Six million people visit Lourdes every year. The small town in the southwest of France has drawn pilgrims since 1858, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a 14-year old named Bernadette Soubirous in a cave. The spring water was deemed to have miraculous healing powers, turning the town into one of the holiest places in the world for Catholics. Only 14,000 people live in Lourdes, but the town counts more hotels per kilometer than any French city except for Paris.

Though they come from every corner of the world, Lourdes’ pilgrims all have the same circuit: the cave; the churches; the world’s largest underground basilica, where 150 priests give mass to 12,000 people. But every year, at the beginning of May, a very different kind of pilgrim arrives.

The International Military Pilgrimage is a major gathering for the Catholic military chaplaincy: around 15,000 people from thirty countries take part. Soldiers in uniforms walk the narrow paved streets and crowd the town’s bars and clubs, drinking and dancing until dawn. Part pilgrimage, all party. Photographer Gianmarco Maraviglia joined a group of young carabinieri, Italy’s military police, to document a side of Lourdes that is rarely seen.

All photos by Gianmarco Maraviglia/Echo Photojournalism