Travel-writing legend Jan Morris called David Downie’s 2011 collection of essays about Paris “Perhaps the most evocative American book about Paris since A Moveable Feast.” Now Downie with his wife, photographer Alison Harris, has journeyed beyond the City of Light, from Paris to the Pyrenees, the titular destinations in his new just published adventure tale-memoir Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James (Pegasus, April 15, 2013).
The object of any pilgrimage is an inward journey manifested in a long, reflective walk. For Downie, the inward journey met the outer one: a combination of self-discovery and physical regeneration. More than 200,000 pilgrims take the highly commercialized Spanish route annually, but few cross from France as the author did. From Paris to the Pyrenees on ancient trails, through the dark forests of the mountainous Morvan and the celebrated wine country of Burgundy, then along the centuries-old Via Podiensis, the freethinking Downie makes the pilgrimage in his own maverick way, “A witty and intelligent spin on the spiritual-journey motif,” according to Kirkus Reviews.
In this highly original, entertaining chronicle Downie manages, in the words of classicist and art historian Andrew Riggsby, to take a story of self-discovery and turn what is a “pilgrimage/anti-pilgrimage” into an exploration of time and place as “no one else does.”
Remarking on the author’s “inimitable wit” Riggsby adds, “As soon as he has brilliantly punctured the pretension of one of the characters he encounters on the road, he turns around and does the same to himself. Even the quest for a cup of coffee or the steadily declining health of his back and knees sparkle. But the most amazing thing about Downie’s version is that he travels not just in space, but in time. In his France, layers of the past are stacked and patched and run together: Caesar and his legions confronting Vercingétorix and the last Gallic hold-outs, Roland and Charlemagne, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s occasionally theme-park-ish restorations across the country, the phylloxera epidemic that nearly wiped out French wine-making, the Resistance to the Nazis, and even the travels of an earlier, more gluttonous, and less reflective David Downie. The way these layers weave and combine somehow creates both constant delightful surprise and reassuring familiarity.”
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise from the writer Michael Ondaatje dubbed “the master of educated curiosity.”
National Geographic appears to agree, calling the book “evocative and moving… 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.”
No wonder Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James is National Geographic’s TripLit pick of the month.
The theme and the writing resonate globally in this complex age of instant digital communication, lightning speed, and rootlessness. They remind acclaimed poet and author Frances Mayes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work. “Downie’s adroit, learned, and ambitious book re-invigorates my sense of travel,” Mayes notes, “taking me back to the happy knowledge that the world is still large, and history unfathomably deep.”
David Downie has called Paris home since 1986. He has written for over 50 leading publications worldwide including Bon Appétit, The Los Angeles Times, Town & Country Travel, The San Francisco Chronicle, epicurious.com, AOL.com and Salon.com. He is the author of the bestselling Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, three Terroir guides about the food and wine of France and Italy, as well as several critically acclaimed cookbooks and two crime novels.