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Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James Hardcover – April 1, 2013

3.8 out of 5 stars 127 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

An eclectic author of cookbooks, novels, and tourist guides, Downie embarks here on the genre of travel writing. His journey, which he completed on foot between the titular locations, in general followed the hallowed Christian pilgrimage route to Spain, le Chemin de Saint Jacques. France being France, history accompanied Downie as much as his walking companion, his wife, Alison. Their conversations were sparked by route-side sights, such as a centuries-old château that counted as young, and became enmeshed with Downie’s interior reflections about his reasons for undertaking the journey. Downie’s initial motivation was to improve his health, but after aches and pains suspended the trip, he was sustained by coming to grips with the spiritual auras of the pilgrimage route. Residing in local memory of druids, and in Christian symbols of crosses, churches, and statues of the Virgin Mary, religiosity became a topical constant in Downie’s thoughts and discussions, as did Vercingetorix, Julius Caesar, and François Mitterand. Astutely ruminative, Downie hovers between past and present in this enjoyably offbeat travelogue. --Gilbert Taylor

Review

“An entertaining read… fabulous company!” (Jackie Lyden - "All Things Considered," National Public Radio)

“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 The Tuscan Sun Cookbook and Under the Tuscan Sun)

“Bristling with knowledge and often with theinsights of good fiction, Downie takes you on a trip that is as much acompelling intellectual journey as it is a rich revelation of place. It’s ahard book to put down.” (G. Y. Dryansky, author of Coquilles, Calva and Creme)

“Profound. A witty and intelligent spin on the spiritual-journey motif.” (Kirkus Reviews)

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)

“Richly textured, meticulously detailed, a compelling, picaresque narrative of adventures on the road and a sophisticated meditation on the past, present and future of France.” (Sandra M. Gilbert, author of Kissing the Bread)

“A great writer and a very interesting trail, what more could you want?” (James Martin - About.com Europe Travel)

“Brilliant, witty and stylish.” (Anton Gill, author of The Sacred Scroll)

“A wonderful book: historically, culturally and spiritually fascinating, refreshingly honest without being self-aggrandizing, full of humor and sharp observation of the people and the landscape. Downie is a great companion on the road.” (Imogen Robertson, author of Instruments of Darkness)

“Richly illustrated with Alison Harris’s color photographs, it is not only a fascinating journey through France on foot, with illuminating glimpses into French history from prehistoric times to the present. Downie also shares his idiosyncratic observations and provocative musings about connections between the Roman and American empires, the character of Francois Mitterrand, and the shadow of both Nazi collaboration and the French Resistance. It is also an intimate, personal journey, the author sharing his candid ruminations. There are moments of comedy, many grins and even some laugh-out-loud moments. A word of advice? Don’t peek! Every page of this book is worth reading, and in order to understand the ending, you’ll have to have been there for the whole journey.” (Janet Hulstrand - Bonjour Paris)

“David Downie’s pilgrimage/anti-pilgrimage has two things no one else does. One is his inimitable wit. The other: he travels not just in space, but in time, creating constant delightful surprise and reassuring familiarity. An atheist who starts the Way of Saint James necessarily sees the world with a certain irony. One who finishes the trail from Paris to the Spanish border won’t let that irony consume him. It is the conversation between the two that makes this such a special book.” (Andrew Riggsby, Professor of Classics and of Art History, The University of Texas at Austin)

“Perhaps the most evocative American book about Paris since A Moveable Feast.” (Jan Morris)

“David Downie is the master of educated curiosity. With him we discover Paris, a seemingly public city that is, in fact, full of secrets―great lives, lives wasted on the bizarre; forgotten artisans; lost graves. I have walked some of the city’s streets with him, and reading this book is just as tactile an experience.” (Michael Ondaatje)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus Books; 1 edition (April 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1605984329
  • ISBN-13: 978-1605984322
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (127 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #257,596 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The writing was lovely and evocative, but the author did not walk from Paris to the Pyrenees in the pages of this book, he walked from the Tour Saint Jacques to the Peripatique, took a train to Vezelay, walked from there to Macon, and gave us a short summary of his walk from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Roncesvalles. While I enjoyed what he wrote, it was truly a disappointment that we weren't able to follow his entire path, most notably because during the course of the book he hated encountering pilgrims, so seeing him on the portion of the route when he actually had to deal with them would have made a much better story. Oh, and the Kindle version does not have the lovely photographs, so be forewarned.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paris to the Pyrenees masterfully combines history and memoir. Downie is a true scholar whose breadth of knowledge about the succession of settlers and conquerors in the lands along the path of his pilgrimage illustrates how unchanged the human story has been over multiple millenia. And the personal background and yearnings that lead Downie to attempt such a potentially grueling quest,accompanied by his wife Alison, add a catch that integrates all of our individual journeys.The beauty of the land they traverse is vividly portrayed by Downie's words and Alison's photographs. Weaved throughout is a tender narrative of seasoned love between Downie and his wife that provides a framework for a pilgramage that, like life itself, defies absolute resolution.
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Format: Hardcover
When I first heard about this book, I thought that it would be just another Camino de Santiago book (of which there are many). But I bought it anyway, because the book's title intrigued me.
I took the book with me on a month-long trip to Argentina. While there, I re-read the book many times. In fact, I'll be reading it again in the future!
The book is a compelling tale of the author and his companion, who decide to walk part of the Way of St. James, which is one of the many "Ways" to the final destination of Santiago, Spain. One of the main things I loved about the book is that the route they walk is not commonly traveled or written about. It's not an easy route to travel, in the sense that there aren't lots of other travelers doing the same thing. It's a glimpse into traveling off the beaten track, but doing it with a bit more style as well as a intimate view of the French countryside.
I've walked this "Way" myself some years back, and this author captures the experience perfectly. He doesn't waste a lot of time with packing lists, complaining about blisters or talking endlessly about church after church. That's all there, but it's understood that the walk isn't an easy one and that discomforts are part of the journey. Instead, he experiences the journey itself, moment by crystalline moment, allowing you to feel that you are walking beside him. His writing allows you to be not just a reader or observer, but a companion to his journey which becomes your own. While the author calls himself a skeptic in the title, by the end of the book he doesn't seem skeptical at all. He seems to have a deeper understanding of his connection to all things and to see that his path in life is an important one.
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Format: Hardcover
David Downie was a fiftyish American expatriate, living in Paris and woefully out-of-shape. As part of his program to redirect his life and reform his body, he determined to hike the French "Way of Saint James", the French counterpart to the more famous Spanish "El Camino de Santiago de Compostela", ending at the Roncesvalle Abbey in the Pyrenees, on the French-Spanish border. Perhaps for the alliterative effect, he entitled his book about the trek PARIS TO THE PYRENEES.

In point of fact, most of the book is about a small segment of the planned hike -- from Vézelay to Mâcon, in Burgundy. In Paris Downie walked only a symbolic 3.26 miles before he and his wife hopped a train to Vézelay. From there, they hiked along country roads and paths, many of which were old Roman roads, to Mâcon, overnighting in country hotels and B&B's. Downie's body gave out just short of Mâcon, so he had to abort his pilgrimage. Downie devotes 299 of his book's 313 pages to that segment of the hike. A thirteen-page epilogue summarizes the final segment of his trek, four months later, from Le Puy-en-Velay to the Roncesvalles Abbey.

Downie's hike in Burgundy contained the makings for a good book, so I don't agree with his (or his publisher's) decision to tout his trek, misleadingly, as "Paris to the Pyrenees". But even with a more honest title, the book that Downie actually wrote would only be fair. Yes, it contains interesting snippets of history, colorful figures met on the road and in hostelries, and information on life in contemporary non-Parisian France. And yes, it is written with good pace and in an informal, slightly irreverent, cheerful style. David Downie is a convivial guy. But he has no filter.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a beautifully written, cleverly constructed book that explores whole regions of France while describing their inhabitants. David Downie takes you on a unparalleled journey through space and time along which essential questions about life are raised. Sociology, history, geography are conjured up and guide you as you walk the Way of St James with David and his (wonderful) wife Alison, giving the book a multi-layered reality that makes it unique. Sitting in your armchair, you have the feeling of becoming a traveller yourself as the narrative (and Alison's photos) reveal people, landscapes, serendipitous meetings and discoveries of all kinds. You find yourself wishing this journey will never end...
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