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Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 16: Vercingetorix at the strange local history museum in Saint Pere sous Vezelay




Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 16: Vercingetorix at the strange local history museum in Saint Pere sous 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 is out!

After our morning chat with chef Marc Meneau at his luxurious restaurant in Saint Pere sous Vezelay, we ambled past the town's famous pilgrimage church again to the dusty local history museum. Its official name is Musée Archéologique Régional. My eyes widened when I saw the man at the ticket desk—Astérix sans horned helmet. The long, disheveled hair and thick, drooping mustache seemed lifted from a comic book or movie about the Gallic hero. The Astérix embodied in books and cinema, and celebrated at the Parc Astérix amusement park north of Paris, is an ambiguous character.

Back when he was created, in the early 1960s, Astérix wasn’t a retrograde right-winger and appealed to a certain kind of outlandish French intellectual who, if American, would have been reading MAD Magazine and Mister Natural. But, because Astérix is based on the fierce Vercingétorix, the rebel who dared stand up to Caesar, he has gradually acquired a political cast.

Depending on who you talk to about him, Vercingétorix-Asterix is a rebel Résistant, on the domestic French scene a kind of freethinking anarchist who battles the corrupt mainstream. On the macro level, he’s a David versus the global Goliath, a Gaulois-smoking Native Frenchman making his last stand dressed in denim and leather.

In today’s America a rough equivalent look and attitude would bundle the Hell’s Angels, a certain type of Earth First-er and Ralph Naderite, the Libertarian fringe, hippy-red neck long-distance truckers with Aztec jewelry, the urban refugees of Montana and Mendocino County, survivalists and tough-guy timber-men with big hearts.

The big difference between such specimens of Americana and scary, humorless Astérix-Vercingétorix acolytes is the French sense of history, mission and a chip on the shoulder—the nation that lost to the Romans, the Germans and now the Americans as incarnations of Globalization. These were the kind of Frenchmen who called for mass expulsion of immigrants, and voted for the racist, ultra-rightwing Front National party of Jean-Marie and Marine le Pen. Happily they were not armed with handguns and assault weapons like their American counterparts.

With tobacco-stained fingers the museum manager gently detached a ticket, also valid to enter the Fontaines Salées archeological site, I noticed. With tobacco-stained teeth he smiled an unexpected smile. “Are you hikers?” he asked, cheerful. “Pilgrims?” In a word we explained our project and said we’d like to walk on the Roman roads in the area we’d heard about. Astérix got excited. He pulled out a surveyor’s map, ran his thick, nicotine-browned fingers across it, and showed us where to find Roman roads, ancient ruins and a sacred spring, his enthusiasm contagious.

I remarked that he seemed to know the area well, and perhaps had ancient ancestry. He doubled in stature, his pride swelling, and said that his ancestors had been in the Morvan since time immemorial, before Caesar, meaning they were Celts, or perhaps pre-Celts, and therefore, despite 2,000 years of invasions and genetic blending he too was a Celtic warrior.

But he was also hungry, and, since the museum was about to close for le déjeuner, politely suggested we have lunch somewhere, visit the archeological site and return that afternoon. “The tickets will still be good,” he assured us. “Have a nice walk!”

We scuttled off to the butcher shop for slabs of jambon persillé—baked ham in parsley-aspic—to the bakery for bread and tiny fruit tarts, and the grocery store for bottled water. With our picnic we crossed the rushing, clear Cure River and turned right toward the village campground, following the ancient Roman road as directed by Astérix.

Somehow I had long thought in terms of the Roman road, as if there had only been one in a given district of the Empire. The truth is wherever the Romans colonized they built many roads, often atop older roads. In the case of Burgundy the pre-existing road network was Gallic, and linked dozens of hilltop towns the Romans called Oppida.

We found a bench on the banks of the Cure, near a curious mobile distillery unit that smelled strongly of marc de Bourgogne, the local eau de vie made from vinous dregs. The Romans had brought the culture of the grape to Gaul. The Arabs in theory did not touch alcohol, but had taught the world, including Frenchmen, the art of distilling. Most French did not like to be reminded of such inconvenient historical tidbits.

As we picnicked, Alison read aloud from the paperback volume we had decided to carry with us, Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul. The introduction pointed out that Caesar acknowledged the existence of many good roads and prosperous towns in Gaul. The tribes of Caesar’s day had already been transformed by centuries of contact with Greeks, Etruscans and Romans and had a fairly advanced civilization. They were considerably less “barbarian” than the German tribes north of the Rhine, or holed up in Switzerland. In fact the Celts of Gaul could no longer defend themselves against the Germans and, if we’re to believe the narrator, had called upon Rome to save them. That suited Caesar’s long-term goal of “Romanizing” Gaul and using it as a bulwark against the Teutonic hordes.

It sounded like a warm up to the great 20th century conflicts between France and Germany, with England and America—the New Rome—stepping in to save the day. Save it we did. Hindsight may teach that our motives were not exclusively those of making the world safe for democracy. But that was a long and winding road I did not feel like taking just now and besides, Alison had stopped reading and packed up.

We followed the pilgrim’s trail marked by the Amis de Saint Jacques along the Roman road past a river rafting and kayaking center. For all intents and purposes the road seemed just another rutted, muddy farm track. But the thought that centurions and Caesar himself had marched or ridden down it somehow imbued the ruts with magic.


Please come back and read part 17 about the Neolithic-Gallic-Roman site of Fontaines Salees, and 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 inAsterixBOOKSBurgundyFranceJacki Lyden NPR interviewMarc Meneau l'EsperanceParisParis to the PyreneesParis to the Pyrenees blogpostParis to the Pyrenees blogpostsPilgrimage from VezelayThe Way of Saint JamesTOURSVercingetorixVezelay