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Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 9: Meditations on the Fabled Porch (Narthex) and Nave of the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vezelay


Paris to the Pyrenees, From a Traveler’s Notebooks, Part 9: Meditations on the Fabled Porch (Narthex) and Nave of the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in 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 comes out in April 2014…




photo copyright Alison Harris all rights reserved



The streets of the village were no longer deserted. The rain had stopped. Vézelay gleamed.

Gentrified and spit-polished for the tourist trade, Vézelay does have a “real” side, we found. Locals when they walk seem to prefer a roughshod back street parallel to Grande Rue, for instance.

photo copyright Alison Harris all rights reserved


And while visitors crowd the wine bars, cafés and crêperies for their Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, cappuccinos and treats, the residents, we noticed, roost in the PMU-tobacco shop, knocking back quantities of 80-proof marc de Bourgogne liqueur and wagering hard-earned euros on pari-mutuel horse races. The village also maintains a practical if unattractive asphalt-paved parking lot fronting the UNESCO World Heritage Site basilica that attracts nearly a million visitors each year.


photo copyright Alison Harris all rights reserved


No matter how you write it, the basilica of Mary Magdalene is indeed “an extraordinary book of stone and light,” as the village visitor center styles it. The book is scrawled over and has been rewritten by ten centuries of strife and blood-letting.



Paving the way to Hell with Good Intentions: It looked better before Viollet-le-Duc "restored" it


The façade of the narthex—the anterior nave or outer church—is not handsome, despite the pioneering efforts of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the zealous mid-1800s restorer of France’s monuments. He rebuilt, redesigned, remade hundreds of churches, secular buildings, and citadels. You find Viollet-le-Duc’s mark the length and breadth of the country, from Carcassonne’s unlikely walls in the Midi to the Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame’s oversized spires in Paris.

By 1840, seven centuries of heavy weather, several peasant revolts against corrupt and greedy abbots, the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution had caused much of the basilica to collapse. Viollet-le-Duc’s façade can be excused for looking something like a neo-Romanesque train station in Paris.


Only one of the basilica’s planned pair of front bell towers was ever built. Click to listen to the bell of the basilica (and the wind): Vezelay Bell

Funding ran short after 1295, when the much-venerated relics of Mary Magdalene were de-authenticated by the Vatican in favor of the “real” bones guarded by the monks of Saint-Victor in Marseille. Vézelay’s pilgrimage business dried up, and the site began its long, slow slide. The village’s fortunes have been reversed at an equally sluggish pace over the last 160 years. The truth is Vézelay lived its first heyday from the late 9th through the 13th centuries. That was a long time ago. It is living high on hogback again today.

On the right side of the basilica’s right portal a carved capital showed a human figure, possibly Saint Anthony, for he was accompanied by a pig. The man was taking off his shoes. This might have indicated a Biblical story I did not know, or have been a reminder to pilgrims to remove their clogs and wash their feet before entering a holy place. To me it was a sure prognostication that we would soon have sore feet. Mine were not yet worn out, despite daily training for nearly two years.

I vowed, for whatever the vows of an unbeliever are worth, that whatever happened during our pilgrimage I would keep our physical sufferings, nuts & bolts and dirty laundry out of my notebooks, as far as that was possible. We would doubtless be tired, sore, sweaty, cold, hot, have blisters, back aches from pack straps, allergic reactions from pollens and grasses, insect bites, runny noses and so forth. It went without saying, and did not make for a gripping tale. Too many pilgrims’ chronicles have been spoiled by the endless packing of rucksacks, mounting of roof racks and pulling of bootstraps.

I squelched my talking pedometer and followed Alison into the narthex, removing my black billed cap before entering, in deference to other, practicing visitors. As someone with thinning hair and acute optic photophobia—a painful reaction to light caused by a damaged optic nerve—my fashion statement is a cap and dark glasses worn just about everywhere in daylight. In a moment of atavistic wonder I inwardly invoked the thaumaturgic powers of Mary Magdalene and any other available saint. The response was immediate. No help would be forthcoming. I felt exposed. Steam billowed from my nostrils. If this was “spring” I could only shiver at the prospect of the basilica in winter.

We had not come to Vézelay specifically to admire the art and architecture, but for the experience of Easter and departure, yet I found myself captivated by the carved capitals and the graceful vaulting of the narthex. Over the doors leading from it into the nave three tympanums offered familiar scenes, crawling with figures and symbols.



In the almond-shaped mandorla of the central tympanum (#1 in diagram) some long-forgotten, anonymous Romanesque sculptor had placed the graceful Christ figure enthroned, surrounded by his Apostles. At Christ’s feet Peter and Paul receive a host of beings ready to be inducted into the Universal Church and, therefore, begin their proper pilgrimage through a saved life. Among these, shown on the right-hand lintel, are to be found giants, and pygmies climbing a ladder to mount a horse. Swirled around the composition pose dog-headed men, others with huge ears, or clogs on their feet, or fishing nets in their hands.


image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

The message is clear: all are welcome, including sinners, miscreants, pagans, heathens and creatures only part-human. After all, this was Mary Magdalene’s basilica. She had been a prostitute—at least according to some sources.

Used exclusively as an architectural and art historical term in English, “mandorla” means “almond” in Italian (from the late Latin amandula). This symbolic mandorla looked very much like an open nut and another, forbidden, fruit. It had not dawned on me before, but as I stared up it seemed clear why the mandorla, an early symbol of the Universal, the Mother Church should resemble a vulva. Had not Mary Magdalene’s first profession depended upon the universal appeal of the mandorla? The cult of the Virgin, and an obsession with virginity, chastity and abstinence, came late to the church, as had the rule against marriage among priests, and women in the clergy.


image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT



The nave, painted now with dappled light, stretches 203 feet to the transept. Did I really dare to think that it looked Moorish in design, with its vaults and arches rimmed by alternating pale and reddish stone? Its symmetry has been slightly skewed by centuries of sagging, and makes it all the more endearing. Ironically, as I gazed down the nave and side-aisles, the basilica evoked for me the airy colonnaded Mezquita of Cordoba in Spain, built hundreds of years before Vézelay’s basilica by the hated Infidels Saint James was empowered to slay.

The hushed, chill silence—and the whistling wind—spread gooseflesh up my arms.

By and large the stories told on the capitals did not fill my body with cheer. Demons and monsters tortured and beheaded sinners and heathens, practices common in the Europe of AD 1120 and sadly, I thought, all too common today in many benighted regions of the world.


Traditionally the Saturday before Easter is a quiet, mournful day anticipating Sunday’s glad rising. There were no tapers to light, no flowers on the altar, no singing. But we, the crowd, unwittingly made our presence felt. As I contemplated a capital depicting my namesake pelting Goliath, neck stiff from looking up, a young woman guide swept in with her flock. “This is the story of Saint Eugenia,” intoned the guide in a stentorian voice, trumpeting as if she’d been born with Roland’s horn in her throat.



Come back and read part 10 about the transvestite Saint Eugenia (shown above in stained glass, not in Vezelay), and the relics of Mary Magdalene 



photo copyright Alison Harris


Coming up in the next parts: 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""


Order the hardback of Paris to the Pyrenees:


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

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Published inAlison Harris photographyBasilica of Mary MagdaleneEl Camino de SantiagoFranceParisParis to the Pyrenees blogpostPilgrimage from VezelayThe Way of Saint JamesVezelayViollet-le-Duc architecture