Once upon a time, in the days of gluttonous yore – the 1980s – the celebrated Burgundian hill town of Vézelay, crowned by the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, was known as “a site of gastronomic pilgrimage.” Rarely did anyone evoke Magdalene’s relics or her UNESCO World Heritage Site shrine. Rarely did gastronomes notice the strangely attired pilgrims trudging up the looping, lichen-frosted lanes to venerate the longhaired, wild-woman saint.
In the 1980s, pilgrimage wasn’t in fashion. Hedonism seemed the thing. The Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant in crusty Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay at the saint’s feet was the shrine. Thousands offered up wallets on the altar of haute cuisine. Only zealots spoke of the moldering bones inside the basilica’s gilt reliquary.
Now nearly 2 million visitors climb the cobbled streets of upper Vézelay. This medieval aerie hovers above vineyards and those emerald-green pastures where romantic writers writhe in ecstasy. Legions of the pious brandish staffs, scallop shells and other tokens of religiosity. They besiege the ramparts, starting at Easter, the kick-off date for pilgrimages in France. Culture vultures, busloads of package tourists and brightly attired trekkers join the scrum.
Saint Bernard preached the Second Crusade at Vézelay on Easter day, 1146. It happened on March 31, like this year, a reason for numerological pilgrims to rejoice. It might also explain the numbers of visitors in Vézelay when I was there a few days ago.
Confession time: I’m not religious and am only partly reformed. I admit Vézelay was where my wife Alison and I started our trek: it lasted nearly three months and took us across France and over the Pyrenees. Vézelay surprised me then for the changes that have transformed it. This time around the upper part of town looked like a cross between Mont Saint Michel-France’s most visited site – and Montmartre. The formula is familiar: elephant trains, souvenirs, iffy food and parking lots packed with garishly painted buses.
What to do? Montmartre is wondrous at dawn. At Mont Saint Michel and Vézelay the trick is to spend the night. When the buses roll away, the magic steals back. It lasts until mid-morning.
We did not stay up all night. Arriving at dusk, we checked into an old favorite: the Hotel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or. Then we strolled up the storied streets. The crowds were headed out.
Spit-polished for the trade, the village still has a “real” side. We followed locals to a street paralleling the main drag, Grande Rue. The last day-trippers filled the wine bars, cafés and crêperies sampling the Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, the cappuccinos and Burgundy treats.
The residents roosted in the PMU-tobacco shop, knocking back an 80-proof distillate called marc de Bourgogne. They also wagered on pari-mutuel horse races, and watched with puzzlement as the neo-pilgrims vanished into the night.
Vézelay’s tourist office calls the basilica of Mary Magdalene “an extraordinary book of stone and light.” Beyond the troubled translation, the Romanesque shrine does seem to have been rewritten by ten centuries of heavy weather, lightning and strife. The façade definitely looks better when spotlit at night.
Over the doors three tympanums crawled with figures. The almond-shaped center one showed Christ surrounded by Apostles and strange beings ready for induction into the Universal Church. Giants and pygmies, dog-headed men and others with huge ears: the message was clear. All are welcome-sinners, miscreants like me, pagans, heathens and creatures only part human. This is Mary Magdalene’s basilica. She had been a prostitute.
It dawned on me why Vézelay’s central tympanum should resemble an almond or vulva. Hadn’t Mary’s first profession depended on the forbidden fruit? The cult of the Virgin, virginity, chastity and abstinence had come late to the church, ditto the rule against married priests, and women in the clergy. The reformed party boy Saint Francis of Assisi had come to Vézelay in its heyday. Maybe it was time for jocular Pope Francis to make a pilgrimage into the future by rediscovering the past?
Miracles happen, we’re assured.
The nave, daubed with dusky light, stretched a football field long. Having walked 750 miles, seeing a thousand churches en route, I now thought the nave looked vaguely Moorish. Its vaults and arches are rimmed by alternating pale and reddish stone, as in better mosques in Spain. Blasphemy?
The demons and monsters torturing sinners on the basilica’s carved capitals seemed to me to prove that progress is possible after all. In some places, notably France, the grin has overwhelmed the grim.
We were overdue for hedonistic relief. A girl in the hotel’s dining room was dressed like an Easter egg, lost in her Louis XV-style chair. She rose up and announced that the snails were “good and garlicky.” This prodigy then consumed a large pork jowl and several potatoes – as did I – savored ripe, smelly Epoisse cheese and gobbled a giant chocolate dessert. The child was a French paradox in the making. Healthy hedonism was alive and well in Vézelay. There was hope. Maybe miracles happen after all.
Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James and Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app will be published in April: www.davidddownie.com and www.parisparistours.com. Photos © 2013 Alison Harris