I love the place, but I have not been to Lourdes for years. I hate the drunkenness, I hate the fornication, I hate the abuse of the liturgy, I hate the lack of real spiritual care for the young helpers. Last year all my antipathy was confirmed with a picture of one of our English bishops performing a drag routine, dressed as a nurse, even so I hadn't realised things had got to this state...
From the Daily Telegraph By Peter Allen in Lourdes
For millions of pilgrims, a visit to Lourdes to take its miraculous healing waters is an intensely spiritual experience. Since Bernadette Soubirous witnessed the first of 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary almost 150 years ago, the shrine has become a place of quiet contemplation and religious devotion.
Hail Mary or Bloody Mary? Lourdes is home to tacky gift shops and numerous bars and clubs
But now the town's peace is being shattered by thousands of British tourists whose behaviour has become so bad that officials have brought in riot police. The decision to deploy officers from the notorious Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) came after local gendarmes admitted that they were unable to cope with the nightly excesses of British visitors who, after going to the famous shrine, take to the town's bars and clubs.
"We are carrying out late- night patrols because of the threat to public order caused by increasing numbers of night-time drinkers," a spokesman for the CRS said.
"The local gendarmes cannot cope with all the trouble, and the situation has been getting out of hand. The British are particularly fond of their drink and have been some of the worst offenders. There have been numerous complaints about their behaviour, and it cannot be tolerated."
In Lourdes's busy streets, there is plenty of evidence of alcohol-fuelled exuberance in the town's numerous bars and clubs.
At Bar Angelus, a few hundred yards from the shrine, bare-chested men, and women wearing skimpy tops and crucifixes, swayed to the blaring music including Madonna's Like A Virgin and Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones.
"We come here to party after being reverential all day," said Susan Clare, a 19-year-old student from south London.
"Some of the lads go a bit over-the-top, but none of us set out to cause trouble. It's just our way of letting off stream. It is worrying to see these elite police patrolling in their vans and on foot, but I suppose they have a job to do."
"We're just typical Brits enjoying ourselves," said Phil Cross, a 22-year-old from Manchester, who was accompanying a group of handicapped pilgrims.
"None of us mean any harm, but the situation can get a bit tense when the police take exception to what's going on. You do see a few of the older pilgrims who are still up late looking a bit worried by what's going on, but you're only young once."
Later, as the bars continued to serve cocktails at £2.50 a time, revellers were seen running across the roofs of parked cars, indulging in mock fights and vomiting into gutters. It is these types of crime, along with minor acts of vandalism and "lewd behaviour" between amorous young Roman Catholics, that dominate the nightly reports of CRS officers.
"Offenders from Britain are easy to spot because they usually all wear the same coloured T-shirts and hats," said one CRS officer. "Last week a couple sneaked into the grounds of the Rose Basilica and became very amorous in a very holy place. It's not the kind of thing other pilgrims want to see."
Since February 1858, when the first apparition was witnessed by Bernadette Soubirous, more than 200 million people have visited the south-western French town, which has a population of 15,000.
There have been 67 recognised miracles, the last involving a 41-year-old Italian woman who was suffering from severe heart disease.
However, concerns have been expressed that the commercialisation is at odds with Lourdes's importance as a religious shrine. In addition to its drinking spots, the town is home to dozens of shops selling cheap gifts and a profusion of fast-food restaurants.