In recent years the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, has gained a certain cachet. Books have been written on it; movies have been made about it. Almost invariably, the focus of these accounts has been the Spanish portion of the pilgrimage, culminating with arrival at the cathedral in Santiago itself.
In his evocative and moving new account, David Downie and his wife, photographer Alison Harris, trace this venerable pilgrims’ trail as well, but only in the French portion, ending their journey when they reach the border with Spain.
Downie’s quest is unconventional in tone and spirit as well as route. He refuses to label himself a pilgrim, and his goal is as much historical and cultural as it is spiritual.
“Practically speaking,” he writes, “I planned to follow the 2,000-year-old Via Agrippa and pre-Roman, Gallic footpaths, routes predating Christianity, safe in the knowledge that, unbeknownst to most pilgrims, they underlie the Way of Saint James just as surely as Paganism underlies Roman Catholicism…. Forget Santiago de Compostela, I told myself; if I could make it across France, nothing could stop me from one day hiking across the Alps into Italy and down the boot to Rome.”
A lively wordsmith who has been based in Paris for two decades, 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.
As the duo walk from Vézelay to Solutré, they pass through a few large towns, such as Beaune and Cluny, but for the most part their path winds through bucolic landscapes and half-forgotten villages where the past—manifest in crumbling churches and stark war memorials—seems more vibrant than the present.
Along the way, 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 is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine and has edited several travel-writing anthologies, including his latest, Better Than Fiction. Follow his story on Twitter @don_george.
Have you read any great new travel books lately? Share your recommendations with the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment or using the #TripLit hashtag on Twitter or Google+.
*This article was originally published by National Geographic: