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Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 15: Saint Pere sous Vezelay and Marc Meneau and l’Esperance


Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 15: Saint Pere sous Vezelay and Marc Meneau and l'Esperance

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 is out!

We entered L'Esperance–Marc Meneau's multiple-starred restaurant in Saint Pere–on tip toes, literally.


Photo courtesy L'Esperance


Restrained and professional, the desk staff feigned blindness to our wet hiking gear and dirt-clotted boots. Surrounded by faux Old Masters and faux classical garden statuary in the studiously romantic rose-hued terrace area, we sipped coffee and waited to hear whether Meneau would be able to receive us. Easter was, understandably, a very busy time. I wanted only a few minutes to question him about food, travel, pilgrimages and the proximity of l’Ésperance to the world-famous basilica.

Before we’d had time to finish our coffees Meneau appeared, wrapped in an apron. Large and lusty he stood well over six feet tall and went out of his way to avoid my outstretched hand. He offered Alison his hand, a hand nearly twice the size of hers. “We are still in France,” he remarked, only now clamping my insignificant minuscule mitt, his eyebrows raised à la Salvador Dalí.

Had he, I wondered, descended from Neolithic natives, or the Gauls, Romans, Huns, Burgundi, Visigoths, Vikings, Teutons and Franks who followed, not necessarily in that order? What admix of genetic material had created this colossus?

“My family has been here for at least 500 years,” he remarked breezily. This explained, he said, his visceral attachment to the village and his proprietorial feelings about being a Burgundian.

The proximity of Vézelay and the presence in Saint-Père of the pilgrim’s route had always influenced his thinking and cooking, he added. “There’s a resonance between being at the foot of Vézelay and cooking for travelers, whether they’re cultural, secular or religious travelers. It’s a place where you rest and eat well…”

Proprietorial feelings breed respect, he segued, and respect ties into traditions of hospitality. To his great chagrin, he added, he was aware that the basilica would outlast him. “And that bugs me,” he said, then burst out laughing.

Lord, I thought, he does have a peculiar sense of humor.

Gastronomy and travel are intertwined, Meneau agreed, relaxing now and adding, provocatively, that even the pilgrims of old who covered great distances to visit holy places ate and enjoyed eating. That people made “gastronomic pilgrimages” nowadays to Michelin-starred hostelries like his own was really nothing new. In essence the “culture of taste” was what separated man from vegetable.

“When cave men drew a picture of an animal it was to propitiate the hunt,” he said, his face transmogrifying into a primitive grimace. “With the invention of fire we discovered taste, we found that things tasted different when cooked, our palates recognized raw and cooked…”

When I insisted that pilgrims had once traveled to see relics, and not to eat in fancy restaurants he snorted.

“It was the church that called gluttony a sin, but food and eating are not a sin, they are fundamental to human life.”

Meneau, it turned out, belongs to an association whose other celebrated members, all food professionals, once signed a joint appeal to the Vatican to remove gluttony from the list of seven deadly sins. (They have so far failed).

I switched off my digital recorder and stood to say goodbye. But Meneau became even more effusive now that he could talk off the record. We spoke of obesity and force-feeding, faith and republicanism, and I sensed he was studded with skeptical anticlericalism like a pork roast is studded with garlic.

The rivalry between pious, intellectual Vézelay and down-to-earth, republican (meaning atheistic and democratic) Saint-Père illustrated a rift in French society. Meneau moved easily in both worlds. “I’ve lived in Vézelay since 1978,” he said, pointing to the hill. “But my mother has only visited me two or three times in 28 years.”

Before we left he showed us an extraordinary cookbook he’d done, with daring black & white photography. One particularly irreverent, irreligious photo showed an ostentoire—the holder used to display the host during Catholic mass—with a cooked egg in the place of the small, white wafer representing the body of Christ.

There was something downright druidical in Meneau’s descriptions of other photos, photos that showed, for example, a wild boar split and spitted. He’d butchered it himself then roasted it in a rock pile in Celtic ruins, the “chateau of my childhood.”

Cooking, like sex, he concluded, savoring his words, was a messy, bloody, sticky business. I watched as his eye strayed appraisingly over my wife. He took her hand again, gently, and smacked his lips over it.


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

Please come back and read part 16 with more about Vézelay’s unsung neighbor, the original Vezelay of ancient Roman times, Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay, and its strange little history 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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Published inAlison Harris photographyBurgundyEl Camino de SantiagoFood Wine BurgundyFranceMarc Meneau l'EsperanceNPR books interviewParisParis to the PyreneesParis to the Pyrenees blogpostParis to the Pyrenees blogpostsPilgrimage from VezelaySaint James and scallop shellsSaint Pere sous VezelayThe Way of Saint JamesVezelay