Travel from €775 includes flights, 7 nights accommodation, transfers, bag transfers, tour of Santiago
Fátima sits 142 km north of Lisbon and has become one of the most important shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was made famous by three shepherd children Lúcia and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta that, between May and October of 1917, witnessed successive Marian apparitions. The last one, on October 13th, was confirmed by a miracle witnessed by 70,000 people that has become known as ” the day the sun danced”.
The heart of the Sanctuary is in the Cova da Iria where the apparitions took place and is marked by a marble pillar on which stands a statue of Our Lady. It is to here that 4 million pilgrims converge throughout the year, especially during the main festivals on 13th May and 13th October.
A typical pilgrimage to Fatima would include a tour of the Sanctuary, an excursion to Aljustrel (Fátima), to the village and houses where the three children were born, visiting the Fatima Museum of Peace and Light, as well as Loca de Cabeço, where the children saw for the first and third time the Angel of the Peace.
The most popular time to visit is the 13th of every month, from March to October, due to weather conditions. The 13th of May is one of the busiest days, since it is the celebration of the apparition.
People tend to stay from 3 to 7 days; 3 days in Fátima and the rest somewhere in Lisbon, normally Estoril incorporating a sun holiday with their stay.
You can take either the train or bus to Fatima from Lisbon and the trip will take you around 1h30m, maximum 2hs so it’s easy to visit independently, however many companies provide packages to Fatima from Ireland.
Getting there Flights Direct to Lisbon from €40 one way
Hotel Accommodation from €30 per night
Joe Walsh Tours from €599 includes 7 nights, flights, transfers, guide (prices exclude airport taxes and charges totalling €75 per person)
Cassidy Travel From €659 includes 7 nights, flights, transfers, guide
Medjugorje is a relatively new place of pilgrimage with reported apparitions by six children of the Virgin Mary in 1981 on what is now called The Hill of Apparitions. Following that day Our Lady continued to appear to the children individually, wherever they were and three of the visionaries claim she still appears most days, while the others only see her once a year.
A cross and statue mark the point where the children first saw Our Lady and many visiting Medjugorje will follow the pathway up the hill to pray at the cross. There are night light processions held outside the church in the town where thousands will gather with torches.
Many people visit Medjugorje from Dubrovnik as it is the best place to fly into and takes just over two hours to get there. There are day trips run from Dubrovnik or you can take the public bus up and as there is plenty of accommodation in the town it’s possible to stay over, however booking your accommodation in advance is essential.
Many people would visit the islands off the mainland Croatia, or have a few days in Dubrovnik enjoying the sunshine after their pilgrimage.
Getting there Flights Direct to Dubrovnik from €60 one way
Hotel Accommodation is from €30 per night
Joe Walsh Tours from €499 per person including flights, 7 nights accommodation, transfers (prices exclude airport taxes and charges totalling €75 per person)
Marian Pilgrimages from €659 per person including flights, 7 nights accommodation, transfers, half board
Cassidy Travel from €665 per person including flights, 5 nights accommodation, transfers
Italy is another popular spot for pilgrimages a popular tour being to Assisi. Marian Pilgrimages arrange a number of tours to Italy