A Skeptic Pilgrim in France: Time Tunnels and Wishing Wells

David Downie on his pilgrim journey through rural France.
David Downie on his journey through rural France.

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James

By David Downie
Photographs by Alison Harris

Time Tunnels and Wishing Wells

We hadn’t hiked more than a mile when we spotted our first famous landmark–the Fontaines Salées archeological site and salt springs.

“Do we have time for a visit?” I asked, checking my pedometer and watch.

“About three months,” Alison reminded me. “Who’s keeping track, other than you?”

Inside the ticket booth, a lean man sat reading a newspaper. “The Roman road ran by here,” he said unprompted. “Part of it is underneath the paved road you just walked on. But the Romans were newcomers,” he added with an air of mystery. “The Celts started using the salt springs around 200 BC.” He sounded like an oracle, or an actor used to recite the same lines. “It’s older than that, though, much older.”

He raised a finger, wiggled it significantly, and returned to his newspaper.

A pattern of stone ruins hugged a lush, green hollow near the river. Walls a few feet high revealed what was, we learned, the Gaul’s circular temple to the gods of this mineral spring. The Romans had remodeled and expanded it. Enough had withstood the centuries to evoke the salacious rituals of old.
Paris to the Pyrenees

Frogs croaked in marshy pools as Alison read aloud from the site brochure. I couldn’t help concurring that the Romans and Celts were Johnny-come-latelies.

Archeologists had discovered nineteen wooden wellheads at Fontaines Salées, all fashioned from felled trees hollowed out with fire. Dendronology and Carbon 14 revealed one sample to have been cut in the spring of 2238 BC.
2238 BC?

I repeated the date silently, counting backward. That was 4,246 years ago, the end of the Stone Age or Neolithic. Here?

We wandered through the ruins, seeing them with new eyes. I was filled again with disconcerting enthusiasm. Salty water welled through the rubble. I peered into one of the submerged wooden casings.

The bark was still on the tree. How had Neolithic peoples learned to glean and use salt to preserve food? Perhaps they weren’t so primitive after all. Tadpoles swam among lazy bubbles.

What Were Pilgrims Doing?

I couldn’t help feeling lost in the bottomlessness of 4,246 years. It made Saint James seem a beardless youth. Was this where the wishing well myth had originated? Had the pre-Celtic salt-harvesters invoked the spring’s gods and the gods of spring?

Had the Druids made human sacrifices here? Had Narcissus been mesmerized and fallen into his own reflection here? Here, this very spot? What a luxury it was to speculate. If that’s what pilgrimages were about, then I was all for them.

On the way out, we asked the custodian if he knew a shortcut back to the pilgrim’s trail that would keep us off the asphalt and away from today’s Gallic road warriors. He pointed northwest toward a place called Valbeton, as if we were familiar with the place-name.

A path ran uphill to a dirt road—another ancient road, he said. It was, the custodian added, the way Roland, Charlemagne and Girart de Roussillon had traveled to Spain. Girart de Roussillon was the founder of Vézelay, he reminded us. “Of course you’ve read the Song of Roland and know that Roland was killed near Roncevaux abbey, where the Way of Saint James crosses the Pyrenees and turns into the Camino de Santiago?”

“Of course,” said Alison.

Walking near Corcelles, France.
Walking near Corcelles, France.

Well, I added, even though we were ignoramuses from the other side of the Atlantic, we were familiar with the personage of Roland and had even read the poem.

I couldn’t quote it to this over-educated ticket-taker but I had read parts of the Song of Roland, an epic in late 11th-century French that sings the adventures of Charlemagne and his “right-hand man” Roland, Duke of the Marches of Brittany.

It was the French equivalent of the Arthurian cycle, but older, bloodier, and less romantic. When I read it those many years ago I’d skipped to the massacre scene near Roncevaux, where Roland blows his horn in extremis, in a Pyrenees pass. That’s where we would be crossing the mountains in a few months if all went to plan.

There Was a Plan

Yes, there was a plan. I checked my watch and compared it to the clock on my pedometer, realizing it was high time to hike south in haste. We had about ten miles to go before we’d reach our first overnight at a village called Domecy-sur-Cure, and it was already late morning. The lunch bell would soon be ringing in my belly, and if we didn’t pick up the pace darkness would enfold us, possibly in the middle of a fearsome forest where lions, tigers and bears awaited.

As we bounded toward Spain like bee-stung hares full of hope and expectation, a mere month’s walk from Cluny and our first major goal, I realized that for several years, Alison and I had been living in a kind of enclosed porch, like the one at the basilica of Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, a pre-pilgrimage Limbo built onto the façade of our lives. We were finally crossing into the nave, so to speak, and it felt good. It felt wonderful, liberating, exhilarating.

We were not alone in our excitement. Climbing the grade on GR-13, the secular hiking trail we’d selected, we spied a pair of telescopic walking sticks flailing ahead of us and heard their click on the rocky road. As we neared, I sensed the heavy breathing of an unhappy camper.

Uphill crept what looked like a giant snail but was, in reality, a human of surprising proportions. She was large, as pneumatic as a truck tire, and wore a bulky backpack. As we came abreast, I also noticed her jack-o-lantern smile.

Not much older than we, she’d somehow lost most of her teeth. Was she on a pilgrimage to beseech Saint James for dental assistance? Or was her journey about weight loss? She caught her breath long enough to wheeze bonjour. We encouraged her with hand-signals and smiles, and climbed past, feeling like guilty hares leaving the tortoise behind.

The walk took Downie through streams, woods and fields in France.
The walk took Downie through streams, woods and fields in France.

The mixed metaphors struck me as uncharitable, especially given our Saint Jamesian surroundings. I didn’t mean to make fun of a fellow pilgrim, though I’d rarely seen a human so like a snail and a Halloween pumpkin combined.

Like a Tortoise

Now that I thought of it, she looked an awful lot like a tortoise, too. My knees ached at the memory of carrying an extra 50 pounds around my waistline, the pounds I’d managed to lose since catching hepatitis and starving myself toward health.

My heart went out to her, furthering my misgivings about my mental metaphors. I couldn’t help wondering if there was some way to share the Good News with her—that if a seemingly hopeless case like me could slim down, perk up and stride out maybe she could too.

All she had to do was eat less, eat right, detox from the prescription drugs, change her attitude, and get lots of exercise, without viewing any of the above as a “sacrifice.” Because if the sacrifice was perceived then failure was guaranteed. The real trick, as she clearly knew, seeing as she was out here, obviously suffering but with a smile on her face, was harnessing will power and self-awareness and…

“Who are you talking to?” Alison asked.

“Was I talking?”

“It was either you or a ghost,” she said.

“Caesar’s ghost, maybe,” I retorted. “Or Charlemagne’s.”

Charlemagne! The famous Valbeton lay ahead of us, pushing other thoughts out of my head. The dirt road turned into a trail that tipped up and ran over loose rocks. In my mind’s ear I heard the hoofs of Charlemagne’s cavalry, but I failed to hear the blast of Roland’s horn. At the crest, among swaying pine trees, we turned to cast farewell glances at Vézelay and the determined tortoise far below.

In the opposite direction, to the southeast stretched five ridges cloaked with fir forests and leafing deciduous trees surrounded by parcels of fields, pastures and vineyards—and not a single paved road. Paradise!

David DownieDavid Downie is an author and private tour guide, who lives in Paris. Visit his website and his tour site, www.parisparistours.com. Photos © 2013 Alison Harris.

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James

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