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800km (497 miles) SW of Paris; 40km (25 miles) SE of Pau

Muslims turn to Mecca and Hindus to the Ganges, but for Catholics, Lourdes is the world's most evocative shrine. Nestled in a valley in the southwestern part of the Hautes-Pyrénées, it draws pilgrims from all over the world. If you're coming in August, the shrine's high season, book your hotel as early as possible.

Many Roman Catholics believe that on February 11, 1858, the Virgin revealed herself to a shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous. Eighteen such apparitions were reported. Bernadette, subject of the film Song of Bernadette, died in a convent in 1879. She was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933.

Her apparitions put Lourdes on the map. The town has attracted millions of visitors, from the illustrious to the poverty stricken. The devout are often disappointed by the commercialism of Lourdes today. And some vacationers are disturbed by the human desperation of victims of various afflictions spending their hard-earned savings seeking a "miracle," then having to return home without a cure. However, the church has recognized many "cures" that took place after patients bathed in the springs, labeling them "true miracles."