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Paris to the Pyrenees: From a Traveler’s Notesbooks, Part 11, Finitude, Crusaders at the Chapel of La Cordelle in Vezelay


Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 11: Finitude, Crusaders at the Chapel of La Cordelle in Vezelay

These blog posts are taken directly from my notebooks. They contain much of the material that went into the final version of the surprise bestseller Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.



Part adventure story, part cultural history my book explores the phenomenon of pilgrimage along the centuries-old Way of Saint James in France—not in Spain. Starting in Paris then training to Northern Burgundy we trekked 750 miles south, an eccentric route taking 72 days on Roman roads and pilgrimage paths—a 1,100-year-old network of trails leading to the sanctuary of Saint James the Greater. It is best known as El Camino de Santiago de Compostela—“The Way” for short. The book includes 32 pages of evocative color photographs by Alison Harris. She has generously provided the images that appear with these posts.

What follows is unexpurgated, unedited material—the uncut version.

Listen to a short medley of sounds from our trek: a babbling brook, a braying mule, ducks and geese, church bells and barking dogs, wind, our own tinkle bells to warn hunters of our presence, and a Spanish pilgrim in Roncesvalles pronouncing the name of that isolated place, the famous medieval abbey where our trek ended: Pilgrimage sound medley

The paperback of Paris to the Pyrenees comes out in April 2014…

Photo copyright Alison Harris all rights reserved


Of Finitude and Crusaders

On the tree-lined, panoramic Promenade des Fossés paralleling Vézelay’s oval ramparts, a group of studiously scruffy French Hell’s Angels listened to hard rock, swilled beer and ate junk food, blissful in their bulging leather under the cold April rain. The view from the promenade took in countless hills, dales, hedged pastures, woods and fields, a palette of greens scribbled with glistening black script by looping two-lane farm roads. I struggled to suppress my repertoire of travel writer’s ready-mades, mentally crossing out “patchwork” and “lifted from a medieval Book of Hours.” Both clichés fit the scene nicely, while “panes of leaded glass” would at best resonate for the few.


We enjoyed our first picnic as pilgrims, albeit sui generis pilgrims, speculating on the inspired folly that had led us this far. At our hotel Alison had picked up a copy of the local newspaper. As I carved an apple with the old Swiss pocketknife our neighbor gave us, she read aloud from the Easter address to be given by the Archbishop of Sens-Auxerre, Monseigneur Yves Patrenôtre.


To paraphrase and compact, our lives are full of unanswered questions, noted the archbishop, questions regarding mortality, and the loss of loved ones, for example. Why did humans have to die? Jesus, too, asked God why he had to die. But Jesus and God were among us still, in the streets. The joy of Easter was mixed with the gravity of the human condition: finitude.


I lingered over my apple, contemplating the worn Swiss knife and the apparent infinity of the scenery before us. Whether you were a skeptic or believer there was much to chew on in the archbishop’s words.


A steep, rocky path led down from the ramparts through woods into the Valley of Asquins. In a clearing on the edge of the woods rose a tall, lacquered wooden cross, one of the fifteen crosses, it turned out, from the 1946 Peace Crusade. This one marked the spot where in 1146 Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, not yet a saint, had harangued an assembly of thousands from King Louis VII down, calling for a second Crusade to free Jerusalem from the Infidel—thereby restoring trade, it went without saying, and Christian control of the Near East and Mediterranean. I squinted, imagining the somnolent green valley below alive with knights in shining armor, soldiers, mercenaries, farmers, priests, all of them shouting the refrain either you’re with us, or you’re against us.


That day the crowds had been such that the assembled nobility could not fit into the basilica where, presumably, they also sheltered, for churches back then had practical uses that the 19th-century Catholic Revival sanitized out of existence. Anticipating an overflow, the far-seeing abbot had ordered a country chapel to be built. He made his speech nearby it, in the open air. That chapel still stands, about 50 yards from Bernard’s outdoor pulpit and the lacquered wooden cross. It’s called La Cordelle.


The rain and wind seemed to have swept away other visitors. We were alone as we entered the chapel’s mossy walled compound. I slipped the poncho’s hood off my head.


The beauty of La Cordelle resides entirely in stern simplicity: a floor of beaten earth and un-faced gray stone walls. There is no ornamentation or music, and little noise from the outside world. With eyes shut I felt the pleasant weariness of one who’s been up since dawn, has seen and walked much, and thought even more. Perhaps “spirituality” was after all the fruit of an altered physical and mental state, attainable by sleep deprivation and the fatigue of labor or prayer or pilgrimage. Sleep deprivation had long been the favored weapon of the medieval monastic orders. But I banished the thought and felt strangely happy. Birds sang. Rain pattered in the garden outside the chapel. The silence was not silent—it hummed. We had not even begun our pilgrimage, not the outward pilgrimage in any case. Perhaps it would not be necessary? We could call the whole thing off and return to Paris after Easter… An inner voice told me otherwise. And the arrival of a group of tourists dispelled the magic.


Please come back and read part 12 about Vézelay’s unsung neighbor, Asquins, and its wonderful pilgrimage church 


photo copyright Alison Harris


Watch a video about us walking the pilgrimage route in Paris

Please come back, future blog posts on the trek coming up soon…

Images by Alison Harris copyright all rights reserved. Note some images are from other sources.


Listen to an interview about Paris to the Pyrenees with Jacki Lyden on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday


Listen to David being interviewed by NPR Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley about the pilgrimage revival



Snippets of reviews/praise:


Evocative and moving… Downie’s quest is unconventional in tone and spirit as well as route. A lively wordsmith, Downie brings a deep and impassioned knowledge of French history, culture, and language to this pilgrimage. He also brings something more, a longing that he himself can’t pin down at the beginning… they encounter a memorable succession of taciturn, deep-rooted local farmers and gregarious, transplanted-from-Paris innkeepers. They also encounter the multi-layered, interweaving pathways of French history, commerce, religion, and spirituality—and manage to tuck in a few sumptuous celebrations of French food and wine, too. The result is an extraordinary account that illuminates France past and present and casts a light on something even greater: the truth that, however we choose to label our journey, we are all pilgrims on a common quest, to answer why we wander life’s question-paved path.” (Don George – National Geographic Traveler)


“In the tradition of Patrick Leigh Fermor, David Downie takes off on foot. Such a rigorous, slow journey—the polar opposite of airport-to-airport travel—gives him the gift of time, and the chance to absorb, taste, and experience the places he sees. Downie’s adroit, learned, and ambitious book re-invigorates my sense of travel, taking me back to the happy knowledge that the world is still large, and history unfathomably deep.” (Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun)

“Profound. A witty and intelligent spin on the spiritual-journey motif.” (Kirkus Reviews)


Order the hardback of Paris to the Pyrenees:


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Order the paperback of Paris to the Pyrenees, it comes out in April 2014!

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Published inAlison Harris photographyAsquinsBasilica of Mary MagdaleneBurgundyCrusadersFranceLa Cordelle VezelayParis preludeParis to the PyreneesParis to the Pyrenees blogpostParis to the Pyrenees blogpostsPilgrimage audioPilgrimage from VezelaySaint BernardSaint FrancisThe Way of Saint JamesVezelay