A different approach to the Way of Saint James with “Paris to the Pyrenees”

When I first visited Santiago de Compostela, Spain, as a college junior in 1981, I knew very little about the medieval pilgrimage route known as “El Camino de Santiago”, or “The Way of Saint James”.  My year in Europe had introduced me to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages and stoked what would be a lifetime passion, and my imagination was captivated by the idea of walking across Spain to what was for many centuries considered the farthest western edge of Europe. I returned to write my undergraduate Senior Honors Thesis about the Camino, and looked forward to the day when I would be able to return and explore the city and its Camino more.

I wasn’t alone in my initial ignorance.  In the early 80’s the Camino was more a historical curiosity than a modern reality.  In 1985, only 690 pilgrims walked it, and that number was up considerably from earlier decades, when a pilgrim might meet only one other person along the entire route.  When I finally returned to Santiago de Compostela in 2010 (a Xacobeo, or Holy Year), 272,703 people had walked the Camino.  While subsequent numbers have been slightly lower, 2013 still saw 215,800 “peregrinos“.  This new-found fascination with an ancient phenomenon has spawned hundreds of books, a seeming infinity of websites, and movies like “The Way”, by Emilio Estevez.  I’ve seen the movie and read more than a few of the books, so was curious when I saw Paris to the Pyrenees:  A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James, by David Downie (Pegasus Books, 2013), on my sister’s reading pile.

Unlike most other books on the subject, Downie starts his walking journey (he is reluctant to call it a pilgrimage) with his wife, photographer Alison Harris, in the Burgundian city of Vézelay, just south of Paris.  His descriptions of the landscape, the trails, and the people he meets are well written, but what I most enjoyed were his ruminations on Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul and Caesar’s adversary, Vercingétorix.  There really is something about walking a Roman road that sparks the imagination and encourages reflection on history and our place in it, and reading about the experience is the next best thing to doing it yourself.

Downie spends most of the book on a day-by-day narrative of his month of walking through Burgundy to just south of Cluny, where his knees and back betray him and force his return to Paris for a period of recuperation. (I can certainly relate to THAT!)  He does finally complete the second part of his planned trip to the Pyrenees, but if I have one complaint about the book it is that the final leg of his “Paris to the Pyrenees” route, from Le Puy-en-Velay to Roncesvalles, warrants a scant twelve pages in his “Epilogue”.  He seems to try to excuse this on the last page:  “I knew that for me many of the most intense moments on our journey had come in Burgundy, where I’d been dogged by doubt, fear, fatigue, and the need to find answers.  In comparison, the rest of the trek had been a lark…”  It reminded me a bit of the AP essays I would read where once the student had hit the required word and paragraph count, he/she would dash off a one sentence conclusion and then be surprised when they received a lower grade.

Downie is also fairly dismissive of the pilgrims he starts to pick up in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the traditional jumping off point for the most popular “Camino Francés”, complaining that “all they seemed to want to do was yak, gah, chat, eat, drink, sleep, compare blisters, race each other, and plan their next vacation.”  He is entitled to his opinion, of course, but I know many friends who have walked the Camino, for a variety of reasons, and it strikes me as arrogant to judge their personal journeys in this manner.  In fact, one of my dear friends and former colleagues has walked the Camino twice, once along the traditional northern route over the Pyrenees and across Spain and once coming up through Portugal.  Her e-mails and photos were beautiful and evocative, and frankly every bit as good as this book’s.  Are you reading this, Pam?

The attraction in this book lies in its unusual take on a very well-traveled path.  The word “skeptic” in the title should serve as a warning.  Other than the route itself, there is little about the Camino.  But I enjoyed it, nonetheless. It was an interesting journey through a part of France traditionally ignored in Camino literature, and I reveled in finding one more person in the world who can look at a Roman bridge or a pre-historic dolmen and imagine the people who had been there before us.
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