Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James

by David Downie


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Driven by curiosity, wanderlust, and health crises, David Downie and his wife set out from Paris to walk across France to the Pyrenees. Starting on the Rue Saint-Jacques and trekking 750 miles south to Roncesvalles, Spain, their eccentric route takes seventy-two days on Roman roads and pilgrimage paths—a 1,100-year-old network of trails leading to the sanctuary of Saint James the Greater. For Downie, the inward journey met the outer one: a combination of self-discovery and physical regeneration. More than 200,000 pilgrims take the highly commercialized Spanish route annually, but few cross France. Downie had a goal: to go from Paris to the Pyrenees on age-old trails, making the pilgrimage in his own maverick way.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781605985565
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 05/15/2014
Pages: 317
Sales rank: 327,138
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

David Downie, a native San Franciscan, lived in New York, Rome, and Milan before moving to Paris. Downie’s travel, food and arts features have been published worldwide. He is the author of two previous novels and over a dozen nonfiction history, travel and food books, including the highly acclaimed Paris, Paris; A Passion for Paris; Paris to the Pyrenees; and A Taste of Paris. He divides his time between France and Italy with his wife, the photographer Alison Harris.

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Pegasus Books LLC

Copyright © 2013 David Downie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-9863-3



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"Here before me now is my picture, my map, of a place and therefore of myself ... much of its reality is based on my own shadows, my inventions."

—M. F. K. Fisher, Two Towns in Provence

pilgrim ... from Latin peregrinus, a wanderer, a traveler in foreign parts, a foreigner ...

Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary


The storied medieval pilgrimage site of Vézelay stretched lengthwise across a hogback Burgundian ridge like a patient on a psychiatrist's couch. At the head of the hill was the Romanesque repository of Mary Magdalene's relics. Our hotel stood near the former fairgrounds at the saint's feet. The simile seemed imperfect. I had heard much about the site's purported psycho-therapeutic powers, though no psychiatrist's couch I've seen is ringed by tall, crumbling walls, studded with belfries and surrounded by Pinot Noir vineyards and cow-flecked pastures.

As a seriously overweight freethinker with wrecked knees, a crazed individual proposing to walk 750 miles on pilgrimage routes, perhaps my vision of Vezélay was impaired by a skeptical outlook, and I was the one who needed a therapist.

A natty innkeeper and a sculpted wooden effigy of Saint James greeted us at the Hôtel du Lion d'Or. She wore a tailored winter-weight pants suit. Saint Jacques wore his signature upturned floppy hat. It looked startlingly like the khaki-colored cotton sunhat the unrepentant optimist Alison had bought at a sports emporium in Paris. A ski cap would've been more appropriate.

I hated to disappoint James or the solicitous hotel manager, but Compostela by whatever name wasn't our goal. The Spanish section of the trail—from Roncesvalles Abbey in the Pyrenees Mountains to Santiago—is mobbed by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year. Their main preoccupation is to find food and a place to sleep each night, as we'd seen with our own eyes. Our goal was different. We wanted to cross France, not Spain, following age-old hiking trails, and do so unmolested by cars and other pilgrims, making the pilgrimage our own maverick way.

The truth is we weren't really religious pilgrims. At least I wasn't, and I could only speak for myself. Outwardly, the irrepressible desire I felt to hike across France had little to do with spirituality, a profitable concept whose meaning has never been clear to me. After twenty years of living and working in France, I simply felt the need to make my own mental map of the country by walking across it step by measured step and thereby possess it physically, intimately, something I'd failed to do through a car's windshield. I also needed to reinvent myself from the bottom up, restore something I'd lost, discover things I'd never tried to find, make an inner as well as an outer journey, and ask the big questions again, the What's-it-all-about-Alfie ones I'd stopped asking once out of adolescence. Among those fundamentals was, did I want to stay alive, or did I prefer to explode like an over-inflated balloon?

A quarter century of high living as a travel and food writer had demanded its pound of flesh. Many pounds, actually. I had become a hedonist and glutton. The cookbooks I'd written, the recipes I'd tested, the buttery croissants and fluffy mousses I'd savored in every imaginable locale, from bakery to multiple-starred restaurant, had buried me in radial tires, like the Michelin Man. I had also consumed gallons of wine, Calvados, Cognac, and even Inspector Maigret's Vieille Prune, a lethal eau de vie distilled from plums. Though I'd often tried to repress or control my gluttonous urges, change without crisis had not occurred.

Then one fine day, while eating my way through southern Burgundy, I'd keeled over and awakened to be told I was, in essence, a walking foie gras. I'd become a life-sized, green-hued liver, an organ afflicted by something called "steatosis." A second French doctor leaned over my hospital bed and nodded with undisguised disgust. He explained that steatosis means "marbled with fatty veins and pocked with fatty globules." I also had viral hepatitis, probably from food poisoning. I was, in short, experiencing liver failure.

Not that this was the first serious health crisis I'd faced in my nearly fifty-year existence—and ignored. A decade earlier, I'd been visited by sudden-onset optic neuropathy. It had gutted my vision, leaving me blind in one eye, my addled brain permanently dazzled by twinkling, spinning lights. But this tap on the shoulder with an angelic feather had not saved me. On the contrary. It had driven me to eat and drink even more, to forget my misery.

Still in Burgundy, trying to recover from liver disease, I vowed to change my life, seriously, this time. Really. Really. First I'd stop drinking and lose those saddlebags of fat that made me look like a pack mule. Second, I'd stay off computer screens long enough to see if my kaleidoscope vision improved. Third, I'd jump-start my jalopy and then slowly trickle-charge my batteries, and, who knows, perhaps bring a lilt back to my stride. Irreverent irony was my worst enemy. I was exhausted by flippancy and the forced cleverness of corporate magazine writing. Crossing France on foot, starting in Vézelay, was something I'd always dreamed of doing anyway, in part because Burgundy was so green and gorgeous, in part because of its historical associations with Rome and the ancient world, a lifelong obsession of mine. It seemed as good a place as any in which to force myself toward a new and improved lifestyle. I calculated that, if traversing Burgundy didn't kill me, I'd find some way to keep inching south until I'd crested the Pyrenees into Spain. Clearly, the best trails were the old Roman roads and pilgrim routes, where you could walk for miles without encountering a car. The only hitch as far as I could see was religion.

As a skeptic born and raised by skeptics in 1960s-70s San Francisco, a survivor both of the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, I felt queasy at the prospect of becoming an official pilgrim, with a pilgrim's Crédenciel—a handsome, fold-out passport issued and stamped by the Catholic church. The Crédenciel entitled you, among other things, to sleep in pilgrims' hostels along the way, for the price of a donation. But I couldn't face asking for one. I hadn't escaped the gurus and drug culture of California to wind up a Catholic in France; that was reason enough to devise my own unofficial pilgrimage, a journey into the past, to focus on the present, and, if I was lucky, to read the future.

Practically speaking, I planned to follow the 2,000-year-old Via Agrippa and pre-Roman, Gallic footpaths, routes predating Christianity, safe in the knowledge that, unbeknownst to most pilgrims, they underlie The Way of Saint James just as surely as Paganism underlies Roman Catholicism. I'd take the roads less traveled, the longer secondary routes from Vézelay via the ancient Gallic stronghold of Bibracte, then onwards to Autun, Cluny, and Le Puy-en-Velay. Julius Caesar and the Gallic chieftain Vercingé-torix had battled along this route. Charlemagne had ridden down it for the epic Pyrenees battle against the Moors recounted in The Song of Roland. Cluny had been the second Rome, with the biggest abbey church in Christendom, and, despite the Internet and cellular telephony, all roads, at least metaphorically, still lead to Rome. Forget Santiago de Compostela, I told myself; if I could make it across France, nothing could stop me from one day hiking across the Alps into Italy and down the boot to Rome.

So here I was, a prematurely hobbled, sardonic miscreant, an admirer of Caesar who had long hoped the Vatican would be toppled by earthquakes, about to keep my solemn promise to myself and begin a cross-country quest in the company of Saint James. Originally my plan hadn't included Alison, a professional photographer with a busy schedule and a considerably less troubled psyche. But she'd insisted on accompanying me, possibly because she herself had a host of family-related issues to think through, and was also an avowed walk-aholic. Mostly, I knew, Alison wanted to come along because she feared I'd die of exhaustion, be murdered, or go back to gorging myself en route. My opposite number, she was afflicted not only by quiet optimism, altruism, and wisdom, but also by chronic slimness. She'd never put on weight even though she'd eaten as much as I had for decades, earning a living by turning roast ducklings and strawberry tarts into lovely still-life photos. Her athletic physique hid one minor flaw: an elegant, S-shaped backbone, the result, she claimed, of the wooden grade-school chairs of her youth. Two cameras, a hundred rolls of film, and a gross of digital photo chips was all she would carry in her small knapsack. I would play not only Don Quixote to her Sancho Panza, I would also be her pack-donkey.


The most appealing sign on Vézelay's steep, slippery, cobbled main street showed a familiar seashell and belonged to a crêperie. It was called Auberge de la Coquille—the scallop. A mouthwatering scent of melting butter, sugar, crêpes, and hot coffee blew toward us on the wintry wind. I studied the sign, hesitating. Would I ever be able to resist the temptations of gluttony and lead a normal life? There was scope for serious doubt. I was already feeling faint from hunger. We'd left Paris on a pre-dawn train. Stiffening my resolve, I hiked on, comforting myself with thoughts not of food but of history.

As any pilgrim knows, especially if he's read up on the subject, the French call scallops coquilles saint-jacques—shells of Saint James. The scallop shell symbolizes this enigmatic individual. But the scallop is also the generic sign of questers of all kinds, which is why I've always loved it. Never mind that before the pilgrimage route was built, the scallop, cockle, and conch denoted Venus, born of virginal sea-foam, immortalized in Botticelli's painting and countless myths. These shells had been signs of the divine—of fertility and love—for centuries before James joined forces with Jesus.

I felt inside the wet, clammy right-hand pocket of my wind-breaker. Though an appealing shade of red and despite the manufacturer's claims, the garment was clearly not waterproof. There I'd placed the misshapen shell I'd found years ago on Utah Beach, in Normandy, when we'd been on another kind of pilgrimage, to see the Normandy landing beaches on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, in 1994. Using raindrops to polish the shell, I thought fondly of my father, and Alison's, both recently deceased, both World War Two vets of the best, most skeptical kind. I kept at it, stroking the cockleshell, and soon enough we were out of range of Auberge de la Coquille's dangerously caloric scents.

"I've found the technique," I said proudly to Alison. "It's my first epiphany!"


Despite our zealous desire to reach the basilica a quarter mile away atop the hill, the spring storm grew stronger, forcing us to seek shelter. In a cozy café we had several rounds of coffee and watched the rain turn to hail. I felt dazed and panicked. I'd pored over books and encyclopedias before leaving Paris. But somehow I hadn't been able to focus my mind on the actual reality of the journey ahead, or the cast of characters. All those unfamiliar names, dates, and places, and the thought of walking for nearly three months across rural France, without access to Google, now filled me with something akin to terror. I took out the concise biography of Saint James that I'd photocopied and, squinting, read aloud to Alison. This was a novelty. She's the one who usually reads aloud to me.

Alison sipped her coffee and agreed that it was easy enough to see how Iago—pronounced Yago—became the northwestern-Spanish equivalent of the Latin name Jacobus—pronounced Yakoboos. So Sant'Iago changing to "Santiago" was a logical step.

The origin of the winning name "Compostela" was less clear. Campus stellae meant "field of the star" and sounded euphonic, ringing like a Catholic retrofit to explain something unsavory. The story goes that a Spanish shepherd saw unusual blazing stars pointing to a mound. Hidden by vegetation stood the ruined tomb of the saint, which the shepherd soon ensured was discovered by persons more noteworthy than he.

This was certainly more uplifting a tale than the other, possibly more credible origin-myth for Santiago de Compostela and the real reason for the spot's unusual-sounding name. According to modern archeologists, the tomb of two Roman patricians named Athanasius and Theodore, discovered somewhat inconveniently under the main altar of the Cathedral of Saint James, their names sculpted on it, seems to confirm the existence of an ancient Roman villa beneath the holy shrine. The rational explanation for the name is simple enough: the villa had become a cemetery or dumping ground—a compost heap—and the word "compost" had evolved into Compostela. I folded the photocopy and felt warm inside, encouraged by the thought that a humble compost heap had become a site of miracles, the source of hope and inspiration, misguided or not, for millions of fellow questers.


Possibly because I spent several formative years in the mid-1960s living in Rome, and was dragged by my mother into hundreds of places of worship there, as an adult I've actively stayed out of churches. It was with trepidation that I now approached the basilica of Mary Magdalene, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perched high on Vézelay's hill, it attracts about a million visitors each year. The façade is not handsome, despite the best efforts of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the 1800s over-restorer of France's monuments. He rebuilt the basilica as we see it today, rescuing a ruin while trying and perhaps not entirely failing to preserve its magic.

Tradition has it that the Saturday before Easter is a mournful day, anticipating Sunday's rising of Christ. Consequently there were no tapers to light, no flowers on the altar, and no singing. But we, the visitors shuffling down the soaring nave, made our untidy presence felt. Were pilgrims also allowed to be tourists, I wondered. And vice versa: Could tourists be true pilgrims?

We let the crowds thin before climbing down a steep staircase into the dark, damp crypt. I stumbled on the uneven stone floor. Behind bars in a niche was Mary Magdalene's reliquary, an ornate neo-Gothic arc of gilded silver borne aloft by angels and holy men. In the early 1000s, Alison reminded me, the abbot of Vézelay discovered the remains of Mary Magdalene somewhere inside the monastery, or so the story goes. What were they doing in Vézelay? To query their provenance was to doubt the miraculous nature of the discovery. And doubting raised the uncomfortable, associated question of how a saint had been made of a wild young woman of alleged loose virtue, a long-haired temptress who had dried Jesus's feet with her hair and might be on stage or in a padded cell were she alive today.

"Relax," Alison whispered, taking my hand. "You're trembling."

"I'm cold," I said. But the origin of my nervousness had little to do with the temperature.

I closed my eyes, allowing the presence of Mary's relics to bestir feelings of spirituality. More tourists crowded around, some with flashing cameras. I tried to meditate, beginning with progressive relaxation, but that didn't help either. I changed tack, and thought again of history. With Mary Magdalene's bones in its crypt, Vézelay had soared in status, becoming not merely a stopover on The Way of Saint James but the starting point and, for many, the goal of pilgrimages. Here we were, at Ground Zero, by the saint's bones.

Mary Magdalene's reliquary niche was designed to hold an entire skeleton. But I knew from my readings that there'd been a minor hiccup: the Vatican had de-authenticated the relics in 1295, and Mary's tomb had vanished. Happily some of the bones stayed behind and were placed in containers. We were in the presence of the largest portion of the relics. Pop, ping, zing went the flashes and camera lenses. Cell phones rang. A guided tour group tramped in. Feeling like a spy in the house of love, I was swept away by disbelief.

Another reliquary is on the ground floor, in the church's right transept. As we headed for the cloisters, we stopped to look at it. Crowned by a gaudy modern sculpture, the reliquary had been vandalized. A pocket-sized niche stood empty, a wire grate bent back. The miniature effigy of Mary Magdalene had been stolen by souvenir hunters in the early 2000s, the relics too.

"Are you sure you don't want to get a pilgrim's passport?" I asked Alison, feeling a twinge of guilt. She was a lapsed Catholic and, I reasoned, might want spiritual insurance while walking. "Just because I refuse to submit doesn't mean you shouldn't have one." But she firmly shook her head.

We found an unoccupied bench on the tree-lined road called Promenade des Fossés paralleling Vézelay's oval ramparts and enjoyed our first picnic as pilgrims, albeit unofficial pilgrims. Alison had picked up the local newspaper. It carried the Easter address by Archbishop Yves Patenôtre of nearby Sens-Auxerre. He noted that our lives overflow with unanswered questions regarding mortality and the loss of loved ones. The big question was why did humans have to die? Even Jesus had asked God why he had to die. However, according to the archbishop, the good news was, Jesus and God were still among us, in the streets—alive. The joy of Easter, alas, would always be mixed with the gravity of the human condition: finitude. Mortality. But, for people of faith, with the balm of hope that they too, in some way, would rise again as Christ did.

Lingering over my apple, I contemplated the apparent infinity of the scenery, and felt the irreverence drain out of me. Skeptic or believer, there was much to chew on in the archbishop's words.


Excerpted from PARIS TO THE PYRENEES by DAVID DOWNIE, ALISON HARRIS. Copyright © 2013 David Downie. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

  • Contents
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgments and Thanks
  • Key People, Places and Events
  • Paris Prelude
  • Epilogue
  • About the Author
  • About the Photographer
  • Image Gallery

What People are Saying About This

Michael Ondaatje

David Downie is the master of educated curiosity. With him we discover Paris, a seemingly public city that is, in fact, full of secrets—great lives, lives wasted on the bizarre; forgotten artisans; lost graves. I have walked some of the city’s streets with him, and reading this book is just as tactile an experience.

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