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Book Review: "Paris to the Pyrénées - A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James"

Why on earth would a skeptic take on a pilgrimage along a Christian route? Crime novelist David Downie wrote a book about this concept: Paris to the Pyrénées - A skeptic pilgrim walks the Way of Saint James. In June 2015, we met David, a UC Berkeley alumnus and American nonfiction author, when he presented his book at the ‘Evenings with an Author series’ hosted by the American Library of Paris. Also a food critic and journalist, David Downie “walks the walk” of pilgrims on The Way (of Saint James) whilst questioning every step he takes and the very concept of pilgrimage, which has a second life in the 21st century.

To what extent life itself can be viewed as a pilgrimage? This is one of the questions floating (and left open) in Paris to the Pyrénées. As a skeptic pilgrim, David Downie is more interested in questions rather than answers, and happens to have gleaned a lot of questions ‘along’ the way and ‘on’ the Way. Is the concept of quest not embedded in the word ‘question’ ?', David once remarked.

As a San Franciscan expat who has lived in Italy and now in France for two decades, David embarked, along with his photographer wife, on a journey from rue Saint-Jacques in Paris through Burgundy to Spain via the Christian pilgrimage route known as the Way of Saint James.

How do you tell a pilgrim from a hiker? What do Vercingétorix and General Cluster have in common? Historical references come aplenty n Paris to the Pyrénées. Fond of history (both French and Roman), David quips about eading Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul:"What you may observe now in France may well have already been chronicled by Caesar then’.

"It was the subversively light, read-anywhere paperback entertainment we’d decided to carry with us: Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul. I’d read snippets of this masterpiece in Latin class back in high school, and had picked it up again while studying political science at UC Berkeley."

Overall, Paris to the Pyrénées is not the common pilgrimage book in that it questions the essence of pilgrimage. Indeed, this is more the cultured footprint of a skeptic in search of a renewed harmony between body and soul and a reminder of how thinking goes hand in hand with walking.

The original review was first published in Les Gens de Berkeley #5 - Autumn issue (December 2013).

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