A Pilgrimage Through France, Though Not For God

Apr 14, 2013
Originally published on April 14, 2013 5:05 pm

For centuries, pilgrims have made their way along the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or St. James' Way. It's an ancient route honoring St. James of Compostela and can take a traveler on foot for hundreds of miles to what is believed to be the apostle's burial site in northwestern Spain.

American travel writer David Downie and his wife, Alison, decided to begin their trek from their longtime home in Paris. For Downie, this wasn't necessarily a religious pilgrimage. He stresses he wasn't looking for God, though maybe enlightenment.

He's written about the journey in a new book called Paris to the Pyrenees. Downie speaks with weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden about the Burgundy wine country, the southern territory called the Morvan, and the countless medieval auberges, or little inns.


Interview Highlights:

On why he decided to embark on the journey

"I was hugely overweight, and I wanted to lighten my carcass because I could barely walk at one point. And you know, I was breaking away and unplugging and seeking silence and trying to answer some of the big questions that you usually ask yourself when you're an adolescent — and I suppose I had — but I guess you could call it a kind of midlife crisis."

On what Downie calls the changing face of France

"People don't realize it, but there are lots of rural areas of France that are largely abandoned; they are empty most of the year. In summer they fill up with Parisians on vacation, but we walked through there in April and May. It felt like we were, I don't know, up in the Appalachians — run-down farms with people who looked like they hadn't seen a razor or a bathtub in a long time. Most of them ran away from us. I don't blame them. I mean, I am kind of scary-looking. I wear these big dark glasses and a hat because I can't stand the sun. ... The other group of people we met were Parisians, most of them middle-aged or older, who had decided to reinvent themselves in the countryside. ... Thank god we met them because they're the only ones who gave us food and water."

On what he found

"I talked to a monk in a monastery ... and I asked him, 'You see tens of thousands of people coming through here; is there one thing that unites us all that we all have in common, whether we're atheists or believers?' And he said, 'Yes, actually there is. Anyone who does this pilgrimage — or any pilgrimage — is driven by an irresistible urge to do it, and they don't know where it comes from. And sometimes they figure it out while they're walking, or afterward, or never.' And, you know, the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. I set out with a zillion questions in my head, and I didn't come back with a lot of answers; I came back with more questions. But I really do think that the question is the answer."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

For centuries, pilgrims have made their way along the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela or The Way. It's an ancient route honoring St. James and can take a traveler on foot across Western Europe to Spain. Travel writer David Downie and his wife, Alison, decided to begin in Paris, their longtime home. Downie stresses he wasn't looking for God, maybe just enlightenment.

He's written a book about it, an entertaining read that takes us through the Burgundy wine country, the southern territory called the Morvan and into countless medieval auberge or little inns. David Downie, welcome to the program.

DAVID DOWNIE: Oh, delighted to be here.

LYDEN: You're such good company. Your book is called "Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. James." Now, your whole walk is layered with history, but you are not taking this as a pilgrim. People come from all over Europe to get to Spain where St. James' relics are said to be. You are doing it for a very different reason. First of all, you're a pretty secular fellow. So why do you decide to do this?

DOWNIE: Well, you talked about enlightenment, and I would say that that applies in two ways. I was hugely overweight, and I wanted to lighten my carcass because I could barely walk at one point. And, you know, I was breaking away and unplugging and seeking silence and trying to answer some of the big questions that you usually ask yourself when you're an adolescent. And I suppose I had, but I guess you could call it a kind of midlife crisis.

There were other reasons. I mean, I really wanted to walk across France in order to, in a way, possess it, because you can look at a country through your car windshield or from a train or an airplane, but when you walk across it, it somehow belongs to you.

LYDEN: It sounds wonderful. You are fabulous company, and it's muddy, and it's wild, and it's hard. And you guys are staying off the main roads. You're seeing giant beach trees, picturesque villages, chapels that maybe are lucky to have one person left in them. Let's begin where you begin. It's a place called Vezelay, and some of the bones of Mary Magdalene are said to be in the crypt there.

DOWNIE: I think the keyword there is said to be there. But whether they're there or not, it doesn't really matter. If people think that those are her relics, that's what's important. It was a very important jumping-off point for pilgrimages to Santiago starting way, way back about a thousand years ago.

And it kind of lived its heyday until the late 1200s when the Vatican decided to de-authenticate the bones, which was very bad news for Vezelay. But anyway, it - it's made a big comeback. It's beautifully restored. So every year, hundreds or thousands of pilgrims gather there and go tramping down the main route. What we did is we took an even older route that leads from Vezelay across the Morvan, which you mentioned, which is this mountainous area in northern central Burgundy. And then we made our way through wine country down to Cluny. In about a month of walking, I think we saw a total of maybe six people and maybe two pilgrims. It was magical.

LYDEN: Although when you did meet a pilgrim, had he walked all the way from Switzerland?

DOWNIE: Yes. He had not only walked from Switzerland, he walked all the way to Santiago, and then he walked to Jerusalem, and we were seeing him on the way back from Jerusalem via Santiago again. Now, how he got from Santiago to Jerusalem, I don't know. He didn't tell us. But he had walked something incredible, like, I don't know, 5,000 miles.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness. What other kinds of people did you encounter in the region of Burgundy? You said it really was the changing face of France once you got there.

DOWNIE: People don't realize it, but there are lots of rural areas of France that are largely abandoned. They're empty most of the year. In summer, they fill up with Parisians on vacation. But we walked through there in April and May. It felt like we were, I don't know, up in the Appalachians - I mean, rundown farms with people who looked like they hadn't seen a razor or a bathtub in a long time.

Most of them ran away from us. I don't blame them. I mean, I'm kind of scary-looking. I wear these big, dark glasses and a hat because I can't stand the sun. Occasionally, we were able to catch up with them and get them to give us some water because there was no drinking water.

The other group of people we met were Parisians, most of them middle-aged or older, who had decided to reinvent themselves in the countryside. This group of people is known here in France as the neo-ruraux, as in neo-rural people, and we met a bunch of these Parisians who were bringing life back to these largely abandoned villages. And thank God we met them, because they're the only ones who gave us food and water.

LYDEN: It was a hard trip. I mean, you and your wife, you're not in your 20s, you've had health problems, you've got a backpack on as you're going up and down hills trying to stay off any kind of bigger road and just go on these footpaths. What did you find? If it wasn't spirituality, what would you say a pilgrimage really embodies?

DOWNIE: I think it depends on who you are and what you're looking for and what you allow to happen. I talked to a monk in a monastery, an incredible monastery called Conques, and I asked him: You see tens of thousands of people coming through here. Is there one thing that unites us all, that we all have in common, whether we're atheists or believers?

And he said: Yes, actually, there is. Everyone who does this pilgrimage, or any pilgrimage, is driven by an irresistible urge to do it. And they don't know where it comes from, and sometimes they figure it out while they're walking or afterwards or never. And, you know, the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right.

I set out with a zillion questions in my head, and I didn't come back with a lot of answers. I came back with more questions. But I really do think that the question is the answer. It's the same thing. And we get questioned from quest. It's all going out and searching. And I think, you know, fundamentally, that's what we have to do. For me, it's all about curiosity and wonder and mystery. And, boy, if you want a chance to connect with the great mystery, then walk for two or three months. And don't take your cell phone.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: That's David Downie. He's the author of a new book, "Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. James." (Foreign language spoken)

DOWNIE: (Foreign language spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.