I once flew to Lourdes for €5, alas, I won’t make it this year

Over the past ten years, John Arnold has spent many a night ‘surfing the internet’ with just one purpose in mind... 
I once flew to Lourdes for €5, alas, I won’t make it this year

SUCCESS STORY: John Arnold once wrote to Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, expressing his gratitude after a trip to Italy

WE went for a few days of a break to Rome about 25 years ago. We spotted a ‘small ad’ in The Examiner, a lady offering an apartment close to the centre of Rome for a relatively modest price.

We contacted her and soon we had Ryanair flights booked from Dublin to Fiumicino Airport just outside the Eternal City. I recall we arrived in Italy by night and with ‘Arnold’ on a big cardboard sign we soon met our host.

It’s about 20 miles from the airport to the city and we were staying within walking distance of the sights of the famous tourist destination.

Of course, she drove ‘at the wrong side of the road’ as she sped back home. Junctions, roundabouts, tunnels, flyovers and motorway — well, she drove in top gear and I was in dread of my life. Taking turns was a bit like being in the bumpers in Youghal long ago, but we arrived safely in one piece, more or less.

We really enjoyed Rome and the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican and all the other tourist sights. Dining ‘al fresco’ by night with the strolling minstrels singing Santa Lucia and O Sole Mio was an unforgettable experience and definitely on the ‘bucket list’ for some future time again.

We flew home in daylight and that day at Fiumicino Airport was when I realised how Ryanair had changed the world of aviation. I think I counted 40 Ryanair planes on the Tarmac and do you know it gave me a sense of pride in being Irish.

I thought of the airline’s founder Tony Ryan and of course the wonderful Michael O’Leary. The whole concept of low-cost flying worldwide can be attributed to Ryanair.

I remember when we came home I wrote to O’Leary conveying my sense of gratitude for his whole operation and ability to make dreams realities. Now, of course, some people hate him whilst others adore him but whatever camp you’re in, you cannot deny the fact he has revolutionised air travel on a global scale in our times.

I know, I know, the environmental impact of aeroplanes is huge and maybe after this pandemic passes things will never be the same again in terms of flying anywhere. Be that as it may, I admire the Mullingar- based businessman who lives by the motto that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’!

I’m no keyboard warrior, but it’s amazing how much I can do on my computer with the one finger. It really suits me fine ’cause I’m a slow thinker. Sure, if I was able to type, say, 50 words a minute I’d have things written before I even thought of them!

It’s mid-October now and with the last ten years or more I’d normally spend a few minutes every night ‘surfing the internet’ with just one purpose in mind.

To celebrate my half century of existential existence back in 2007, I went to Lourdes. It was kind of on a whim really. I’d been there once before as a child and heard so much about it from my late mother that I was happy to return.

Well, as ye all know, I fell in love with Lourdes. People might say ‘Yerra, how can you fall in love with a place — a person yes, surely, but hardly with a place?’ Well, some things cannot be ever adequately explained — they are called mysteries.

When we were small, we saw the man on the moon, Santa came every Christmas, summers were warm, winters were cold. We couldn’t understand the why and wherefore of everything but we never doubted what we were told by our elders. I suppose Lourdes is the same for me.

I have written hundreds of pages, thousands of words about it, yet it’s essence and magnetic pull still remain a mystery to me. That’s why I decided to go back to Lourdes in the winter over a decade ago and each June and November/December since I’ve been blessed to spend time in that special place, Lourdes, the village of St Bernadette.

So around this week each year I’d be planning, with the help of Ryanair, my winter journey. A journey of silence one could say, for in November or December Lourdes is truly far from the madding crowd.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore going with our Invalid Pilgrimage each year — alas, not in 2020 ’cause of the virus — and the fun and camaraderie and special blessed moments with so many friends and people we serve cannot be replicated.

Going alone in the winter is so very different. Is it to ‘recharge spiritual batteries? I don’t really know the answer to that, but whether it’s tramping the road to Bartres or walking the streets in the early morning rain on the way to the Grotto, the solitude is bliss.

Am I lonely on my own? Not at all. All the familiar places that are thronged with familiar faces in the summer are still there, like Patrick Kavanagh wrote “on a quiet street where old ghosts meet”.

I never indulged in online gambling, but I think I know what that winning buzz is like!

I’d go to the Ryanair website and look for flights from Stanstead Airport (I know it like the back of my hand now!) in London to Tarbes Airport in Lourdes. Then look for return flights. I’ve gone as early as the first week in November and as late as December 8. Because of that flexibility you’d often strike the ‘jackpot’ in terms of seat availability and cheap prices.

One year I flew from Cork to Stansted of a Friday night. I bunked down for the few hours in the Costa coffee shop there. Got a half eight flight the following morning to France, spent four days there and returned the same route — the four flights cost me a total of €5!

Now, when we go in high summer the total ‘damages’ would leave one with little change out of €1,000 for the five days.

Cash is never too plentiful at the back end of the year when cows are nearly dry so thank God for Michael O’Leary and Ryanair.

One year, I went by bus from Fermoy to Dublin, flew to Carcassonne, and got a train from there to Toulouse. From there I got a train down to Lourdes — it reminded me of the song Midnight Train To Georgia as I arrived on a near-empty train, in Lourdes close to midnight in the dark of the night.

Getting bargain basement air-fares is a great thrill — like winning the Lotto, or backing an outsider at the dogs or horses!

The other night, temptation got the better of me and I checked the Ryanair site, and yes, if I went by car, bus, plane and train next month, I could still get to Lourdes ant it wouldn’t break the bank. But of course I’d be breaking rules and regulations — there’s no Green List of ‘Safe’ countries to travel to from Ireland at present.

Then, last week, Liechtenstein was safe to travel to so I ‘Googled’ flights from Liechtenstein to Lourdes but discovered that Liechtenstein, wherever ’tis, has no airport!

Each winter with the last few years I’d always walk out the few miles to Bartres , up, up, high over Lourdes. The little village nestles in a sun-trap of a valley hemmed in by hills. I’ve been there in glorious December sunshine listening to the cow-bells tinkling on nearby hillsides where little herds grazed away. I’ve had lunch at the Bergeronettes Restaurant where you’d get a five course meal for €12.

The woman of the house has been in poor health these past few years. Last November, she was in the kitchen but needed a constant oxygen to deal with respiratory problems. I won’t meet her next month but I hope she’s OK.

‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where don’t know when...’

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