Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 14: A Bang-Up Meal at the Lion d’Or and we’re off… to Saint Pere sous Vezelay!


 



Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 14: A Bang-Up Meal at the Lion d'Or and we're off…

 


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


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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 is out!



 

That evening at the Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or I wondered how many pilgrims—religious, gastronomic, cultural and commercial—had supped and slept in this seventeenth-century hotel-restaurant. It was no worse for wear. The patina of 400 years had increased the charm of its creaking floors and staircases. The pre-Revolutionary-style furniture was comfortable, the ceiling timbers thick. In our top-floor room the best feature was the view from the gabled window: weathered stone buildings scattered over the eternal hillside, and a rambling manor across the way. As far as my admittedly weak eyes could see were emerald-green, grassy hills. I suspected the view had not changed appreciably in many centuries.

 

 

The desk manager turned out to be from Normandy. A gracious woman of middle age, she answered a riddle that had piqued my curiosity for years. To wit, why so many hotels in France are named for the golden lion—au Lion d’Or. Did it refer to heraldry?

The manager shook her head and explained. The traveling masons and cathedral-builders of centuries gone by, it appears, liked to say au lit on dort, “in bed one sleeps.” With the masons this typically Gallic play on words had spread across the country. The joke’s meaning was lost on almost everyone nowadays but the name had stuck. It was, I reflected, something like repeating the lyrics of a song in a language you don’t know. Or learning by rote.

With nothing better to wear than hiking books and sports clothes we felt somewhat underdressed in the hotel’s elegant dining room. The staff pretended not to notice.

A lithe young girl seated at a table near us, and dressed like a painted egg in Easter best, seemed lost among the heavy damasks and carpets. From the depth of her Louis XV-style chair she pronounced the snails good and garlicky, les escargots sont bons—ça sent l’ail!

Over the ensuing hour we looked on and listened as this same prim child consumed a large portion of pork jowl and potatoes, as I did, also approving of them, then savored the cheese platter—memorable, the ripe, smelly Epoisse—and a luscious dessert. The child showed no signs of impending obesity. She was, it struck me, a French paradox in the making. To hear such a young girl, perhaps five or six years old, enjoying so many grown-up foods filled me with joy.

But I felt perplexed as to why garlicky snails, succulent pork jowl and pungent cheeses should be for adults, not children. Though fast food had made serious inroads, especially among the poor, some French children apparently still learned to eat well and widely, stimulating their taste buds. By and large they were also physically active, and seemed of a wiry build and nervous disposition. Though there were many exceptions, particularly in Greater Paris, the French in general had not yet become sedentary slaves to long commutes in cars, or computer and video game addicts.

That, I decided, may prove their salvation while the rest of us in the rich West put our children on Ritlin, and succomb to diabetes, heart disease and debilitating weight gain. Having waged a lifelong battle against hyperactivity and fat I knew about such problems first hand.

 

The events of that night are recounted in an unexpurgated manner in Paris to the Pyrenees, so I will skip the moving Easter rituals and my "crisis of faith" and begin again at Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay, the famous village's homely sister town lying at its feet.



St-Pere-sous-Vezelay's impressive steeple, photo copyright Alison Harris

 

Compared to Vézelay’s well-groomed, handsome prosperity, Saint-Père seems hard-driven and homely. As in Asquins, its outsized church lives in the basilica’s long shadow. Cars on the way to the Chateau de Bazoches, Avallon, Auxerre and Vézelay thundered down the village’s narrow streets. The church bell thundered back, drowning out traffic and barking dogs.

 

 

Empty and damp, Notre-Dame de Saint-Père exuded decrepitude. Panes had fallen from the leaded windows. Column bases were cracked. Moss grew on the walls and floor, and water welled up from beneath. Though it was Easter, the church had no flowers in it, and not a soul to notice their absence.

A mere 800 years old, and undistinguished compared to the basilica, Notre-Dame nonetheless has an ambulatory with radiating chapels and is a full-fledged pilgrimage church. Mary Magdalene and Saint Jacques among others stare out from niches on the façade. A polychrome baptismal font from the 8th or 9th century and a stone altar from the 10th hint at earlier origins. In fact the Gothic church rises over a Merovingian chapel and cemetery, and a Carolingian monastery for women, built atop ancient Roman Vezeliacum. The monastery was founded around 855 by a local robber baron turned pious Christian benefactor, Count Girart de Roussillon and his wife Berthe. Depending on whose history you read, it was either the tempting femininity of the unprotected nuns that caused the monastery to be attacked time and again, or its proximity to the River Cure. Viking marauders in kayaks paddled up the river repeatedly raping and pillaging in true Viking style. In either case Girart de Roussillon sent away the surviving, beleagered nuns and set up a community of Benedictine monks atop a fortified hill, and Vézelay was born.

MM hereabouts does not signify a candy that melts in your mouth. It’s shorthand for either Mary Magdalene or Marc Meneau, the celebrated three-star chef whose restaurant, l’Ésperance, has been Saint-Père’s main claim to fame for the last several decades.

In an earlier incarnation, some 15 years ago, I had met MM on a press trip. The expression was shopworn, perhaps, but he’d struck me then as truly larger than life, a brash, cigar-smoking celebrity chef whose culinary temple was often referred to by Michelin-watchers as an haut-lieu de pélerinage gastronomique—a sacred pilgrimage site for gastro-pilgrims.

Saint-Père is not a big place, but somehow l’Ésperance eluded us. I spotted a portly couple waddling down the sidewalk. They must know the way.

“Marc Meneau is an enfant du pays,” said the cheerful, stout man I buttonholed, himself a native son. The man turned out to be a retired baker. He’d had the privilege, he said, of dining chez MM three times, a guest of his flour supplier. Such “reward” meals often represented a big share of an expensive, three-star restaurant’s business, the baker agreed. “The food is really good,” he added, “the servings are small but you get lots of them so it’s all right.” He told us to follow him then paused in front of what used to be his bakery, combed his hair back while admiring his reflection in the window, and said how wonderful it was to be retired. “The wife, she likes flowers,” he remarked. The wife smiled. She hadn’t said a word, other than to echo the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s telltale greeting of messieurs-dames, a trademark of shopkeepers. “We’re taking the camper up to Holland for the tulips,” he explained. “Then we’re rushing back for Auxerre.”

“Auxerre?” I asked dimly.

Le foot,” he blurted, “le match de football—c’est sacré!

I’d forgotten that, alongside the French Republican Trinity of Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité—freedom, brotherhood and equality—stood the supreme god, Soccer. Auxerre was in the “A” league.

Self-taught, the son of café owners, MM’s is an authentic local-guy-makes-good story. L’Ésperance occupies a stone building from centuries past wrapped in a spacious garden, the name Marc Meneau writ large in various spots. It is both a restaurant and a hotel. Alison and I peered at the menu in a glass display case along the highway, noting that the spring prix-fixe offering was 220 euros, the “deep-water” scallops with lemon confit a mere 80 euros à la carte. I wondered if the coquilles Saint-Jacques had been trucked in from Finis Terra with the saint’s approval.


 

photo copyright Alison Harris

 

 

Please come back and read part 15 with more about Vézelay’s unsung neighbor, the original Vezelay of ancient Roman times, Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay, and its wonderful pilgrimage church and museum

 

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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