In the Footsteps of Pilgrims

Sometimes when you travel, you have an unexpected magical day, the kind that remains vivid amid the blur of other memories. That happened to us in Vezelay, a picturesque hilltop village in the northern Burgundy region of France.

For the past 1,000 years, people have made pilgrimages to Vezelay, whose basilica is thought to house the remains of Mary Magdelene.

We have a book, “The Independent Walker’s Guide to France,” that describes half-day hikes in beautiful spots around the country, all of which can be reached by public transit. One hike starts from a village near Vezelay and climbs up to the basilica that crowns Vezelay’s hilltop. We loved the idea of approaching this beautiful place on foot like medieval pilgrims, so we were eager to do the hike. We picked a sunny afternoon and waited for the 4:30 bus that our hiking book—and the plastic schedule sheet taped to the poll of the bus stop—assured us would take us to the village of Asquins a few miles away. We waited and waited; no bus.

Oh well, we thought, it was a nice afternoon, and Asquins wasn’t too far. Why not walk there too? We didn’t have a map, but we knew roughly where the village was. The road to Asquins appeared to wind far out of the way, so we opted for what looked like a shortcut, a hiking trail heading the right way. It soon changed direction, though, and appeared likely to skirt the village entirely. So Melissa, ever the rebel, decided we should set off through the fields. Chris was reluctant: “What if some French farmer yells at us?” “We’re not doing any harm,” Melissa replied. “The fields have already been harvested. Besides, there isn’t anyone here, and no houses. If a farmer appeared, he’d have to come by car, and then he could give us a ride!”

So we plucked our way through the bumpy, stubbly fields for a while, then turned up a steep little hill to a quiet paved road that lead us into the back of Asquins. All the while, the houses and towers of Vezelay—warm sand- and terracotta-colored—loomed over our shoulder on their hilltop.

It’s wonderful to approach a village like Asquins on foot. You see houses so much more clearly than you ever do by car, see people working in their gardens or glimpse them through the kitchen window, watch cats lolling in the sun—all the simple rhythms of daily life. Plus, you have a sense of accomplishment: you’ve gotten somewhere, reached a destination.

This cross marks the spot where St. Bernard gave a speech in 1146 launching the Second Crusade

But since Asquins was the starting point of the hike in our book, we still had a ways to go, and it was all uphill from here. We found the trail in our book and pushed on. At first the slope was gentle, but it got steeper as we continued, past fields and forest. At last we threw ourselves on the grass to rest at the foot of a simple wooden cross. Strange to think that on Easter Sunday in 1146, 100,000 people, including the king and queen of France, had gathered on this spot to hear a sermon by Saint Bernard, in which he called for the Second Crusade. Today, it’s just a peaceful grassy slope.

Near the cross was a small, old stone building that looked like a church. The door was open, so we went in and found ourselves in the tiny, square interior of the Chapelle Ste-Croix, which (we later learned) has been home to Franciscan friars since 1217, sent here by Saint Francis himself. The chapel’s courtyard, with a little wall and a few trees, was still and peaceful in the early evening. As we sat on a bench against the wall of the little sanctuary, two people came in whom we mistook for tourists. We nodded hello and went back to our contemplation and resting. After a few minutes, a monk in a brown habit entered, which we hadn’t expected. The chapel looked so simple and deserted that we didn’t know it was still in use. At that point one of the people we mistook for a tourist came over and asked us in French if we were there to join them in prayer. We said “non, merci” and stepped out quietly. As we lingered in the courtyard, enjoying the peaceful feeling of the place and the balmy evening air, a single male voice raised itself in a timeless chant from inside the chapel, sending shivers up the back of our necks. How many times over the centuries had that haunting melody risen skyward through the early evening calm?

Our final destination, the basicila of Vezelay, still lay ahead, so we resumed our uphill hike. Trudging through the woods that cover the flanks of Vezelay’s hill, we had occasional glimpses of the fields we had walked through a few hours before. How far down they seemed now. At long last, the path flattened out, and we emerged next to the vast bulk of the Basilica of Ste. Madeleine. The church was begun in 1096 and expanded throughout the 1100s to make room for the growing numbers of pilgrims who flocked here.

The back of the basilica shows its simple beauty

As we entered the covered porch of the basilica, we heard music coming from inside. Mass was going on. A dozen monks and nuns in white robes stood in the transept, in the center of the church, and sang an unaccompanied polyphonic hymn. Soft evening light poured in through the windows under the high ceiling, illuminating the round Romanesque arches in the oldest part of the church and the pointed Gothic arches at the front. Enchanted, we went in and listened to the rest of the service. There’s nothing like the sound of liturgical music and people praying together to bring a big, empty stone space to life. Like tired pilgrims, we had reached our goal at last.

The great 12th-century carved doorway opening into the basilica
Round Romanesque arches in the front contrast with early Gothic pointed arches at the end

But unlike poor medieval pilgrims, we were able to end this wonderful day with a feast: the best and freshest Boeuf Bourguignon we’ve ever tasted (local beef browned in butter and stewed for hours with pieces of bacon, chopped onions, salt, pepper, mushrooms, and red Burgundy wine grown just outside the village). Now that was a taste of heaven.

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