Paris to the Pyrenees: From a Traveler’s Notebooks, post 6, Vézelay with Scallops à la Saint Jacques

 Paris to the Pyrenees: From a Traveler’s Notebooks, post 6, Vézelay with Scallops à la Saint 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.




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 6, Vézelay with Scallops à la Saint Jacques

Vézelay lies across its sloping, sempiternal ridge like a patient on a psychiatrist’s couch, or so it seemed to me. The head of the hill is the Romanesque basilica of Mary Magdalene. Our hotel stood near the Champ-de-Foire, the former fairgrounds, at the saint’s feet. The simile seemed imperfect. No psychiatrist’s couch I’ve ever seen is ringed by tall, crumbling walls and studded with belfries. But that is the nature of similes.


Feeling a pleasant caffeine buzz we pulled on our billowing blue ponchos and matching slicker pants, passed under the Porte du Barle gate in the city walls opposite our hotel, and began climbing uphill under a darkening sky. The river-rock paving slipped under our hiking boots. Wind, channeled by the weathered two-story buildings lining the road alternately pushed us forward and blew us back. The street, poetically named Grande Rue, stood silent and empty. The shops shoulder-to-shoulder along it were silent and empty too save for their anxious shopkeepers. Reportedly ever since Saint Bernard preached the Second Crusade here on Easter day, March 31, 1146 the Easter holiday weekend has been one of the year’s biggest for business. With eyes tracking us as we passed, the shopkeepers arranged bottles of local wine, riffled the pages of books about modern spirituality, stacked scented candles, and tidied postcards in racks.


photo: Maison du Visiteur



At La Maison du Visiteur, a one-stop self-styled Vézelay “experience” poised halfway up the hill, a sign translated into English beckoned: “The Vézelay basilica, an extraordinary book of stone and light!”


I had heard of “sound and light,” and had even heard architectural historians speak of “reading” buildings like books. This was new.


Another novelty came in the form of, as advertised on a poster. It proposed an interactive visit of the village and basilica with a GPS-driven hand-held computer linked via Wi-Fi. The list of sponsors included corporations and government-funded organizations. There was no risk of getting lost with your GPS, no need for silent meditation, and no question of serendipitously discovering anything about the site or yourself.


However, on the upside, La Maison du Visiteur and the GPS service might provide a thread for those who needed it through the historical labyrinth of the hill and its surroundings. There were 4,000 years to cover, from the pre-Celtic salt springs of Fontaines Salées located a few miles south, via the ancient Gauls, the Roman villa of Vezeliacum that gave the village its name, to the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages, the Wars of Religion, the Révolution and the realities of today.


Photo: David Downie


The most winning sign on Grande Rue belonged to a crêperie, Auberge de la Coquille—the Scallop Shell Inn. The scent of melting butter, sugar, crêpes and hot coffee blew from it on a cold wind.


As any pilgrim worth his scallops knows, the shell symbolizes Saint-Jacques and, by association, questers of many kinds. Under my poncho I felt inside the right-hand pocket of my raincoat. There I had placed the misshapen coquille Saint-Jacques I’d found years ago on Utah Beach in Normandy and brought along for a lark, over Alison’s protestations. It was one thing to be skeptical she felt, another to be provocatively irreverent in the face of faith. She eschewed the appellation “skeptic,” preferring the softer, fuzzier “agnostic,” which left wiggle room for spirituality and last-minute changes of heart.


Officially, I did not deserve to carry a scallop shell, at least not one symbolizing Saint Jacques. In theory only pilgrims who have made it to the wave-lashed Atlantic beaches of Finis Terra beyond Compostela have the right to return bearing the saint’s symbol. But the souvenir trade and lax mores quickly put an end to that mark of presumed authenticity. Anyway, the scallop and conch were the symbol of Venus, born of virginal sea-foam, a recurrent classical motif, and had long been used as a sign of the divine.



I knew, for instance, that Telchild, first abbess of Jouarré, a Merovingian abbey near Paris, is buried in seventh-century tomb decorated with a double-row of scallop shells. It predates the Saint Jacques pilgrimage by nearly 200 years. But why spoil the fun?


Scallop shells for pilgrims were one of the early manifestations of pilgrimage-route commerce. A thousand years ago they were being sold in the squares and streets of Compostela. A few centuries later they’d spread to souvenir shops across Europe along the saint’s route.


Saint James the Moorslayer alias Matamoros


The trade in relics was another big business, a trade already established in the early Christian era, a twist on votive traditions reaching back to prehistory, as most things European do. Isolated in western Galicia and under threat from the hostile Moorish occupiers of what are now Spain and Portugal, Compostela in the ninth century had to compete for custom with Rome and Jerusalem, both rich in holy sites and relics. It wasn’t just the legend of Saint Jacques the Apostle, or his reputation as a slayer of Moors, nor even his impressive tomb and, later, his cathedral, that drew hordes across dangerous lands. It was the saint’s bones. Many pilgrims believed his relics had the thaumaturgic—i.e. magical—power to affect miracles, and most undertook a pilgrimage to beg the saint’s intercession.


An elaborate body of literature grew up to comfort and confirm this belief, authenticate Jacques’ miraculous accomplishments while alive and post-humus, and explain how his mortal coil had found its way from his place of death in Jerusalem to western Spain.


The “discovery” of the Apostle’s tomb in Galicia came at a very handy time. It was instrumental in rallying Christian soldiers from across Europe to drive out the Moors—a war of liberation that came to be known as la Reconquista. It began in the eighth century and took over 700 years to complete.


Coming up in the next part: Vézelay, relics, and the pilgrimage-tourist trade



Watch a video about us walking the pilgrimage route in Paris


Please come back, blog post 7 coming up soon…

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



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""


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

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