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Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 13: The View from Vezelay or Religion vs Secularism in France


Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 13: The View from Vezelay or Religion vs Secularism in France


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…


The Promenade des Fossés led us from the old city gate of Vézelay to the panoramic terrace behind the basilica of Mary Magdalene. A copse of towering trees, their leaves barely unfurled, harbored groups of tired tourists collapsed on stone slabs or benches. The rain soon stopped and sunshine lit the countryside to the south where we would be heading.


From the table d’orientation, a platform with panoramic maps showing topographical features and distances, we could see Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay below and, further along, the ancient Roman road into the Cure River Valley. Domecy-sur-Cure, our first overnight heading south, and Marigny l’Eglise, our second, seemed a long way off. It was indeed a long and winding road, with nothing straight and narrow about it.


When Alison and I got married in Paris, at the civil ceremony in the town hall of the arrondissement where we live the deputy mayor had described marital union as une longue route, a metaphor very like that of life as expounded by the Catholic Church. But the cohabitation of the church and the fiercely secular state republic of France was uneasy. It seemed at times that practicing Christians, Jews and Moslems were careful, almost secretive about acknowledging their faith.


The French Revolutionary heritage of anticlericalism survived the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the reigns of the nominally Catholic King Louis Philippe and pious-opportunist emperor, Napoleon III. For the last 100 years or so, since the 1905 law decreeing a strict separation of church and state, the cult of the Republic has largely supplanted religion. A Frenchman’s first allegiance is to the Republic, not God, whatever name God or the gods or their messengers might wear.


Yet most French names were saints’ names, often in disconcerting cross-gender combinations such as Jean-Marie for a boy or Marie-Pierre for a girl. Until the end of the twentieth century a curious French law had forbidden the use of names that did not belong to Old Testament figures or saints. At the same time no religious symbols, including the cross, could be worn ostentatiously or displayed in public offices or schools. It often felt like a fudge, an imperfect historical compromise to carry forward the twin French traditions of Christianity and republican statist secularism.


The compromise clearly had not foreseen the advent of globalization, or the arrival of 5 million Moslems, some of whom wanted to wear headscarves in public schools, and others—a tiny minority—who appeared to Frenchmen to feel allegiance first and foremost to Islam. I couldn’t help regretting that by insisting on bucking the system they were driving many otherwise indifferent French toward intolerance, xenophobia and a return to the unsavory, retrograde kind of nationalism and religiosity that had long fueled anti-Semitism and racism here.


What most French appeared to want was the freedom to name their children after soap opera or reality show stars, wear ostensibly religious symbols as fashion statements, benefit from subsidized education, retire early, and buy SUVs—the ultimate symbol of secular materialism in a country where gas costs over $10 a gallon.


The roar of an off-road vehicle turned my thoughts elsewhere and I watched, half-amused, thoroughly disgusted, as an adolescent boy on a 4-wheeled Quad rode right into the park. He had obviously decided he’d had enough of the quiet of Easter Saturday. Flying under the trees, scattering tourists he tore off along the path behind the basilica.


It was the umpteenth reminder that no country holds the monopoly on jerks and hormonal youths. Where in a modern Inferno and under what torment might a contemporary Dante place Quad riders, I wondered?


photo copyright Alison Harris



Please come back and read part 14 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)


Order the hardback of Paris to the Pyrenees:


Order the e-book of Paris to the Pyrenees:


Order the audio book of Paris to the Pyrenees:


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

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Published inAlison Harris photographyBasilica of Mary MagdaleneEl Camino de SantiagoFranceNationalism in FranceNPR books interviewParisParis to the PyreneesParis to the Pyrenees blogpostParis to the Pyrenees blogpostsPilgrimage audioPilgrimage from VezelayRacism in FranceReligion in FranceSecularism in FranceVezelay