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Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 12: Asquins, Homely Sister of Vezelay


Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 12: Asquins, Homely Sister of 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…

Vezelay pilgrimage, Asquins

Hitting the Road Jacques, from Vezelay to Asquins


Behind the exquisite chapel called La Cordelle below the ramparts of Vézelay is a Franciscan monastery, France’s first, founded in 1217 by Francis of Assisi himself, one of the many great and good of centuries past to make a pilgrimage to Vézelay. In the tidy monastery’s parking lot were two modern, shiny cars. I wondered if the monks had satellite television and high-speed Internet access, if they bought incunabula and gardening tools off eBay. Part of me said “why not?” The other part knew why not.

In a field across from the monastery the dead, dry stalks of last year’s corn rattled in the wind. Between them grew pale green grass. Had the corn been wheat the scene would have been a good illustration for the Mithraic Mysteries, the cycle of rebirth central to the Asian cult of Mithras and symbolized by the new sheaf of grain. Naturally, the early Christian church fought to suppress Mithriism and triumphed by co-opting the cult.


El Camino de Santiago, GR hiking routes in France, trekking in France, Compostela, Vezelay

Which route to follow? Competing trails for pilgrims, trekkers, tourists. Copyright Alison Harris


Below the field in the Valley of Asquins a pair of wild hares zigzagged at speed past a crossroads marked with a proliferation of signs: the red-and-white flag of the GR 13 hiking trail-pilgrimage route, the Amis de Saint-Jacques pilgrimage route, and the VTT/FFC mountain bike and French Federation of Cyclists route.

With DNA testing, I told myself, perhaps the French penchant for rivalry will be proven genetic. Not for nothing the Romans had called the Gauls Galli, which in Latin (and Italian) also means roosters. The proverbial cockiness lives on, and, though the trail signs were a minor manifestation of it, seemed gratuitous in this presumed haven of spirituality. As Caesar said (I am paraphrasing from memory) “The Gauls might have ruled the world had they not forever been at war with each other and ready to sell each other out.”

Asquins gathers its modest, time-worn stone houses around a church that in its bigness looks out of proportion to its surroundings. We had been told that a village woman named Madame Dizien, in Rue de la Chevrerie, had the church keys, for it could no longer be left open unwatched. There was no priest in the village. Thieves had come too many times, stealing things nailed down or not.

Rue de la Chevrerie sloped down and on it a bespectacled boy of perhaps eight years rode his tiny bicycle. He stopped practically saluted and said bonjour! What’s more he seemed to mean it. Suddenly Asquins felt a long way from Paris.

A short, mustachioed man of advanced age also stopped what he was doing to greet us. Dapper and proud, he carried a spray canister. He’d been testing it in the gutter. “You have found her,” he said in answer to our query, “the keeper of the keys lives here…” He called out to Madame Dizien. She called back from indoors, saying she’d be out in a minute. Monsieur Dizien rocked on his heels and looked at the liquid in the gutter. It smelled of chemicals. “Eh oui,” he remarked, “it’s herbicide. You’ve got to kill the weeds in the walls. They eat the walls—ils mangent les murs.” If you don’t kill them, he explained mildly, the walls will fall down. Besides, the weeds steal the goodness of the soil from the nasturtiums and honeysuckle. “Round Up,” he confirmed. He pronounced it roondep.

I bit my lip, not wanting to talk water tables and contamination and be the predictable écolo de la ville—the big-city know-it-all environmentalist quick to preach to simple country folk.

As Madame Dizien accompanied us across the ghostly village she adjusted her overcoat and commented politely on the bad weather. The village had only 280 fulltime inhabitants left, she said, down from five times that many when she was young. Most of the houses stood empty for ten months of the year. “Second homes,” she sighed. “Vacation homes for Parisians, Dutch,” she added in a voice that suggested resignation, not anger. “The village has changed since I moved here in 1959…” I wondered aloud where she’d come from. “Paris, and I never went back.”

Did she miss the big city?

Madame Dizien smiled and laughed, unused to being asked her opinion, and said she didn’t know, she didn’t think so.

The church of Asquins is possessed of the charm of authenticity. We took our time walking around it and made a show of great interest. Madame Dizien waited, watching us, hoping, I thought, that we would be pleased, moved, impressed. “The rector of the district has eight villages on his circuit,” she said as we stood in the center aisle. “He manages to come by twice a month…”

In a side chapel a wooden reliquary bust of Saint Jacques caught a ray of sunlight sifting through stained glass windows. Jacques was wall-eyed, bearded and had the otherworldly gaze of a Flower Child. When Jesus had appeared that day on the shores of Lake Tiberiade in Galilee and announced he was “a fisher of men,” Jacques, a real fisherman, had dropped his net, dropped his life and left his family and friends to follow him. Today we’d probably call Jacques “crazy,” a nut, someone brainwashed by a cult and in need of pharmacological treatment. Had he simply been a hippy of his day? Was he a barefoot preacher of love and peace like Jesus, a rebel with a cause: an end to the collaborationism of traditionalists with the Roman occupiers of the Jewish homeland? Had John the Baptist, a Christian before the name, before Jesus himself, convinced the delusional rebel that he was the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah?

I remembered Jesus’ unanswered question as posed by Archbishop Yves Patrenôtre. Jesus, too, asked God why he had to die. What were the exact words from the Saint James translation of the Bible? Father, why hast thou forsaken me?

But these were not the sort of thoughts the church of Asquins was meant to inspire. I stifled my talking pedometer as it began to tell us how many calories we’d burned, and searched for something to admire.

“There are fewer of you than before,” Madame Dizien said as we bought postcards and dropped coins in a chest. “Everyone goes straight to Vézelay now.”

We walked across the village to the Rue de la Chevrerie where Madame Dizien shook our hands. “I’ve always wanted to make the pilgrimage,” she said. “But I’ve got a family. You must be unanchored, unattached…”

Or crazy, I thought.


photo copyright Alison Harris


The Route Nationale highway cuts across the lower section of Asquins near the Cure River. As we walked down toward it a siren screamed into life. An ambulance pulled away. Gendarmes stopped traffic in both directions to let it and a tow truck through. “Head on collision,” muttered a fat man who leaned out of his Lada and puffed on a large cigar.

In a café called Les Hirondelles—the skylarks—a clutch of good ol’ boys came out to watch the action, joining the fat man. “Everyone drives too fast through here,” said someone to no one in particular. “Everyone is in a rush.”

We ordered two coffees and stood at the café counter but I couldn’t take the acrid blue smoke billowing around us. I swallowed my bitter petit café in a gulp, left coins on the counter and stepped back into the gentle rain. The air was scented, not by flowers but by fuel oil for domestic heating and diesel fumes from the highway. The butcher’s shop across the street from the café was shut, out of business. Further along, another café, too, had gone out of business. It looked as if Les Hirondelles was the only business still alive in the village.

Through the windows I could see Alison chatting to the barman, and a tabletop soccer game of the kind most French cafés were equipped circa 1970. On the tile floor were bentwood chairs and old wooden tables, candles set atop them. I did a double-take. Candles? In a corner stood a Buddhist shrine it too surrounded by candles.

“Turns out the biggest Buddhist community in France is about 100 kilometers south,” Alison said, emerging from the café in a cloud of cigarette smoke. “The region breeds spirituality.”

We’d planned to walk from Asquins to Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay but discovered there was no hiking path, just the main highway. Now that the accident had been cleared away cars sped along it—speed being the operative word. We realized this was the stretch we would’ve walked down had we not taken a ride from the train station at Sermizelles. We’d driven through with the hard-of-hearing woman and almost collided with a truck.

Heading back uphill to the farm road and pilgrim’s trail to Vézelay the roar of the highway subsided. As we climbed past La Cordelle and Saint Bernard’s wooden cross the words of Sir Walter Raleigh, penned in the Tower of London the night before his beheading, came to me: “Give mee my Escallope shell of Quiett, My staffe of faith to walke uppon, My scripp of Joy Immortall dyett, My Bottle of Salutation, My Gowne of Glorye hopes true gage, And thus I take my pilgrimage…”

At the top of the hill, gardeners were at work. The ramparts near the Porte Sainte-Croix city gate had crumbled under a shaggy head of vegetation. Roots protruded from them. I thought of Monsieur Dizien and his herbicide. The ramparts were over 1,000 years old and had withstood wars and revolutions but not the slow, creeping roots of wall flowers and shrubbery.

Photo copyright Alison Harris all rights reserved


Please come back and read part 13 about Vézelay’s other unsung neighbor, the original Vezelay of ancient Roman times, Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay, and its wonderful pilgrimage church 


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)


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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 photographyAsquinsEl Camino de SantiagoFranceMithras and JesusNPR books interviewParisParis to the PyreneesParis to the Pyrenees blogpostParis to the Pyrenees blogpostsParis to the Pyrenees video: Paris PreludePilgrimage audioPilgrimage from VezelayThe Way of Saint JamesVezelay