Switzerland – experiencing the challenges and rewards of the Via Francigena

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Day 30: Mouthier-Haute-Pierre to Pontarlier (24 km)

When I woke up in Moutheir-Haute-Pierre it was not raining as the weather forecast had threatened it would be.  It was Sunday and as the shop had been closed the day before this caused a huge problem – I had no food and would not be able to buy any on the road.  The prospect of walking the French countryside for 25 km with nothing to eat was not a pleasant prospect. I therefore had no choice but to have breakfast at the hotel, which for 10 euro I knew would be plentiful, and to sneak some food into my bag to get me through the day.  Survival instincts setting in I sat down in the dining room, grateful there was only one other person there.  I was served a basket full of an assortment of mini-croissants, pain au chocolat and rolls, as well as hot chocolate and orange juice, and a yoghurt.  I was able to enjoy and good breakfast and to take away the yoghurt and plenty of rolls to keep me going until I reached Pontarlier.

Catherine was returning to the UK and had a long journey ahead of her. First the bus to Pontarlier, which is just 10km from the Swiss border, then a train which connected to a TGV to Paris.  Once in Paris she would need to take the metro to Gare du Nord and where she could board the Eurostar back to Ebbsfleet.  In this way she would cover in one day what had taken me a month to walk.  Catherine’s bus wasn’t until 10.30 am and I needed to get on the road, so at 9am we bid each other a very fond farewell with promises to meet up when I was back in London in July. 

I thought I would feel quite lonely after having had such wonderful company for four days, but I was so absorbed by the journey in front of me that it didn’t give me the opportunity.  My mind was quite preoccupied by the transition the next day from France to Switzerland.  I had never been to Switzerland before and although I knew I would enjoy the scenery I wondered what differences I would find with my experience of walking in France.  I was prepared for a cultural difference, as I’d heard from several people that the Swiss were not as friendly as the French.  My navigation methods would change as I was not planning on getting a Swiss SIM card and therefore, would not have Google Maps to rely on anymore.  Then there was the small thing of crossing the Alps.  I had tried to be as informed as possible about walking the Alps, particularly crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass, but what I learned did not relieve my fears. My guidebook states that the crossing is not open until late May and that to cross earlier it is necessary to snowshoe or cross-country ski.  I had written to Gaetano Tornay, who manages the Swiss section of the Via Francigena, before I left the UK and his advice was to not cross on my own unless I had a guide which costs about 500 euro.  My plan was to snowshoe up the road that, although still covered in snow, would be simple to follow.  What would prevent me from crossing the Pass would be the weather. If there was a snow storm or poor visibility I would have no other choice than to take the bus back to Martigny and take another bus through the 11 km tunnel under the Pass to Aosta.  Now that I had come so far I knew that I’d be incredibly disappointed to have to do this.  When you walk all day on your own you have  a lot of time to think, and I had imagined the feeling of reaching the top, staying at the 1000 year old hospice overnight and then crossing into Italy the next day so many times.  I knew it would be one of those life-altering experiences and to be so close and have to turn back would be difficult to accept.  There was nothing to do however, except wait and see.  I would find out in nine days when I reached Bourg Saint Pierre.

As I left Mouthier-Haute-Pierre my guidebook gave me two options.  The road wrapped around the cliffs about half-way up the valley and I could continue on it for 6 km at an even level or go down into the valley and walk up and down on a path.  I may have chosen the path, as it was said to be incredibly beautiful, but I had read the path was not very safe in wet weather and as it had rained overnight I decided to take the safer option of the road.  It turned out that I would not have been to walk the path anyway as there was a foot race about to start the course of which was on the very same path.  There wasn’t much traffic on the road, which was good as there was no shoulder to walk on and the road was blocked on one side by the cliffs and on the other by the sharp drop into the valley.  As I walked along the side of the road by the valley I couldn’t help feeling a little giddy when I looked down.  It was an unpleasant sensation and I decided to stay focused on the road.  The 6 km went quite quickly and with a sense of relief I was back on an open road surrounded by fields.

At 10.30 am I received a text from Catherine that she was on the bus to Pontarlier.  Relieved to know that she was safely on her way back to the UK I continued on briskly.  I passed through a village and then into a stretch of woods.  The directions in my guidebook for this section described taking right then lefts of grassy tracks and logging trails and as always I was nervous that I would take the wrong grassy track, with the dreaded result of getting lost in the woods.  I think I’ve started to become more adept at following these sometimes obscure directions as I managed to find my way without too many moments of uncertainty.  There were even a few Via Francigena stickers to put me at ease.  The woods gave way to more fields, then woods again until I caught sight of Pontarlier.  Over the city I could see a dark rain cloud which was coming my way. I stopped for few minutes to get on my rain gear and then started on the last 5 km to the city.  It was Sunday so the roads were quiet and of course all of the shops closed as I walked into the heart of the city.  Even the youth hostel that I was staying in was closed, but the receptionist had left me a key and instructions on how to enter by the front door.  I retrieved the key, grateful for the trust they placed in a stranger, and went into my dorm room.  I was the only one in the room and hadn’t seen anyone else in the hostel.  It was only at times like this that I felt, not lonely, but truly alone.  It was not in the middle of the woods, but in the centre of a city on a Sunday when everything was closed and there were only a few people on the street. 

I had already finished the food I had stashed away from breakfast and so went into the city-centre to see what I could find.  There was one café open and that was it.  The historic centre was quite lovely, with its sandy-coloured stone buildings and monumental gateway, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit depressed.  I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so down. I had certainly been in a number of quiet if not completely dead villages and towns at this point.  Then I realised that it was transitioning back to being on my own after walking with Catherine.  Sure that this feeling would pass the next day, I went into the café and treated myself to a good meal.  I spent the evening writing and got an early night, drifting off to visions of rocky snow-capped mountains.   

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Day 31: Pontarlier to Sante Croix, Switzerland (21.5km)

It was Monday morning and the world was back to its normal routine.  The streets of Pontarlier were now full of life as I walked out of the city on the way to Switzerland.  To get out of the city I had to walk 10 km on quite a busy road.  There was a cycle path to walk safely on however, and the time went very quickly.  Before turning off onto a quieter road I passed through a narrow passage between two towering cliffs.  Perched on the right cliff was the Château de Joux, a 1000-year-old castle which my guidebook stated had an extensive network of dungeons.  Although now a museum with twinkling electric lights visible in the small windows it still retained the grim appearance of a medieval fortress.  Once I turned left onto a small road I started to climb and soon found myself at the same elevation as the Château and then continued further up and up.  Once I was higher than the surrounding hills I could see dark rain clouds gathering behind me.  Fortunately the wind was carrying them towards Pontarlier and I congratulated myself on my good luck.  Half an hour later however, the wind started to blow in my direction bringing the clouds with it.  Hoping to out-walk them I pressed on without a break until I reached the Swiss Border.  I was surprised when I realised there is no longer any border control, but the old facilities are still there, completely disserted.  I was now in Switzerland and couldn’t help feeling a bit feeling a bit disappointed by the lack of ceremony.  With the miracles of technology however, I was able to share the moment by posting a picture on Facebook.  I have rarely used Facebook in this way, but it was a wonderful thought that in one second all of my friends throughout the world could be a part of this moment. 

Once I had crossed into Switzerland I only had 10 km more to walk until I reached Sainte Croix, where I would spend the night.  When I reached the town I took out some Swiss Francs and picked up a few things at the supermarket before continuing just beyond the town to my accommodation.  As I walked around a bend in the road I could suddenly see the valley stretched out below – a patchwork of fields and Neuchâtel Lake.  I realised just how far I had climbed that day (1000 metres) and was impressed by how fit my legs had clearly become over the last four weeks.  Even my right knee which had been so painful the in the first few weeks was perfectly fine under the uphill strain. 

I arrived at my bed and breakfast just in time, as the owner was taking in the laundry to save it from the fast approaching clouds.  I had been warned by several people who I had spoken to about the Via Francigena to not expect the Swiss to be that friendly, but the gentleman who ran the B & B couldn’t have been friendlier.  He welcomed me warmly and showed me up to a little flat with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchenette.  The house was at the base of a ski slope with a conservatory in the back and views of the mountain.  I freshened up and prepared some dinner which I ate in the conservatory to enjoy the view.  It started to rain quite heavily and as it pounded against the glass roof and walls I felt very grateful that I was warm and dry rather than exposed to elements. 

I worried through the night that the rain would not clear by morning but when I woke up the rain had stopped but at this elevation (1000 metres above sea level) the temperature was hovering just above freezing.  At breakfast my host presented me with printed maps of the route to Orbe that day.  Now I was in Switzerland I no longer had data on my phone so would not be able to use Google Maps as a backup to my guidebook. It was therefore useful to have these maps in addition to a description of the route from this helpful Swiss gentleman. 

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Day 32: Sainte Croix to Orbe (18.5 km)

Bundled up in my warmest clothes I set off from the B & B looking for the path off to the left of the road as described on my map.  I found the way was helpfully marked by yellow and black diamond-shaped markers.  The path was very steep and quite slippery from all the rain overnight.  Even though I had my poles, the weight of my rucksack unbalanced me at one point and I fell backwards, my lower back making contact with a sharp root sticking out of the ground.  It was the first time I had fallen on the walk so far, and the experience warned me of the hazards of walking on this kind of terrain.  I was a little bruised but other than that unhurt.  I continued to descend until I joined a path through the Gorge de Covetennaz which was signed as ‘La Route Romain’.  As I navigated along the narrow path with cliffs on one side and the river rushing in a torrent on the other I became doubtful that this was the route of the Via Agrippa.  It was far too narrow and the path went over several small bridges which would have been impossible for the type of transport found on a Roman road to have travelled on.  After a little investigating I discovered that this road had been mistakenly identified as Roman, but was in fact built in the 16th century.

The scenery through the gorge was beautiful and now I was nearly at the valley floor the temperature had increased significantly though a chilly wind persisted.  Once in the valley I diverged from the route of Sigeric, who walked two sides of a triangle to Yverdon-les-Bains on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel, and continued directly to Orbe. This saved me a full day of walking.  I later found out that Sigeric had made this long detour to avoid some local violence.  Although I was trying to follow Sigeric’s path as closely as possible, I saw no reason why I should walk a full extra day when I was not at risk of the same dangers that had caused him to choose that route.  The way to Orbe on the Via Francigena, in order to avoid roads, made several loops, but with only 6 km until I reached the town it did not make a huge difference in time. The Parish of Orbe does provide accommodation for pilgrims, but when I called to let them know I was coming I was told to contact a Bernard Gloor.  When I called Mr. Gloor he explained that he had a flat that could accommodate pilgrims, but that it was already occupied.  He told me however, to come to his house when I arrived in Orbe and that he would arrange something for me.  When I entered the town I was very near to Mr. Gloor’s house, so I quickly stopped in a Co-Op to pick something up for dinner and for lunch the next day.  As I was deciding on which Swiss chocolate to get (not an easy decision) a gentleman with a white beard came up to me and said in French ‘I think you’re staying with me tonight’.  I looked confused, so he repeated it in English.  I asked if he was Mr. Gloor and he said ‘yes’.  He explained that he was picking up some things for my breakfast when he saw a woman with a large rucksack and put two and two together.  He looked down at my shopping basket and told me not to get too much as he was planning on making me a packed lunch for tomorrow.  I put back my bread but hung on to everything else and we went to the checkout together.  Bernard spoke fluent English and we were soon chatting as if we were well-acquainted rather than having met five minutes before in a supermarket.  His house was minutes away and when we entered the house I was greeted by a little black dog with very strong opinions which she voiced loudly.  As it turns out, Bernard had called a few people in the town who have taken pilgrims in the past, but as no one was able to accommodate me that night he had made up a spare room for me in his home.  He could have easily said I needed to go to a hotel, but instead, he opened his home up to a complete stranger.

I had just settled in my room to read when I heard a little knock on the door.  It was Bernard who invited me for a glass of wine in the living room before dinner.  We spent over an hour chatting about my trip and his own experiences on pilgrimage routes.  He had once walked with his family from Orbe to Le Puy, which is a popular starting point in France for the Camino de Santiago.  After polishing off a small bottle of wine between us, Bernard went into the kitchen to prepare us some dinner.  After dinner I thanked Bernard for a lovely evening and went to my room to prepare for tomorrow.  Before going to sleep I read some more of Alice Warrender’s An Accidental Jubilee, which details her experience walking on the Via Francigena.  I had the ebook and had only had time to read through the French section before leaving Canterbury.  I was curious to know about the section through the Alps.  It turned out to be a great mistake to read it, as Alice had had a very negative experience.  The greatest problem was certainly that she was afraid of the Alps and when she walked the last day to the Great Saint Bernard Pass she admitted that she had just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.  Her anxiety no doubt caused her to not follow the paths as carefully as she needed to and so she got lost.  After a nightmarish account of scrambling down steep slopes and having to walk many additional hours to finally reach the pass I was in a state of anxiety.  Alice had walked the pass in the summer.  I would be walking when the Pass would be still under a great deal of snow.  Needless to say I did not sleep very well that night, but I reminded myself in the morning that we each have our own experiences, and there was no reason to think that mine would be as negative. 

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Day 33: Orbe to Lausanne (28 km)

Bernard had a hot breakfast on the table for me at 7am.  It was about 28km to Lausanne and I wanted to make an early start so I would have some time to see the city and also to run a very important errand – I needed some new boots.  The boots that had taken my across Northern Spain to Santiago, and now, from Canterbury to Switzerland were officially falling apart.  They made a terrible squeaking noise as I walked and each day it seemed another piece of the sole fell off.  With more than 1000 km still to walk and the most difficult terrain ahead I need to some reliable boots.  The biggest worry of course was having to break them in, but luckily I would only be walking about 20 km a day for the next week. 

Once I had packed up my things and had my rucksack on I went to say goodbye to my wonderful host Bernard and to ask how much I owed him for the night and meals.  This wonderful man said in reply, ‘nothing.’  He handed me a packed lunch of boiled eggs, little sandwiches, fruit, cheese and chocolate and said he would walk the first part with me to show me the way.  What can be said about such generosity?  I was quite overwhelmed and thankful that such people exist in the world. We walked through the centre of Orbe then down some steps onto a main road, past the Nescafe factory which filled the air with the delicious smell of coffee.  We had walked a good kilometre when Bernard stopped and said he would leave me here.  Words could not express my gratitude although I tried. With a warm handshake we said goodbye and I followed Bernard’s directions to the next village. 

I still can’t be sure at what point I got lost, but although I followed my guidebook’s directions I found myself after 8 km walking into a village of another name than I expected.  I asked in a shop the way to the next village on the route and was told to follow a cycling route.  The route was well-paved and cut through fields.  As I was walking along looking at the clouds I realised with a genuine gasp that I was not looking at clouds but the Alps!  The day was quite hazy so it had been difficult to make them out, but there they were, rocky and forbidding and still covered with snow.  I was surprised at my reaction, but my heart had started to beat just a little bit faster and I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.  When I reached the next village I decided to abandon my guidebook and to follow the cycle route all the way to Lausanne.  It’s such a more pleasant experience not having to constantly check you are on the right road.  Following the clear signs I walked through quiet country lanes and logging roads in the woods until I arrived in the outskirts of Lausanne.  Whenever you enter a city the signage predictably is less than sufficient.  I spent a good half an hour trying to locate how the route continued before continuing on the right course that would avoid the hectic afternoon traffic and bring me safely into the city-centre. 

I caught a tantalising glimpse of the Lake Geneva as I began the decent into the city.  It took a least an hour until I finally reached the cathedral and the official centre.  Knowing I would not have time to come back to the cathedral later I took the time to stop and get my pilgrim stamp and to see the magnificent building.  The cathedral was first built in the 12th century but has seen many additions and restorations over the centuries.  I was quite shocked at one point to see that some make-shift repairs of some fragile-looking medieval columns had been achieved through the liberal use of duct tape.  Cringing I continued on until I reached the pilgrim corner which had been specifically allocated for pilgrims to Santiago and Rome where they could stamp their credentials and rest.  It was dimly lit and inviting so I put down my rucksack and looked through the pilgrim book to read the comments of past pilgrims.  Most pilgrims were going to Santiago but there were several recent entries by those on the Via Francigena.  Not having much time to linger as I had to make it to the shops in time to get a new pair of boots, I left the cathedral and walked down a set of wooden covered stairs down to the commercial centre.    

Lausanne is a lively city and the streets were bustling with students and shoppers.  I didn’t waste time looking around but went directly to a sports shop that had been recommended to me by Bernard in Orbe.  I asked for some advice on which pair would be best for walking on terrain that would vary between the Alps and roads.  I settled on a pair of soft walking shoes which had a good grip and were waterproof, but allowed my feet to flex comfortably which would be perfect on the many roads I knew I would be walking on in Italy.  Once I purchased them I took off my old boots, which looked as if they had trod the 2000 or so kilometres of the Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena, and changed into my new ones.  I felt a little pang as I threw them away, as if they deserved a better end than in a litter bin on the streets of Lausanne after having served me so well.  I was so pleased with my new boots however, that the old were quickly forgotten as I relished walking quietly and comfortably through the streets to my hostel. 

Switzerland is an expensive place to visit whether you are spending sterling or euro.  For a bed in a four-bed room at the hostel I paid 42 Swiss Francs, which is the equivalent in euro and about £32.  There was no pilgrim accommodation in Lausanne so I had little choice. It was 7pm by the time I walked into my dorm room, and once I had showered and prepared some dinner I was ready for an early night.  The Alps were visible from my bedroom window and I looked out at them in the dusky light of the evening.  Looking at their reflection in the waters of the lake I found them so beautiful I could not be afraid of them.  They also seemed quite unreal, as if I was looking at a picture.  I just couldn’t quite fathom that I would be walking through them in two days. 

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Day 34: Lausanne to Vevey (20 km)

I woke to a glorious morning with the sun streaming through the windows and a perfectly clear sky.  I was only walking 20 km to Vevey along the shore of Lake Geneva, and therefore did not rush to get on the road, but rather took the opportunity to have a leisurely start to the day.  I left the hostel at 10am and made a stop at a bakery for a raspberry pastry to munch on my way down the rest of the hill to the shore of Lake Geneva.  I passed through two parks following a mountain stream as it made its way to the lake.  Lake Geneva on that beautiful sunny day was just as breath-taking as I had imagined.  It was perfectly still, decorated with swans and the reflection of the white-capped mountains.  The Via Francigena runs alongside the lake as long as it is possible so I turned left and started to walk at a comfortable pace taking in the splendid views.  It was day 34 of my trip and these first 10 km along the lake were without question the best part of the Via Francigena so far.  I love to be by water, whether it’s a river, lake or the sea, but what was so particularly spectacular about being by Lake Geneva was the combination of the gentle sound of the water hitting the shore, the brightness of the water reflecting the sun and the stunning mountains as a backdrop.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it and took several breaks to sit and let it all sink in.  It was with reluctance half-way to Vevey that I had to turn away from the shoreline and cross over the railway line and the main road and climb up into the vineyards known as the Côtes de Lavaux.  These vineyards are the largest in Switzerland and were planted by Cicercian Monks coming from Burgundy in the 12th century.  They are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.    I was now cut off from the lake and very exposed among the vineyards as the sun beat down strongly.  I passed a lady at one point who enthusiastically related how she had just passed a fox that was a big as a dog in the direction I was walking.  I looked out for it and was not disappointed as I saw his curious face peering down at me from further up the hill.  He was very brazen as I stood there taking pictures of him. 

I could have continued among the vineyard but the route would have taken me up and down along the hillside and so I decided to stay by the lake and walk on the pavement of the main road. It meant having to deal with the noisy traffic, but I made excellent time and was soon walking into the outskirts of Vevey.  A sign with an image of Charlie Chaplin on it announced the entrance to the town, celebrating that he had once been a resident here.  In the principal square by the lake I found the tourists office and got a stamp in my credentials and asked how to get to my hostel.  It turned out it was right on the square, only a few metres from the lake.  I entered the building and took the lift up to the reception on the third floor.  The reception and common area were completely deserted and I was informed by a notice that the reception did not open until 5pm.  It had just gone 3.30pm so rather than wait I took advantage of access to the showers to freshen up and then went out onto the terrace to wait.  Once I had checked in and got organised I went back into the town to look for some warmer clothes in preparation for my ascent into the Alps.  I had only felt cold on one occasion so far on the trip, and that was in Saint-Croix when I was at 1000 metres above sea level.  I had read that temperatures on the Great Saint Bernard Pass could go below freezing even in the middle of the summer at night and had no desire to be caught out with insufficiently warm clothes.  I ended up treating myself to a cosy fleece jacket in a department store.  Feeling well prepared now for the challenge of the coming week I picked up some ingredients to make dinner in the hostel kitchen and walked back to enjoy a relaxing evening. 

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Day 35: Vevey to Aigle (27 km)

The curtains of my dorm room were drawn when I woke up the next morning and it was only after I had dressed that I pulled them back and realised that it was in fact pouring with rain.  The clouds hung like a thick mist overhead and the lake and mountains were mostly obscured from sight.  After the beautiful weather of the day before I was completely unprepared for this sudden change.  Although I had walked for 5 weeks in northern France where I had expected to face endless days of spring rain, I had been exceptionally lucky.  Except for a few mornings of light rain I had not encountered anything like what I saw outside my window.  I checked the weather forecast and with a pang in my stomach discovered that it was going to rain non-stop all day and that as I started to walk into La Vallée the temperature was going to drop 10 degrees C.  Incredibly grateful that I had had at least one lovely day by the lake, I tried not to feel put out that now I would have to walk in the rain on my 27 km day from Vevey to Aigle.  I put on my rain gear (trousers, jacket and rucksack cover) and walked out into the slanting rain and wind.  I told myself that once I got wet I couldn’t get any wetter and to just make the best of things.  This attitude worked for the first 6km until I reached Montreux.  The Riviera of Switzerland, Montreux has palm trees and beautifully kept gardens and promenades by the waterfront.  I had not had any breakfast so veered off the path to enter the town, looking for a warm café to replenish my energy.  I felt a little guilty as I walked in, dripping wet, to just such a café and asked if it would be alright for me to sit down. The lady behind the counter encouragingly invited me in and I set down my rucksack and stripped off my soaked rain jacket.  Selecting a coffee and a piece of warm mushroom quiche I sat down to recover.  The rain was beating threateningly at the windows and I could see the wind blowing the palm trees.  Now I had stopped walking my body had cooled down and I started to feel chilled.  The hot coffee and food did much to warm my body and lift my spirits.  In no hurry to face the elements I lingered for an hour reading the newspaper and enjoying being warm and dry.  I couldn’t put off the inevitable for long however, and so put my rain jacket back on and set out from the café. 

Going back into the rain and wind I felt cold, but taking up a brisk pace I soon warmed up.  2 km after Montreux I passed the Château de Chillon, one of the most popular sites in Switzerland.  The Château  is very reminiscent of a fairytale castle with its several turrets and location on the lake.  I had been looking forward to seeing it, but couldn’t really appreciate it as I walked past the crowds of Asian tourists with their bright umbrellas.  This was not the day to play the tourist, so I trudged past, head bent against the wind and continued on.  As I neared the end of the lake the town of Villeneuve came into view.  The route had been well-marked up until this point and corresponded to my guidebook, so when a sign indicated I turn left I followed it, but then further along the signs stopped.  I took out my phone, which I had placed inside a plastic bag to protect it from the rain, to verify the route.  I followed the instructions of my guidebook until I was outside of the town and crossing under a motorway.  As I reached a crossroads I read and reread the instructions but could not understand which way to turn.  The guidebook said I should have passed a campsite, which I had not, and then described following along the motorway until I reached a cycle path. Uncertain which way to go I had to make a decision and so took the direction I thought made the most sense.  I did meet up with a cycle path which followed alongside the railroad, which I knew went directly up the Vallée but after about 2 km the path stopped where it met a major road and then the highway.  Standing under the motorway for shelter I struggled to understand what I should do.  Perhaps this was not the railway line I thought it was.  I determined I must have gone the wrong way and so, with little choice, turned back to the point where I had made the error.  As I walked back I made the decision that I would have to return to Villeneuve and take the bus if I could not find the right path. The conditions were getting a little dangerous as it was raining very heavily and all around me were a network of motorways and exits, mountains and the railway.  Making one last effort I took the alternative road and as I rounded the corner I saw a symbol that filled me with hope.  Just as an ancient Roman saw a triumphal arch as a clear symbol that he had arrived in a civilized town or city, so I saw two golden arches announcing warmth and a wifi connection.  Yes – I walked to a McDonalds. 

I was a shocking sight as I walked through the sliding doors and through the crowd of families straight to the restroom.  After 5 hours under the rain, my water-resistant rather than water-proof jacket was soaked and my clothes underneath damp.  I changed into my new fleece jacket, so grateful for the warmth it provided and went to order a hot drink and to determine my plan.  Using the wifi and google maps I still could not understand the way my guidebook had described, but I was able to determine my own way around the chaos of the motorways and so, a little drier and with a new burst of energy from the hot drink I again went out to face the elements.  I walked through a small town, over the motorway on the bridge and found myself directly across from the point I had turned around an hour or so before.  I couldn’t believe it.  Clearly the road had changed since my guidebook was written, and now it was necessary to cross a busy road to continue on the cycle path.  Had I just climbed up to the road I would have seen it, but I wasn’t going to waste energy on regrets. I had found the path, that’s all that mattered and now all I needed to do was follow it for 8 km to Aigle.  I trudged on as the rain turned for a few moments to hail and the temperature started to drop.  I stopped only once at a railway station that had some covered seating to eat something quickly before my body temperature cooled.  As I entered Aigle I crossed over a raging muddy river that communicated to me that I was now in a place where nature was a force to truly reckon with.  I was still only in the valley and tried not to think about the force of that water coming down the mountain sides. 

I had told the bed and breakfast that I had booked that I would arrive between 4pm and 5pm.  It was now just before 5pm and so I walked through Aigle, straight to the bed and breakfast, fantasising about a hot shower.  When I walked up to the house I saw a large box had been delivered and was leaning against the door.  This was not a good sign.  I rang that bell and was not surprised that no one answered.  I took out my phone and tried to ring that number that I had written down in case of an emergency but my phone said ‘call failed’.  I still had my French SIM card in and assumed that I wasn’t picking up a signal in the valley.  I put down my rucksack on the steps and walked over to the next door neighbour.  I can only imagine what I looked like as the young man who opened the door gave a bit of a start when he saw me.  I explained my situation and asked if he could call the number for me.  He went to get the phone and called, but there was no answer.  I thanked him and walked back to the house wondering what to do. I was wet and cold and knew I couldn’t stand there waiting.  I decided to leave my rucksack and go to the supermarket to get some food, just hoping they would be home when I got back.  45 minutes later I returned looking for a light in one of the windows as I walked up the drive.  The box and my bag were still there.  I had no choice but to go back into the town and try to find a hotel.  I passed by the tourist office that was closed with all the lights off.  As I was standing looking at the information on accommodation they had posted in the window a surprised lady came up to the door to let me in.  I explained my situation and she immediately let me in promising to find a solution.  Exhausted and soaked I gratefully walked into the office.  The lady tried another number she had for my B and B and managed to get through to the owner who promised to return to the house in five minutes. Feeling very relieved I put my rucksack on for the last time and trudged out into the rain for the 10 minute walk back to the bed and breakfast.  I could see lights in the window as I approached the house and a lady was bringing the large box into the house as I walked up the steps to the front door.  She apologised for not being here when I arrived, but I’m not sure she appreciated what I had gone through. Of course I told her not to worry, but I was in a sorry condition as she showed me to my room.  I thanked her and with little ceremony went into the bathroom to strip off all of the wet layers.

Later as I lay warm and cosy in bed I reflected how Switzerland was a land of extremes.  In the last two days I had experienced both the best and worst days on the Via Francigena.  I was exhausted and worried about the weather forecast that predicted rain in the coming days.  I wasn’t sure how many days like this I could endure.  Completely exhausted I fell into a deep sleep, hoping my clothes would be dry by morning. 

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Day 36: Aigle to Saint Maurice (18 km)

The next morning I woke to the realisation that it was sunny outside.  Thank heavens!  I also knew that I had a light day to Saint Maurice.  I had planned 18 km first because it was important that I stay at the Abbey of Saint Maurice, which was celebrating 1500 years of continuous habitation, and also because I was unsure of the terrain.  The route was also very simple to follow, as I would be walking alongside the banks of the Rhône river all the way from Aigle to Saint Maurice.  I left the bed and breakfast at about 11am, knowing I would arrive in Saint Maurice before 4pm.  It was such a different experience walking on a clear sunny day.  I could now see the green slopes and white peaks of the beautiful mountains surrounding Aigle, as well as its magnificent castle that had been obscured by the thick clouds the day before.  As it was a Saturday, when I turned onto the path next to the Rhine I was joined by many runners and cyclists enjoying the outdoors.  By 12pm it was very hot under the sun and so I changed into a tank top, reflecting on how cold I had been just the day before.  I stopped for a rest 3km from Saint Maurice to soak in some sun and to watch the rapidly moving water of the Rhine as it rushed down the valley.  The last part of the route turned away from the river into another valley where the walls of the mountains narrowed.  I saw the town only as I entered it as the valley widened revealing the Abbey and main street.  There was a lot of activity in the town, particularly at the Abbey.  As part of the celebration of the 1500th anniversary there was an event that day for the unveiling of the Jubilee Door, a new main door for the church.  There was also a cycling race due to arrive any moment that was following the route from Lausanne to Martigny.   

I approached the large door of the Abbey were a small brass plate announcing I would find the ‘accueil’ inside.  As I walked in a priest was standing just inside and asked me in English if I was ‘the pilgrim’.  I had written an email to the Abbey the day before, and clearly the news had got around that I was coming.  With a smile he showed me to the reception where a lady also said, ‘ah, you are the pilgrim’ and picked up the phone to announce my arrival to Father Thomas, who was in charge of welcoming pilgrims.  Father Thomas arrived and with a warm handshake welcomed me to the Abbey.  He took a set of keys from the receptionist and I followed him out of the main doors, stopping for a moment to take some pictures of Roman inscriptions and funerary monuments that decorated the entranceway.  We walked past the church and the crowds of people and were about to go inside of the pilgrim accommodation when the cycling race whizzed by to shouts and cheers from the supporters.  When the last of the cyclists passed, Father Thomas turned back to the door, key in hand to enter the pilgrim accommodation.  We climbed some winding stone steps to reach the second floor where several single rooms, a bathroom and kitchen were available for pilgrims on the Via Francigena.  The rooms were small but very clean and on the beds were fluffy duvets that looked very inviting.  Father Thomas left me to get settled in and we made arrangements for breakfast the next morning at 7.30am. 

Although I had not walked far that day I was still quite worn out from my ordeal in the rain from Vevey.  After a hot shower I felt I deserved a nap and so fell into a blissful sleep until early evening.  When I woke up I looked out my window out onto the main street where three banners were flying from flagpoles advertising the 1500th anniversary of the Abbey.  The banners were blowing wildly in a strong wind and rain was lashing down.  The beautiful warm day had turned into a wet, cool evening.  Feeling a little isolated in the pilgrim accommodation I went out for a few hours to a bar across the street to have a drink and to use the wifi.  The bar was bright and cheerful and helped to take my mind off the weather outside.  I looked up my next stop which was Martigny, only 18km up the valley.  I would probably arrive just after lunch and was looking forward to doing some sightseeing of the remains of the once Roman town of Octodurus.  The position of Octodurus was key to the Romans controlling the road over the Alps which linked the Italian Peninsular to the regions of Gaul and Britannia. The Roman inscriptions and funerary monuments I had seen in the Abbey were a reminder of a small outpost that had existed here known as Agaunum.  A Temple to Mercury has been excavated under the Abbey grounds.  It seemed appropriate to me to find Mercury here, as the god of travellers, I could well imagine Romans climbing up through the valley as I was, stopping at the temple to pray for safe passage over the Alps into Italy.  Their fears would have been justified, as even in the summer months the pass can be covered in snow.  As I stepped out into the rain to walk back to my room I had a sense of foreboding.  I was at 414 metres above sea level in Saint Maurice.  The Great Saint Bernard Pass was at 2500 metres.  Rain in Saint Maurice meant snow at the pass.  The bad weather was making me aware of how powerless I was against Mother Nature.  I had heard mixed opinions on whether crossing the Pass was feasible or not, but I was starting to become anxious to know one way or the other.  Before going to sleep I resolved to ask Father Thomas his opinion at breakfast the next morning.  Feeling better for having made this decision, I tried to block out the sound of the wind whistling through the valley and finally succeeding, I fell into a deep sleep. 

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2 Responses to Switzerland – experiencing the challenges and rewards of the Via Francigena

  1. Valentina Biagini says:

    Great Job!!! Welcome to Italy Julia!
    Looking forward to seeing you soon.
    All the best,
    Valentina

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