Paris to the Pyrenees: From a Traveler’s Notebooks, post 2 Paris Prelude cont.: Rue St Jacques







Paris to the Pyrenees: From a Traveler’s Notebooks, post 2 Paris Prelude cont.: Rue St Jacques


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.


The paperback of Paris to the Pyrenees comes out in April 2014…




Paris to the Pyrenees: From a Traveler’s Notebooks, post 2 Paris Prelude cont.: Rue St Jacques



Alison and I sealed our bargain in the shadow of the Tour Saint-Jacques, the crumbling flamboyant Gothic tower on the Rue de Rivoli half a mile from where we live in central Paris. The tower is all that’s left of the Saint-Jacques church and hostelry from which pilgrims in their thousands for over a thousand years began walking south from Paris to the Pyrénées, following the main northern-European branch of The Way of Saint James.


Though a relatively recent bauble built in the 1530s, the Tour Saint-Jacques’ location reaches considerably farther back in time, to the Bronze Age, around 1000 BC. That’s when Mediterranean and Atlantic trade routes first intersected at the point where the tower now stands. The east-west Atlantic trail followed the Seine’s right bank to Celtic settlements in Normandy. The north-south trail linked northern Europe via Paris to ancient Bibracte and Spain.


After Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in 58-52 BC, the Mediterranean-Atlantic routes became the new Roman city’s cardo and decumanus—two raised paved N-S highways. They morphed into medieval Paris’ axis-thoroughfares. The church of Saint-Jacques sat at this nexus, welcoming pilgrims to and from James’ Spanish shrine, established around 880 AD. Today the crossroads marks the meeting of Rue Saint-Martin and Rue de Rivoli, on the fourth arrondissement’s western edge. It corresponds pretty much to the geographical center of the city, the administrative bull’s eye of France. Notre-Dame Cathedral stands only a quarter-mile south, midstream in the Seine on the Ile de la Cité, and all distances in the country are measured from it. Nowadays the Rue Saint-Jacques officially gets its name on the Left Bank near Notre-Dame. It runs due south from there.


Had it been possible, we would’ve started our trek from the tower’s octagonal base and continued south beyond the city limits. But somehow in the early 1970s when former French president Georges Pompidou envisioned the Boulevard Péripherique beltway—a six-lane moat isolating Paris—just possibly he wasn’t thinking of what it might do to The Way of Saint James.



A passionate believer in things contemporary Pompidou was a banker before becoming president. Profitable progress was his warhorse; developers were his fellow warriors; and cement, asphalt and steel his gods. By a twisted pretzel of fate the provocatively brutalist Pompidou Center and its primary-colored pipes wound up flanking The Way of Saint James a few hundred yards from the crumbling Saint Jacques tower.



Watch a video about us walking up Rue St Jacques in Paris


Three days before Easter, Alison and I strapped on our pedometers, booted up and marched south from the tower through crowds of commuters and tourists. We crossed the Ile de la Cité, stopping for a moment of quiet reflection at Notre-Dame. Then we headed toward the beltway, poking our heads into churches, former pilgrims’ hostels and the scallop-shell-encrusted Paris residence of the abbots of Cluny—now the museum of the Middle Ages, home to the enigmatic Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. No mystery: the scallop (coquille saint Jacques in French) is the symbol of St James.



The Rue Saint Jacques runs straight and true, like most Roman roads, mounts past the Pantheon, then blazes along the edge of the Reservoir de la Vanne to the sprawling Cité Universitaire campus. It changes names four times as it goes but underneath the asphalt lies the ancient roadbed. Way out past the university greenbelt on the pot-holed Rue Henri-Vincent, we tripped over billowing garbage bags. Shrubbery grew across broken sidewalks. From the road’s south end the beltway roared for our blood. My talking pedometer squawked in Mandarin English. We’d done 3.26 miles, it said, and burned 234 calories. Soon after this, we reached the point where The Way of Saint James dead ends. It’s no longer Paris’ glorious gateway to Spain but a rutted off ramp from the Boulevard Péripherique.

 Listen to the sound of the Paris Beltway: Paris Beltway

As we pondered the snarled colossus Pompidou built, diesel-scented tears in our eyes, it seemed unlikely pilgrims would flock to the Tour Saint-Jacques to start their cross-country hike. For one thing there’s no church attached to the tower anymore. Notre Dame has replaced it as a rallying point. Few questers set out from central Paris. The City of Light, a sprawl of 11 million people, is encased in a banlieue of blight, tangled and wrapped by industry, housing projects, expressways, freeways and railways lethal to even the fleetest of foot. It’s a place where tourists rarely tread, where car-burnings are as commonplace as air pollution alerts, police raids and forced deportations of illegal immigrants, most of them non-Christian Africans.


Nowadays sensible Parisian pilgrims merely nod at the Tour Saint-Jacques, visit Notre-Dame for a symbolic bend of the knee, then board buses or trains to other points along the way—smaller, more welcoming locales such as Chartres, Tours and Poitiers, or Arles, Le-Puy-en-Velay and Vézelay.

And that’s exactly what we did the next morning before dawn, taking a metro then a train to Vézelay in Northern Burgundy.



Blog post 3 coming right up…

Contemporary images copyright Alison Harris


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


Watch a video about Paris to the Pyrenees on YouTube



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

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