Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 8: The Friends of Compostela at Vézelay, and the Rebirth of the Modern Pilgrimage Route

Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 8: The Friends of Compostela at Vézelay, and the Rebirth of the Modern Pilgrimage Route


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.


 ""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…






In the Jubilee Year 2000, explained our soft-spoken hosts at The Friends of Compostela in Vezelay, taking turns to speak, the association had finished sign-posting the way from Vézelay to Saint-Jacques’ shrine in Spain. The new route followed the “historic” itinerary “as best as possible.” Highways, freeways, train lines and modern buildings sometimes got in the way, said the man, looking to his companion for confirmation.

“Some people contest the authenticity of the ‘new’ route,” the woman volunteered, raising her thick, gray eyebrows as she spoke.


“All routes to Saint Jacques are good,” the man added. “There is no single route.”

The association had also convinced local authorities along the way to create pilgrim hostels and refuges. In the year 2005 about 600 pilgrims set off from Vézelay and the numbers are rising every year. Many neo-pilgrims travel with credentials signed and stamped by authorities at the basilica of Vézelay. The credentials make it possible for bona fide pilgrims to benefit from cheap or free lodging en route.


“It took us 63 days,” said the woman with a warble indicating mild nostalgia. She was clearly loath to boast.


Alison asked to see a credential. With tact the couple unfolded theirs, duly stamped by each of the temporal and ecclesiastical authorities on the way. The dozens and dozens of stamps represented over 1,000 miles of walking.


“You had your ticket to heaven time-stamped, I see,” I joked. Jocularity was perhaps not a great idea.


“Yes. That’s where composter comes from—when you time-stamp your train ticket,” said the woman, apparently startled that a foreigner could quip in French. “Pilgrims would composter their crédentielle. It was a necessary administrative step…”


Bon dieu!” I barked, equally taken aback, for I’d been joking about the time stamp, and never really made the connection of stamps and compost and Compostela. I apologized for the unintended blasphemy. Composter. Yes. The word’s origin explained so much—the zealotry of train conductors, among other things. The deep-rooted connection with Compostelle for another and the French obsession with marching orders, documents, bureaucracy—it all went back to St James.

Between stamps on their credential, like many pilgrims the couple had averaged 30 kilometers a day—about 20 miles. On one occasion however they had covered 38 kilometers to make it to the next hostel. They usually walked in silence, a form of inward scrutiny or meditation.

“Once you get going,” sighed the man, pushing his glasses up his prominent nose, “you just keep going, and no one says you can’t talk, but you hardly do while you’re walking. We’re not as young as we were. We did all right.”


Their packs weighed 12 kilos—27 pounds. They never took a day of rest. “We met a man 20 years our senior,” the man continued. “He was 82, an American. He was exhausted, breathless, in pain but he kept going. And going. I don’t know if he made it to Compostelle.”


“We met a male nurse with cancer who stopped for chemotherapy every two days,” the woman segued in her calm, even voice. “You meet all kinds. Religious, not religious, healthy, sick. All kinds.”


I had to remind myself to avoid comparisons. What did it matter that we would be walking only 20 kilometers or so per day and, where possible, sending our backpacks ahead? My knees and Alison’s back were minor handicaps. Martyrdom was not our goal. We would not be carrying a credential or taking the Amis de Saint Jacques de Compostelle association’s route, either. We’d chosen a less-used and possibly much older, longer, secondary route via Bibracte, Autun, Cluny and Le Puy en Velay.



I mentioned this. “Oh, all routes are fine,” said the man. He tried to hide his disappointment. “You realize the relics at Saint Lazare cathedral in Autun were stolen recently?”


Unaware that Autun’s cathedral housed relics at all, I shook my head. The only relic I knew was our rusty 1981 Renault 4L, but I refrained from saying so.


“You’ll find three types of markings on the way to Saint-Jacques,” the man went on. “Ours is blue with a yellow arrow.” He pointed to a sign on the wall. “Then there’s the European Union marking with a stylized yellow scallop shell on a blue background, and the GR route with a red-and-white flag. The Grande Randonée and EU routes often run together but not always. It can be confusing.”



photo copyright Alison Harris


I couldn’t help wondering aloud why the Amis de Saint Jacques, GR and EU hadn’t gotten together and come up with a single, recognizable symbol and clearly defined, numbered routes for the Compostelle pilgrimage.  



“The GR and EU routes you’re going to take are twice as long as ours,” he said, avoiding the kernel of the question with a shrug. “From here you’ll walk 1,600 kilometers to the Spanish border. On our route you’d walk about 800. There are another 700 to do in Spain, as I’m sure you know. We go straight, the way the pilgrims used to. They’d take out a ruler and draw a line across a map from where they were to the closest known road to Compostelle and then off they’d go.”


The woman batted her gray eyelashes. “You know, the EU and GR people take you all over the place, to scenic sites, and hilltops, and monuments, and they stay off the paved roads mostly. The GR route isn’t a pilgrimage route at all.” She seemed upset now, her manner and tone changed. “They’re paid professionals with financing from the EU and the regional tourist boards. It’s very political. That’s not our philosophy. We’re not tourists, we’re volunteers and pilgrims.”


The man forced a smile and moved his chair closer to his companion’s. “All routes are fine,” he said softly, to her more than to us. “As long as you’re not a fraudulent pilgrim trying to eat and sleep for free in the hostels—that happens more and more, unfortunately. Whatever else you do is really all right. It’s the walk, the experience that matters.”


Tiptoeing around questions of religion and spirituality, often taboo in France’s fiercely secular republic, we spoke instead about history, culture, art and architecture, and about the physical limitations that might induce pilgrims or unregenerate hikers to forgo carrying heavy packs, and much more. Then we realized that the morning had slipped by, so we stood and shook hands, less vigorously perhaps than when we’d arrived in the guise of starry-eyed pilgrims.


“Make sure you get some Achilleine Nok,” the woman said, her composure regained. “It’s the cream marathoners rub into their feet. You’ll be happy to have it.”


Read part 9 about Vézelay, the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, and Easter Sunday


photo copyright Alison Harris



photo copyright Alison Harris


Coming up in the next part: Vézelay, rites, rituals, Easter Sunday, and more about the pilgrimage-tourist trade



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)

 Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James""Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James""


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

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