Paris to the Pyrenees: David Downie Eats His Way Down the Way of St. James, Interview by Elatia Harris

Published by Monday, April 22, 2013 Permalink 0
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Left: Cross with Rocks, copyright Alison Harris.
Right: Forest Cathedral, copyright Alison Harris


Interview by Elatia Harris

Their 50th birthdays in sight, the acclaimed travel and food writer David Downie, and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris, decided that trekking from Paris to Spain, would be just the thing. They are based in Paris, so the Way of St. James, for a millennium one of the world’s most celebrated pilgrimage routes, was right at their back door. Neither Alison nor David is religious — the classical pilgrimage experience was not what they were seeking. What were they seeking? Renewal, changed perspectives. Perhaps to test themselves, over 72 days and 1100 km of — at times — very rough terrain. And thereby hangs a tale.

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. Jameslaunches this week. Scroll to the end to see book tour information. Permission to post on TRE the superb photos from the book was granted by Alison Harris.


ELATIA HARRIS: There has been a lot in the news lately on pilgrimage, however one understands the phenomenon. People who do it talk about needing to lose their routine and find themselves. Most set out alone, meeting others en route. You and Alison started together.

DAVID DOWNIE: Our choice to walk together happened organically. I had planned to do this on my own. Alison came along to keep me out of trouble. If you ask her, she’s likely to say it was her idea about 25 years ago, when she suggested we do something similar.

EH: Readers cannot but wonder how they would hold up, in these circumstances. I pictured a long leisurely walk through a French countryside movie. Cows, chateaux…oh, perhaps a few mildly strenuous stints.  I was so wrong. This was a test of all your combined resources. It would be for any couple. 72 days of togetherness and real physical hardship. And you had already spent years collaborating on your books.

DD: Like some old couples, we have merged in mind and spirit — if such a thing exists — while remaining very different people, and very pig-headedly independent. So, while we were together on the pilgrimage, we were often apart both in our mental spheres and physically. Alison stopped constantly, ran ahead, took detours, disappeared, got lost—often, though not always, in pursuit of a photograph. She probably walked twice as many miles as I did. By the end of the pilgrimage, my regard for her had only deepened. I can’t speak for her, of course.

EH: You take a profoundly physical approach to travel. You don’t drive or travel by train – you walk, whether in the city or in the mountains, whether in foul weather or fair. You develop relationships with country animals. A long time ago, I spent many weeks in Burgundy, but I never saw it like you did. The darkness of the trees, the huge size of the rocks, the freezing fog, the least gracious chateaux in France. Alison nails it in her photos.

Top: Cow, copyright Alison Harris
Three Pigs in Burgundy, copyright Alison Harris

DD: Parts of Burgundy are paragons of gloom. But I like gloom. So do most Frenchmen and women, it seems. We were there in April. And it rained, sleeted, and almost snowed much of the time.

EH: The ancient peoples of Gaul liked it too – they chose this part of Burgundy as their homeland. Why?

DD: Probably for the abundant water and wood: they used the water for everyday needs, but also in their metallurgy. They were great smiths. They used the wood for fuel, and to protect their cities. Gallic strongholds had these unusual, “indestructible” (that’s Julius Caesar writing) fortifications made of wood, soil, stones, and iron rods. Caesar called the fortification a “murus gallicus” — the Gallic wall. Remember, the Gauls, who were Celtic peoples originally from what’s now the Steppes of Russia, swept in some time around 500-300 B.C. Presumably they wiped out the older civilization, about which almost nothing is known. The Gallic Celts not only loved gloom: they revered it. Don’t forget, they measured time in terms of night, not day, and they worshiped the god of night, Dis. Darkness was good, it was powerful, it was magical! In the case of the Celts who were in what’s now the Morvan, the goddess Bibractis — the beaver goddess that gave her name to Bibracte, the Lost City of Gaul — was all about water, wood, and drippy darkness: what else would you expect from a beaver?

Branches Against Grey, copyright Alison Harris

EH: One of the exigencies of the Way of St. James was the distance you had to cover in any given day. You were on the pilgrimage for months, but that didn’t mean you got to dither, sleep in, or take a pass when bad weather came. It must have made choosing what to stop and do an interesting process.

DD: Put it this way — our relationship with time and place evolved. When we first set out I had this infernal talking pedometer, and I was often checking it to see how far we’d gone. So, at first I was reaching back and metaphorically lashing us from behind, while galloping along. But Alison was never in a rush—she operates on Walk-About Time. After a few weeks, I lost the pedometer — thank god—and then I lost my sense of time, except for following the light and darkness and the moaning of my stomach. It was one of the many wonderful transformations along the road.

EH: Ah! We are approaching the purpose of the pilgrimage…

DD: The purpose of our trek was many-fold. It wasn’t a religious pilgrimage, as you know. It was about rediscovery and regeneration, about history and linkages between past and present, between my life in France and my ties to America — and more. Once the obsessive time element disappeared, the experience changed radically.

EH: I’ve read a little about how to get into the pilgrimage mindset. Did you find any of the truisms particularly true?

DD: You really do need to walk for several weeks before anything much happens, other than sore feet or aching knees. The hardcore pilgrims have a saying that I quote in the book. In essence the first week is all about your body, the second week is about your mind, the third is when the spirit starts to free itself up. Now, as a skeptic, I can say that this little ditty irritated me no end at first. But in my case the ditty came true. In the third week something unexpected did happen. If for no other reason than this I would do a walk of this kind again, to resynchronize myself with the paradoxical timelessness of natural time. I actually feel, now, that time has no beginning and no end, that our ideas of time are mostly guesswork and a muddle.

David in the Rain, copyright Alison Harris

EH: Time and again, I was struck with how hard it was to get water — plain potable water. I am surprised there were no venal townswomen to sell you some from their faucets at almost every occasion.

DD: The water problem got serious in a bunch of places. Much of Burgundy — and other parts of rural France — are abandoned when the vacationers aren’t around. Villagers see people coming and flee: who is the guy with dark glasses, a burglar? It was funny at first.

EH: There’s that school of thought that says some discomfort can result in spiritual experiences. Oh, not exactly mortifications of the flesh. They say that dehydration prompts an altered mental state.

DD: Yes, I had several moments of deep, trance-like reflectiveness. We are electrochemical units, I think, and as such are affected by humidity, light conditions, wear, tear, emotions stirred by all sorts of things. What’s amazing is how one sensation of pain (or intense pleasure) can drive out other sensations. The Italians have a great expression for this: Chiodo scaccia chiodo. It means “one nail drives out another.”

EH: You two suffered. I would have had no idea the hardship involved…

DD: Luckily we didn’t get too beaten up. I did wreck my knees and back, and had to do physiotherapy before continuing, and Alison’s back went out once too. The only physiotherapist in the area was Muslim, and 90 percent of his clients, he said, were Christian pilgrims on the Way of Saint James. We assured him we weren’t really the genuine article, and he smiled widely.

Top: Landscape, formal garden and vineyard in Burgundy, copyright Alison Harris
Merovingian era stone caskets at Conques, copyright Alison Harris

EH: What was it like switching gears from extreme hiking to being “bold with knife and fork”? You dined modestly and sufficiently most of the time, but occasionally you pulled out all the stops. I can picture the fatigue, I can picture not wanting to go to bed hungry, but I am having trouble with the segue to real gastronomy.

DD: Even the most abstemious, self-lacerating, pill-like, grim pill of a pilgrim would be hard pressed not to be starving after a day’s trek. As someone who prides himself on fighting the grim while trying to stay trim, I will say that I never once worried about the intake of food. Most of the fare we had was extremely simple. In B&Bs I think they served variations on pork roast or pork something about 50 times. Luckily it was usually good to great. We weren’t presentable, as they say, so didn’t venture into many fine restaurants.

EH: Well, it wasn’t about food…

DD: It wasn’t about food, it was about reinvention and (in my case) enlightenment by means of lightening the carcass. However, we did eat splendidly in a place in Beaune, l’Hôtel du Cêdre, and down in the Southwest we hit many wonderful B&Bs serving duck, foie gras, truffles (not fresh, alas — it wasn’t the season), and so forth. It is true that sometimes we were so tired that we just wanted to go to bed. Hunger always got the better of us. This was not about mortification of the flesh. The one thing I had some trouble with was wine. For one thing, my liver was in bad shape, and I’d stopped drinking entirely for a long time to heal and lose weight. For another, wine doesn’t slake thirst, it increases it. And when you walk as far as we did, and you sweat as much as I did, it’s hard to crave wine. So, if you want to stop drinking or cut down, the pilgrimage routine isn’t a bad way to go.

EH: And that’s a hot tip! What was your most memorable simple meal?

DD: Goose pâté, milk-fed veal cooked in mother’s milk, with fresh wild mushrooms, a fruit tart, and sulfur-free red Mercurey wine… served at Ferme de la Chassagne, near Mont Beuvray, on the edge of the Morvan. Everything had been grown or picked on the farm or in the surrounding woods. The wine came from a friend’s vineyard. In nearly 30 years in France I have never, ever had a meal that was so simple, so authentically gorgeous and delicious, and served by such sincere, friendly, likeable people.

EH: Divine. What about your most ambitious meal?

DD: We didn’t have many Lucullan repasts, perhaps 4 or 5, but I would say it’s a toss-up between l’Hôtel du Cêdre in Beaune — where we enjoyed snails and frogs’ legs in buttery cream sauce, exquisite spring lamb, and ripe cheeses, accompanied by a bottle of vintage Burgundy — and an extravagant duck-and-truffle-everything feast cooked up by chef Patrick Duler at the luxurious and magical Domaine de Saint-Géry in Lascabanes, not too far from Cahors. It just happened to lie on the pilgrimage route. Marvelous!

EH: What a haul of vivid characters in Paris to the Pyrenees. I understand that when you are, yourself, on a quest, you meet others who are, too. It’s more of a surprise is to find that even the innkeepers are questing! You met a few frank pilgrims – cockle shells and all. These were destined to be one-time encounters. Did that leave you a little sad?

DD: Years ago, I spent 6 weeks driving around Finland, then spent time in Leningrad, before it became St. Petersburg again, with a friend, a Finnish movie director. We had a screenplay I’d written with his input. It was a very intense time. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with open arms and bottles: wine, beer, and vodka. Killer quantities of alcohol — in fact I almost died of blood poisoning. In each locale my friend knew someone well, or knew him vaguely. I, as a total unknown, became a kind of itinerant confessor. The intensity of the conversations and encounters I had on that trip, nearly 30 years ago, was extreme. What I learned then and have reconfirmed many times since is, people crave confession and its reverse: interrogating someone. The link is anonymity and the assurance that the confessor/interrogation subject will either never be known, will not reveal himself, will not return, or will not reveal your secrets to the world. If he does, it won’t really matter, because you’ll be an unknown quantity in a far-flung place and no one listening will care.

EH: Was the Way of St. James like Russia in that way?

DD: The same phenomena were at work on the pilgrimage. We hobbled in to hundreds of places, strangers in a strange land in many senses. People were curious, wanted to know about us, and many also wanted to tell us their life stories. We had many very deep conversations. In the book I recount several, including the one at the B&B near Bibracte, the Lost City of the Gauls. This time it wasn’t the innkeepers, who were often those most likely to confess or interrogate us because, as you say, many are questers themselves, or are trying to reinvent themselves in a rural setting. So, there were three fellow overnight guests. Within minutes we had connected. By the time the evening was over, it really felt like we were very old friends, and we somehow knew we’d never meet again. It was beautiful, sad, wonderful, liberating. I won’t pretend this happened many times, but when it did, it was a life-altering experience. I am perfectly resigned to the fact that I’ll never see any of these people again.

EH: The canon of Saint Lazare Cathedral in Autun was a character out of Flaubert.

DD: He was utterly uninterested in religion as far as I could tell. I loved that encounter — though we came out worse for wear, as anyone who reads the book will discover. The canon was an egomaniac and he clearly wanted to confess to us, to tell us his story. He was very old. What I’ve found is that narcissists and egomaniacs live very long lives.

EH: You met one pilgrim at Mercurey who would not have been out of place on the Way of St. James 700 years ago.

DD: The nutty pilgrim of Mercurey was typical of the hundreds, the thousands we encountered the further south we went. Le Puy en Velay — the other big jumping off point for pilgrimages on the routes we took — was a-swarm with pilgrims draped with scallop shells, dressed in pilgrim garb, with staffs and floppy hats. Many pilgrims — questers, seekers — are clearly very needy, and some need to participate in a costume drama.

Arrow and Cockle Shell, copyright Alison Harris

We also encountered plenty of totally normal people who were out there for a million reasons of their own. In the end I felt comfortable being alone, even when we were walking in a mob. But I don’t think the mobs are conducive to enlightenment or spirituality or anything much other than perplexity and irritation. Some people love to take a “crowd bath,” as the Italians and French put it. That’s not my thing. Next time I’m going to hike as far away as possible from the madding madmen and the visionaries!

EH: You’d definitely do a trek of that distance again?

DD: I will do it again, and soon! I’ll walk northeast, away from the sun. I was blinded most of the time. That was a mortification!

Our Boots, copyright Alison Harris


Connect with David Downie and Alison Harris on the Book Tour


April 22

7 PM
52 Prince Street (between Lafayette & Mulberry)
New York City, NY 10012
(212) 274-1160

In conversation with Stephane Kirkland, architect and historian, author of Paris Reborn


April 27
1 PM
Kings County Library System
Lake Hills Library
15590 Lake Hills Blvd.,
Bellevue, 98007, WA
Phone: +1 425-450-1760, 425-450-1765
April 28
3 PM
The Elliott Bay Book Company
Downtown Seattle
1521 Tenth Avenue
Seattle WA 98122
Phone: (206) 624-6600 Toll Free 1-800-962-5311


May 1
7:30 PM
Powell’s City of Books
1005 W Burnside
Portland, OR 97209
Phone: 503-228-4651, 800 878 7323


May 8
6 PM, in conversation with award-winning poet Sandra Gilbert
Book Passage Ferry Building
San Francisco, California 94118
Phone: 415- 835 1020
May 9
7:30 PM
Kepler’s Books
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Phone: 650-324-4321
May 11

4 PM, in conversation with travel guru Don George

Book Passage Corte Maders
51 Tamal Vista Blvd
Corte Madera,California 94925
Phone: 415 927 0960
Interviewer Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge Massachusetts. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159. Since 2007, she has blogged for the science and culture digest 3 Quarks Daily. She is the owner of Lucy’s Mom , a personal chef service for people with medically imposed dietary restrictions. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter, and join her Sustainable Cooking community on Google+. She welcomes conversations about locavorism, reforming food systems, gastronomy, art and literature. David Downie’s recent food-related books are  Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light and Food Wine Rome, and Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera in the Terroir Guides series. An earlier version of this interview was published on Monday, April 8, on 3 Quarks Daily. 



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  • Tina
    April 23, 2013

    Great interview, David and Elatia! Let’s walk. And Alison’s photography is so evocative.

  • Peter
    April 23, 2013

    Fascinating interview, always enjoy David’s original insights. Having read it, I can’t say I’m planning to do the pilgrimage, but am certainly looking forward to experiencing it vicariously in David’s and Alison’s new book, which, like their other previous endeavors, promises to be a treat!