My Pilgrimage Experiences…..
We were hosted by International Heritage Tours with Father Peter Nguyen as our Pastor and Christopher and myself as our Tour Leaders. This simple sign was always in the window of our bus so we didn’t accidentally get on the wrong one!
May 29, 2017 – The Gathering of the West
Everyone journeying from BC and Alberta gathered together in Vancouver the night before our pilgrimage departure. After arriving into Vancouver, we checked into our Vancouver airport hotel, then gathered to share a wonderful dinner together. It was really wonderful having that time to wind down, wind up, and get to know each other a little better.
Not too much time to socialize though, as we had an early morning departure.
A 4:30 am wake up call comes very quickly!
May 30, 2017 – Vancouver Departure, the Gathering of the East and Toronto Departure
Here we all are – excited and ready to begin the journey. The departure from Vancouver left right on time and it was an uneventful flight to Toronto – we like those! But, things were about to change!
After stopping in Toronto to pick up our Eastern Canada pilgrims, (I took a little detour to go out of security and pick up some documents needed for the trip), we boarded our plane, left the gate and there we sat. For about 1.5 hours. The problem – a glitch with the navigation system. Hmmm… After some re-assuring words from our Captain and a new route being imputed into the computer we were off. Instead of flying the polar route, we stuck closer to the coastline, which afforded a new perspective as we traveled overnight to Barcelona. The delay added about 3 hours to our very long day. Air Canada handled the situation very well, keeping us informed and allowing us to get us and move around while they dealing with the navigation issues.
May 31, 2017 – Arrival into Barcelona, Spain
Tired and three hours late, we were surprisingly in very good spirits! I had been in constant communication from Toronto and, at touch down in Barcelona, with our Tour Leader, Christopher, so they were waiting for us when we arrived with our very comfortable tour bus.
A narrated mini tour of Barcelona was a nice welcome to this European gem. When we arrived at our hotel, the Alimara Barcelona Hotel, we were definitely ready for a shower, some dinner and a good night’s rest. The hotel was not near any tourist sites, but it was very comfortable and modern.
June 1, 2017 – Montserrat and Barcelona Tour
As with most guided tours we were up early, enjoyed our breakfast and then headed out. Our destination – our first pilgrimage site – the Benedictine Monastery and the Abbey and the Basilica at Montserrat.
The Monastery itself is closed to the public, but there is much to do and see at Montserrat. Being on a tour has its benefits and its drawbacks. I would have loved to stay here longer and explore. For us, it was about the stop at the Abbey and Basilica and to catch a glimpse of the Black Madonna of Montserrat. She sits atop the altar in the Basilica. LONG lines form quickly to see her. I didn’t have the time, so I spent my time exploring this beautiful Basilica and taking in the views.
Montserrat means “saw” or “serrated” and is aptly named, as these mountains, which can be seen from long distances away, are just that!
Amazing rock formation are everywhere. Access from Barcelona to Montserrat, located in Catalonia, can be by car, cable car and rail. Hiking and climbing are popular here.
Once there, two funiculars take you to the two most impressive sites. The first – the Funicular de Sant Joan takes you to the top of the mountain. From there you are afforded amazing views and can see crevices which were once the abodes of reclusive monks. The second – the Funicular de la Santa Cova descends to the Shrine of the Virgin of Montserrat. It takes about 45 minutes each way, so again, I didn’t have the time to go.
If you want to take a tour there, find one that allows for several hours on the mountain. I would definitely go back to Barcelona and to Montserrat.
The Basilica of La Sagrada Familia was designed by Antoni Gaudi and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction began in 1882 and continues even now with an estimated completion date of 2026. When completed, it will have a total of eighteen spires, representing the Twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists and Jesus Christ. The Church will have three grand facades: the Nativity to the East, the Passion to the West, and the Glory to the South.
June 2, 2017 – Carcassone and Lourdes, France
En route to Lourdes, we made an unscheduled stop (I love when tour companies do that!) at Carcassonne, France.
Located in the south of France on the Aude plain between historic trade routes, its strategic importance was quickly recognized by the Romans who occupied its hilltop around 100 BC and then it was taken over in the fifth century by the Visigoths. It is famous for its medieval fortress and its role in the Crusades and is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Wow, wow, wow…I heard a lot of that when we stopped here. It has two outer walls and 53 towers to prevent attack. It has its own drawbridge and ditch. We spent about 2 hours exploring here. A great stop!
It is inviting, calming and overwhelmingly peaceful. Even with thousands of people present. Singing is ever present, Masses run continually in all languages and people praying all drew me into the very sincere nature of this holy place. Even the continual rain couldn’t ‘dampen’ knowing that I was standing in the place of miracles. Every evening there is a candlelight procession with singing and the recitation of the rosary. There’s a beautiful Way of the Cross that winds up paved walkway just off of the square. It’s joyfully humbling to be walking with so many other pilgrims all praying in their own languages and all blending into one voice. Truly beautiful. Truly prayerful. At night the Sanctuary is glowing in the light of candles and soft lighting. I found myself just stopping and taking in the gift of being at Lourdes.
People pray here both night and day…very moving
June 3, 2017 – Lourdes
Day two in Lourdes afforded me a full day to explore on my own or with friends that were traveling with me. I still did not see all it had to offer.
The main square in Lourdes is called Rosary Square. There are several churches there: the Crypt completed in 1866, The Upper Basilica (Basilica of the Immaculate Conception), Rosary Basilica, Church of St. Bernadette across the river built upon the site where Bernadette had her final vision, the Underground Basilica (Basilica of St Pius X) , the Chapel of Reconciliation and St Joseph’s chapel.
There are daily processions – the Blessed Sacrament Procession begins at 5:00 pm followed by the Torchlight Procession at 9:00 pm. Both are moving and spiritual experiences. I was left feeling overwhelming peace.
The grotto where Mary appeared to St Bernadette can also have long lines, but it moves quickly. I didn’t know about the “tradition” of running your hands along the rocks of the Grotto as you approach the sight of the Spring, but I found myself instinctually doing just that. There so much to experience, and although I was in a “line” you can take as much time there as you need or want. You look down to the Spring which is covered in plexi-glass to protect it and you look up to look upon the statue of Mary in the Grotto where she appeared to St Bernadette. There are bench there as well for those who just want to sit, pray and lose themselves in this holy place.
There are long lines for the Baths and the hours are limited. Separate entrances for men, women, families, and disabled persons allow time for pilgrims to prepare themselves for this truly humbling experience.
Lourdes is truly an inspiring, uplifting and spiritual place of pilgrimage.
June 4, 2017 – Zaragoza and Travel to Madrid, Spain
Our second unscheduled stop: Zaragoza and The Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. Zaragoza is the capital of the northeastern Spain’s Aragon region. Pilgrims travel here to be in the place where Mary appeared to St James as he prayed in desperation at the banks of the Ebro River. A wooden image of Mary is enshrined at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. This is an incredible church built in 1681. It has eleven cupolas, four towered and eleven lantern towers. During the Spanish Civil War, two bombs hit and damaged the Basilica but neither exploded. The event was considered a miracle and the defused bombs have been on display ever since.
Unfortunately, it rained as we traveled through the Pyrenees mountain range. I would love to do this again on a sunny day. The scenery would be spectacular! Along the way though we saw many, many dams and windmills. Europe is fantastic as looking at alternative power options. Skiing rules here as well! Tourism is a significant part of the income through this mountainous corridor.
Our hotel in Madrid was the Calle Alcala. An very comfortable hotel, albeit a bit out of the way from the major tourist sites. It was a very nice feature of this particular tour that all our dinners (and breakfasts) were included – this is a nice touch, although sometimes it would have been great to go out and “taste the local dishes”.
June 5 , 2017 – Madrid sightseeing and Trip to Toledo, Spain
For me, Madrid was not a highlight. You can easily see its sights in two-three days. It has several landmarks: the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Royal Theatre, Buen Retiro Park, Puerta del Sol, several museums and the Celebes Palace and Fountain.
There are several easy day trips from Madrid. One of note is to Toledo Spain, our next Pilgrimage stop. Located in central Spain it is the capital of the province of Toledo. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage and historical co-existence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures. From this town we get our phrase “Holy Toledo”. Walking through it’s streets you get a real sense of the presence of the three religious cultures. You will need a full day to explore Toledo.
The old city is located on a mountaintop with a 150 degree view, surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River. And, top of the mountain is really what it is! There are a set of 4 escalators that bring you from where the buses stop into this charming town. You can take the stairs – but what a climb!
Once there, it’s easy to get “misplaced” in the winding streets, but just take your time and enjoy! The streets are covered with light fabric pieces to protect from the sun and local artisans love it when you just “stop in”. Fantastic little cafes abound as well.
The Cathedral of Toledo was built between 1226-1493. It has five naves and beautiful small chapels, one which we celebrated our daily mass in. Built with white limestone from the quarries near Toledo, it incorporates spectacular lights aspects.
The most important object in the Chapel of the Treasure is the great Monstance of Arfe. It is made of the finest silver and gold, bejeweled with gems and measures ten feet tall. Built from 1517-1524. It is encased under bulletproof glass and heavily guarded. It has been carried in the procession of Corpus Christi since 1959. It is truly beautiful.
Avila is a walled city and the capital of the Province of Avila and is sometimes called the Town of Stones and Saints. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. It is situated on the flat summit of a rocky outcrop on the right bank of the Adaja river. It is the highest provincial capital in Spain at 1132 meters above sea level. It’s much larger than I imagined it to be.
The walls are amazing and imposing! Construction began in 1090. There are 88 semi-circular towers, 2, 500 curtain walls three meters thick and nine gates! It shines in the darkness when illuminated! Beautiful. You’ll need at least 5 hours to explore this amazing city.
This stop along our pilgrimage brought us to Cathedral of Avila where we celebrated our daily mass.
Saint Theresa of Avila was a Spanish mystic, Catholic saint and Carmelite nun. She was later joined by Saint John of the Cross. St Theresa was fascinated by accounts of the lives of the saints. Her mother died when she was 14 which prompted her to embrace a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary as her spiritual mother. In the monastery she suffered greatly from illness. During her life she founded 16 convents. St Teresa is one of the foremost writers on mental prayer, and her position among writers on mystical theology is unique.
The international university town of Salamanca was our next stop. Our hotel for the night was the Hotel Sercotel Artheus – beautiful lobby and very comfortable hotel! Lying on several hills by the Tormes River, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The University of Salamanca was founded in 1218 and is the oldest university in Spain. Spending free time exploring the Plaza Mayor, Salamanca’s public square was a highlight for me. It’s a beautiful plaza with shops, cafes and restaurants. A great place to unwind and people watch!
June 7, 2017 – Santiago de Compostella
Next stop – Santiago de Compostella. Our hotel here was Los Abetos. Located on a hill overlooking the town, it was a bit out of the way, but had beautiful gardens.
The city has its origin in the shrine of Saint James which is now the city’s cathedral. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Santiago de Compostella is the culmination of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James) pilgrimage route. We experienced pilgrims on their knees, laden with heavy backpacks, journeying on the own pilgrimage. The Cathedral de Santiago de Compestella was consecrated in 1211 with the pilgrimage route itself originating in the 9th century.
The 1,000 year old shrine of St. James left me feeling small, humble and overwhelmed with the great amount of faith the early Christians must have had to have to hide their faith.
June 8, 2017 – Fatima, Portugal
We left Spain and traveled in Portugal en route to Fatima. This was the reason for the pilgrimage – to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Apparitions of Mary to the three children of Fatima. Our hotel for 2 nights was the Hotel Estrela, directly across the street from the Sanctuary of Fatima.
The Marian apparitions that were witness by three shepherd children, Lucia dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto at the Cova da Iria on May 13th, 1917. They saw a “lady dressed in white” and shining with a bright light. A small chapel was built in her honor in 1918.
Every year thousands of pilgrim visit the Sanctuary of our Lady of Fatima. It is a time of personal, spiritual renewal.
The children saw Mary on six occasions. An estimated 70,000 pilgrims went to the site for the last prophesided apparition in October. Some of them reported what has been referred to as the Miracle of the Sun. The local bishop marked the site with a cross and in 1918 they built a small chapel from rock and limestone and covered it in tile.
Francisco died in 1919 and Jacinta in 1920 during the Spanish flu pandemic. Lucia dos Santos became and nun and lived until 2005.
Fatima is remarkably different from Lourdes. That really surprised me. But what was apparent very quickly was that the same devotion was prevailing at both Marion sites. What was once a large grassy, treed field is now a large square continually filled with pilgrims coming for penance and healing with true devotion.
The Sanctuary of Fatima is comprised of the The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Chapel of the Lausperene, a great oak tree near where Mary appeared to the children, a monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Chapel of the Apparitions. In addition, several other structures and monuments are there including the Retreat House of Our Lady of Sorrows, the rectory, The Retreat House of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a segment of the Berlin Wall, marking the consecration of Russia to the Sacred Heart of Christ, individual moments to Pope Paul VI, Pope Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II. Across from the main sanctuary is the much larger Basilica of the Holy Trinity.
Underground is a vast network of chapels and confessional rooms where priests are always present to hear confessions in all languages.
Candlelight processions take place every night. Pilgrims are called to prayer by the bells of the Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary. It’s really beautifully prayerful.
June 9, 2017 – Fatima, Portugal
Our second day in Fatima allowed us to visit the houses of the children, travel to the church where they were baptized and spend time in prayer in Fatima. It was remarkable to see the humble yet comfortable houses. Of course we had to “travel by bus” and what seemed like a long distance from Fatima, was actually quite close if you were to walk across the fields as they were in 1917! I actually could have used one more day in Fatima as well.
The graves of the children are kept in the Basilica at Fatima. It’s a quite, peaceful place even with many pilgrims there.
June 10, 2017 – Santarem and Lisbon Departure
Our last stop in the pilgrimage was, for me, the most powerful. Santarem is not far from Fatima and 45 miles north of Lisbon. The Church of the Holy Miracle is home to a 13-century Eucharistic miracle visited by thousands of pilgrims. We were not permitted to take pictures here, but I was able to snap these few before they asked me to turn my camera off. We were permitted to go behind the altar and up a ramp. From there you ascend up a very steep ladder about 5 or 6 steps. The Eucharist is there behind a protective glass. You are able to touch the glass, spend time in prayer before the Eucharistic Miracle and then you come back down again. There are two persons there helping you. It is misshapen, torn, and bloody. It really resembles flesh and it brought me to tears to stand in His presence.
The story of the miracle centers on an early 13th century woman with an unfaithful husband. To save her marriage, she consulted a sorceress who promised her to cure her husband of his infidelity if she brought her a piece of consecrated host. The next time she attended Mass at the 12th-century Church of St Stephen, she took the consecrated host from her mouth, wrapped it in a veil and headed for the door. But before she had taken more than a few steps, the host began to bleed, so much so that parishioners that she had cut her hand. She ran from them to her home.
Back at home, she threw the bloody host into a trunk in her bedroom. In the middle of the night her and her husband were both awoken by a mysterious light emanating from the trunk. The woman confessed to her husband what she had done and the both knelt in repentance before the miracle. The next morning, the couple told the parish priest what had happened. The priest place the miracle host in a wax container and returned it to the Church. The next time the priest opened the tabernacle that contained the miraculous host, another miracle occurred. The wax container was found broken into pieces and the host was enclosed in a crystal pyx. This pyx was placed in a silver monstrance where it can be seen today.
No words can express the emotions and humility I experienced standing and kneeling before the Body of Christ.
Departure from Lisbon to Toronto then to Vancouver
The Lisbon airport is confusing to say the least! Definitely allow yourself time if you are departing from here. Again, once boarded we had an uneventful flight from Lisbon to Toronto. Yes, you guessed it – once in Toronto, we experienced another extended delay. This time 3 hours. The problem – no flaps! Well, I would rather get off a plane with no flaps and wait then fly on it! Again, Air Canada did a good job of keeping us informed while on the plane, allowing us to unbuckle, use our cell phones and the restrooms, etc. So, after a very long delay, we were informed that we would have to deplane. Another plane would be arriving from Vancouver and they would be transferring us to it, pilot, attendants and all. They gave each of us a $15.00 meal voucher to have dinner in Toronto, covered hotel expenses for clients that missed connections in Vancouver and rerouted and held planes that they could. Fortunately for us, we were staying overnight in Vancouver, so I just made a call to the hotel and let them know that we would be arriving 3 hours later.
In summary, my take on bus tours….positive!
It is perfect if you have never been to a place before and want to see as many sites there as possible in a short period of time. It is not the way to travel if you are an independent traveler though, as it can be quite constraining. Finding one that allows for free time is a must. That allows you to put your own “feel” into the vacation and become a little immersed in local customs and culture. I found the city tour guides to be friendly and informative, although sometimes they moved quite quickly, so move those with mobility issues, definitely consider a tour that matches your needs.
Half the fun is getting to know your fellow travelers. Changing bus seats throughout the tour creates that sense of comradery. You can be as engaged as you wish as well.
Thank you for coming along with me!