Day 41: Bourg Saint Pierre to Aosta
On the 41st day on the Via Francigena I woke to a misty cold morning in Bourg Saint Pierre. The bus to Aosta arrived at 9.15 am and so at 9am I went to the stop wrapped up in three layers plus scarf and gloves and sat down to wait, taking in the views of the pine covered mountains. The bus pulled up right on time and before boarding I handed my snowshoes to the driver and asked him to drop them off at the train station in Orsieres. He was not surprised by the question and kindly agreed. I boarded the bus full of dozing passengers and took a window seat. The bus pulled out of the silent village and started up the valley towards the tunnel that runs for 11km under the Great Saint Bernard Pass to Italy. I looked eagerly at the scenery that I would have walked through had the risk of avalanches not prevented me. The mountains quickly became more barren but I did not see much snow. Just as we entered the tunnel I could make out in the distance a sudden increase in elevation and white mountains in the distance. The section in the tunnel passed quickly and we were soon out in the sunshine again passing through small villages with signs in both French and Italian. The bus stopped at Etroubles which is just 17 km from the Hospice on the Great Saint Bernard Pass. I had not realised that it was possible to stop in Etroubles and as the bus pulled off I was sorry that I hadn’t thought to ask. If I had started walking again in Etroubles rather than going directly to Aosta I would have first been able to walk more of the route, and also to have a day to transition to the change in weather, scenery and culture that I was now to experience. The bus was already on its way however, and this option was no longer a possibility.
At 10.15 am, one hour after I had been sitting at the bus stop in Bourg Saint Pierre, the bus pulled off the motorway into the station at Aosta. I could see the walls of the ancient Roman town and walked through a gap in them to enter the modern city. I felt incredibly disoriented and inappropriately dressed. I stopped for a moment to take off my jacket and pack it into my rucksack and decided to call the pilgrim accommodation available at the Church of Saint Martin de Corléans to see if I could arrive this early. As the phone rang I had to make a mental note to speak in Italian. After a moment’s hesitation the language started to flow. I was rewarded for my fluency with a rapid answer for the lady at the church who informed me that unfortunately there was already someone occupying the single room designated for pilgrims. I had not expected to find this problem, as I had only met one other pilgrim in six weeks, but this was the Italian section of the Via Francigena. I learned that day that I was no longer a rarity, but part of a subtle flow of motion between Aosta and Rome. The lady was kind enough to suggest a hotel nearby that offered pilgrim prices, so after I hung up I made my way there, eager to get myself settled and changed into clothes more appropriate for the brilliant sunshine and warm temperature.
It was only 11am when I entered the hotel, so when I spoke to the receptionist my first questions was if it was too early to check in, assuming that at this time of year I would find a room available. The lady shook her head and apologetically explained that the hotel was full. Without hesitation she assured me that there would be something in the city for a pilgrim and picked up the phone to call the tourist office. A smile told me a solution had been found as she started to write down an address and to confirm the price. For the pilgrim price of 25 euro I could stay at a hotel on the other side of the city which she directed me to using a tourist map on the counter. Two days had passed since I last walked on the Via Francigena, so I was not at all worried about the 3 km to the hotel. A destination now in sight I passed through the centre of the city and its principal square, Piazza Chanoux, down a quaint pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants, through the impressive Roman Praetorian Gate, beyond the Arch of Augustus and the Roman bridge towards the motorway. The location of the hotel was not very inspiring after the mountain views and clean air of Switzerland, but it was comfortable and I received a very friendly welcome.
It was still so early that I had plenty of time to explore the city after changing into the one summer dress I had brought with me from England. As I walked back the way I had come I stopped to explore the streets and sites. First was the Roman bridge that preserved the straight line that the road had once followed out of the Praetorian Gate, through the Arch of Augustus and over the Torrente Buthier. The Torrente changed course in the 20th century due to flooding so now it is possible to walk under the bridge and have the unusual possibility to view its construction from underneath. The Arch of Augustus celebrates the emperor for whom the city was named. It has suffered a sad but familiar fate of ancient monuments – it is currently stranded in the centre of a roundabout. The traffic was very busy and I was unable to cross to see it closely, but from across the road it was clear that the arch had not been treated well by the last 2000 years. The attic, or top portion of the arch had been heavily restored and the façade lacked any defining features. The type of stone used was porous and was badly eroded. I walked back through the small streets buzzing with locals and tourists until I reached the Praetorian Gate and entered the ancient Roman town.
Augusta Praetoria (Aosta) was founded in 25 BC where routes from the Italian Peninsular merged to cross the Pass over the Alps to Gaul and Britannia. Its original square layout is still visible today due the survival of much of its walls. Large sections, such as the one I saw near the bus station, are clear of buildings but the rest has been incorporated into other structures, at times disguising its presence but also helping to ensure its survival. Of four original gates, the Porta Praetoria is the best preserved. It is a double gateway of three arches enclosing a central courtyard. The central arch accommodated carts and the two on either side were for foot traffic. Entering the Porta Praetoria, and following the walls to the right I found myself in the archaeological site of the Roman theatre and amphitheatre. The theatre, which could accommodate 4000 spectators, was built in the time of Augustus in the beginning of the 1st century AD. The wall of the southern façade is still standing at 22m (72 ft) tall and is an impressive sight.
From the theatre I crossed through the city, past the Piazza Chanoux, to the archaeological museum, which I was pleasantly surprised to find free to the public. The collection was well displayed and included a dedicatory inscription to Caesar Augustus, founder of the city, a model of the Roman town, objects from everyday life in the city, and some exquisite artefacts. One which particularly struck me for its unusual design and beauty was a bronze collar for a horse. It was cleverly displayed to illustrate how it would have appeared when worn on a horse’s neck. It was designed to impress, and I could easily imagine the beautiful animal that once walked the Roman roads of Aosta, decorated in this stunning ornament.
In addition to my interest in the ancient history of the city, I also sought out a bronze statue to Saint Anselm who created a further connection between Aosta and Canterbury. Saint Alselm was born in Aosta in 1033 and was bishop there before he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. It was curious to feel I could relate in some ways with the life of this man who had died more than nine centuries before. I had travelled the same route he would have taken on his way to Canterbury. I could imagine his experience adjusting to the changes in climate, language, and food from his birthplace in Aosta to that my own city of Canterbury. He too would have seen the evidence of the two Roman settlements and wondered at their remains and the empire which had built them. As I passed his statue I realised how much history was to be found in the city, but after several hours of sightseeing it was time to return to the hotel and plan the next week in Italy. I still had thirty-seven days to walk until I reached Rome and my itinerary for the Italian section was still quite rough. Marvelling at the warm temperature of the early evening, I walked along the busy street back to my hotel to make use of the Wi-Fi, looking forward to my first day on the Italian section of the Via Francigena.
As a last observation regarding my first day in Italy, I should mention a curious side effect of walking long-distance. I had been walking for 40 days at this point, and for those who have walked a similar length of time perhaps it is possible to understand the shock the sudden change from Bourg Saint Pierre to Aosta had on me both physically and mentally. I found the city, with its Roman remains and beautiful squares and charming streets, both interesting and striking. The Alps, which rose majestically around three sides of the city, their snowy peaks in stark contrast to the perfectly blue sky, were absolutely breathtaking. I took in all the sights and sounds, appreciated the warm sun on my bare legs and arms, indulged in a long-awaited gelato, but as I walked I couldn’t really believe that I was there. I knew the sensation would pass, but for that one day in Aosta I felt confused by all the sensory changes I was experiencing.
Day 42: Aosta to Chatillon
After a satisfying breakfast of a cappuccino and cornetto (Italian croissant) I set off under brilliant sunshine on the well-marked route to Chatillon. I had noticed immediately when looking at the names of the towns and villages I would pass through that French had a strong influence in Aosta and Valle D’Aosta. I had tried to pronounce my destination Chatillon in Italian and had quickly been corrected with the French pronunciation. What I found most interesting was the mix that occurred in some names, such as Castello de Quart. ‘Castle’ in Italian but ‘quarter’ in French. I have always found it difficult to transition easily between speaking French and Italian, and being in a region that used both languages interchangeably only increased my confusion. Fortunately for the three days I walked in Valle D’Aosta I was only spoken to in Italian, but French was used in signs and notifications throughout.
Chatillon lies just south of the valley from Aosta following the Dora Baltea River. The valley is of course the easiest route and the one used for the ancient Roman road. It is now however, dominated by a large motorway and the railway. Lacking an alternative, The Via Francigena has to follow a path along the side of the mountains. Although I had been walking for over forty days, ten of which were in Switzerland, this section of the Via Francigena was the most difficult, in terms of exertion, that I had walked so far. It was very beautiful terrain, through forests and small villages, but the route was constantly up and down. It was also quite hot and generally I find the muscles become tired more quickly and the tendons in my ankles swell in the heat. To make the day even more challenging, when I was just an hour away from Chatillon a ferocious thunder and lightning storm swept through the valley, leaving me not only completely drenched, but also incredibly thankful that I was not walking in the higher and more exposed parts of the route. Storms in Italy have always impressed me by their violence and I had already realised that at some point I would be caught in one. I did not expect it to happen the very first day however. Fortunately, once the storm passed I quickly dried off and was soon walking into Chantillon in search of the Capuchin Monastery.
The Capuchin monks were at Vespers when I arrived at 5.30pm so I walked into the church to enjoy the singing and to witness an Italian Capuchin service. At the end of the service I was greeted by an elderly monk who showed me to the pilgrim accommodation. It was a simple room with two beds and a bathroom, but was donation only and I was grateful for their generosity in making this available to pilgrims. I was tired out from the exhausting day and knew the next would be of similar terrain. Dinner was therefore some take away pizza and fruit from the supermarket. I went to bed looking forward to a fresh day and mentally counting down the number of days I would be walking the Via Francigena on my own. I had become quite popular now I was walking in Italy, and was expecting my first companion in just two days’ time. Giuseppe Carbone of Turin, a friend who I had met on the Camino de Santigo in 2013, was planning to join me on the Via Francigena for just one day from Verres to Borgofranco D’Ivrea.
Day 43: Chatillon to Verres (30 km)
After an amazing cappuccino and cornetto from a local café I started uphill on a path from Chatillon. For a second day the route took me up and down the mountain sides to avoid the busy traffic in the valley. I was of course quite in good shape at that point but the uneven ground and the variation of terrain was tiring. The spectacular views of the mountains, frequently dotted with abandoned castles, were enough to keep the walk stimulating and this motivated me on. At one point on the trail there was a sign indicating a short detour to a Roman Bridge. I was very interested in the bridge, but not so keen on the idea of going downhill just to climb up again, so compromised by leaving my rucksack and going unburdened to see the bridge. It was a bridge dating to the late 2nd – early 3rd century and originally stretched 49m over the Torrente Cillian. Unfortunately, only one arch survives today due to an earthquake in 1839. The bridge was part of the Route des Gaules, linking Ivrea (Iporedia) and Aosta (Augusta Pretoria), then continuing on to the Great Saint Bernard Pass to Gaul and Britannia. Although I was having to follow paths along the hillsides, this bridge was a nice reminder that I was in fact following an ancient Roman route. Just as in Switzerland, the valley was so narrow that the Via Francigena could not deviate too far from the original Roman road
The weather was again quite hot and I appreciated the shade that the woodland paths provided. I only stopped for some short breaks, quite looking forward to arriving in Verres to enjoy a restful afternoon and evening. There was no pilgrim accommodation available in the town, so I had booked into a hostel near the train station. I arrived at the hostel at about 4pm feeling very tired. The heat had been quite intense and certainly hotter than anything I had experienced so far on the trip. It had drained my energy and I decided to take a nap before dinner. Lying in bed I was quickly awoken by two sounds. One was of the trains hurtling by the hostel, and the second was of the clambering of bells. The bells were not of a church, but of a herd of cows walking in single file along the train track. There must have been over one-hundred of them as the sound continued for some time. Despite the racket, exhaustion overtook me and I slept for a good hour before going down to dinner.
I should have known better than to eat in a hostel, but I lacked the energy to go into the town to look for a restaurant and so, against my better judgement, I found myself seated downstairs with a couple who were also staying in the hostel and a small group of young people who appeared to work there. The meal was not quite what I had been dreaming about for the last six weeks as I walked through France and Switzerland, but I silently promised myself that as soon as I got some energy back I would seek out the culinary delights that I knew could be found by a discerning eye.
I went to bed early, in great need of a good night’s sleep. Alas, I was sharing a room with a woman who snored louder than I could have ever believed possible. I put in my earplugs which made the noise slightly more tolerable, but when I woke in the morning I felt perhaps more tired than I had when I went to bed. I was tired but happy however, as at 8am Giuseppe was due to arrive at the train station where we would begin our day together on the Via Francigena.
Day 44: Verres to Borgofranco D’Ivrea
I was amazed that I was alert and full of energy as I walked the train station to meet Giuseppe at the train station. The sky was perfectly clear and the sun was bright but had not yet dispelled the freshness of the morning. Giuseppe pulled up just on time, having left Turin at 6am. He had the familiar playful smile on his face but lacked the large backpack, professional camera slung perched on top and aluminium water bottle which had swung from the side of the rucksack that I remembered so well from the Camino. After hugs and greetings we started walking down the road to pick up the Via Francigena, as comfortable walking together as we had felt just under two years ago in Spain. We had a lot to catch up on and shared stories and news from our lives since we had parted ways in Spain.
The route continued through the valley alongside the Dora Balthea River, the railroad and the main road. We passed from one side of the valley to the other until we reached the Forte de Bard, an imposing fortress which stands guard over the valley from its elevated position. Giuseppe told me that he had been to the Fort several times, but found it difficult to recognise approaching from this direction and on foot. He remarked that he had driven on the road just a few hours before and could not believe the wonderful scenery and characteristic villages that were along the Via Francigena that he had been completely unaware of while he was speeding along the main road. We crossed a beautiful ancient bridge, the Ponte Antico, into the town of Bard from whose narrow medieval streets we walked back onto woodland paths. My guidebook stated that we would now be walking on the Roman road that once connected Aosta to Ivrea, but the path was diverted shortly after the town due to landslides. As the detour led us down to the valley floor I looked up at the original path hoping to see signs of the Roman road but was disappointed. My disappointment however, was quickly forgotten as I caught sight of an arch in the distance, cut directly into the mountainside and spanning a section of road carved into the bedrock. I had seen a picture of the arch and road before but walking along the Roman road up the arch was a completely different experience. I was amazed that the surface of the road, although severely weathered, still had clear ruts where the carts had once travelled. I stood within the arch, so striking against the bright blue sky, and thought back to the Roman bridges I had seen in the previous two days. I travelled back in my mind to the bridge before Aosta, the Arch of Augustus and the Praetorian Gate, connecting these Roman monuments together to recreate in my mind the experience of a Roman traveller on the same journey to Rome. Although the landscape was now dominated by heavily trafficked roads and expanding towns, the landscape had changed little since Roman times. As I have often thought while walking, Romans would not have walked on the uneven paths that wound along the mountainsides that I was forced to travel on. Rather, they walked in the valley on level, and where possible, straight roads. Facilities would have been readily available to the foot traveller in terms of food, baths, and lodging. During my first few days in Italy I was beginning to see that this was slowly becoming true also for modern pilgrims on the Via Francigena.
Whereas in France where the route was largely unmarked and unknown, in Italy I could see how the route was slowly becoming re-established. As in all periods of history, where a route starts to emerge so too do the means to profit by providing for the needs of travellers. As Giuseppe and I walked through towns we heard people commenting that each day more and more pilgrims arrived in their town. We also started to see signs for bed and breakfasts on the route advertising pilgrim accommodation. Pilgrim numbers on the Via Francigena have remained quite small in comparison to the 250,000 that walk to Santiago each year, mostly due to the lack of accommodation. This was clearly changing and I realised that it would not be long now before news of this amazing experience to walk an historic route became more widely known.
Giuseppe and I continued past the Roman road at Donnas through quiet villages, along woodland paths with views of the vineyards and the valley. Giuseppe remarked how beautiful the scenery was in comparison to the French Way to Santaigo which we had walked together. I agreed that, although the region of Galicia had been similarly beautiful, the route through Italy really was spectacular. We had been walking for seven hours when we finally saw a sign for Borgofranco D’Ivrea and minutes later entered the small town. There were signs directing us to all of the pilgrim accommodation and we turned to follow the signs to my bed and breakfast. We had made great time and rather than go straight to the B & B we went in search of the train station. Giuseppe had to take the train back to Verres to pick up his car but as it was Sunday we knew that this meant there were not many trains running between the two towns. On the way we passed a gelateria that was clearly very popular as crowds milled around indulging in ice-cream cones piled high with delicious flavours. The fruit flavours are so refreshing when you are worn out and hot so I chose coconut and melon. It was only my second gelato since arriving in Italy and I savoured every bite. We got directions for the station and were not surprised to discover that the next train to Verres did not leave for another two hours. Giuseppe, always prepared, had brought a piece of card and a pen with the plan of hitchhiking back to the car. He saw I was quite worn out from the long day and told me that he would be fine and that I should get to my B & B to rest. We hugged goodbye and thanked each other for a wonderful day. Walking with Giuseppe had brought back such fond memories of my time on the Camino I was very sorry to see him go, but I really was starting to feel incredibly tired. Giuseppe’s hitchhiking plan was very successful and he was back in Verres within twenty minutes.
I arrived at B & B Musica at 5pm and received a warm welcome from owner Anna Maria who showed me to a lovely comfortable room. After the terrible night I had had in Verres all I wanted to do was collapse into the soft bed, which I promptly did after a hot shower. As it was Sunday all the shops were closed so my plan was to order a pizza when I woke up at 7pm. When my alarm went off at 7 however, I couldn’t believe how exhausted I still felt. I knew I needed some food so dragged myself out of bed to go back into town for a pizza. I walked past the main part of the house on my way out and Anna Maria came out to speak to me. I think she could see I was not quite well and after I explained where I was going she quickly asked if I would like to join her family for dinner. I was so tired and in great need of some proper food so I didn’t hesitate in accepting her generous offer. Dinner was almost ready so I followed Anna Maria into the kitchen where we chatted until dinner was served. I spent a wonderful evening with Anna Maria, her husband and two daughters. After the good food and company I felt so much better when I returned to my room. The day had had its ups and downs, but as I have found throughout my time on the Via Francigena, the memories that stay with me at the end of the day are always of the wonderful people I have met and the positive experiences.
Contribution by Giuseppe Carbone
Quando attraversi un paesaggio in automobile non ti accorgi di nulla. Non ti accorgi mica dei sentieri che nasconde, delle pietre, delle case, delle persone che ci abitano, del silenzio delle serrande chiuse, del cane che abbaia dietro al cancello, delle fontane con la vasca, dei supermercati che sono aperti fino alle 13,00, dei cartelli gialli con su scritto “Via Francigena”. E quando attraversi un paesaggio in automobile non conosci il dolore alla gambe, alle ginocchia e le vesciche che pungono come ferro incandescente.
Quando io e Julia superiamo delle persone, loro ci guardano un po’ straniti, un po’ incuriositi, un po’ indispettiti.
Signori anziani che giocano a carte davanti al bar interrompono per qualche secondo il loro gioco e ci fissano, una signora dice all’altra “guarda, i camminatori..ogni tanto passano”.
Gli unici incuranti sono i bambini che non girano nemmeno la testa, hanno cose più importanti a cui pensare.
Ma a parte loro tutti si accorgono di noi. Chi sono questi due sconosciuti che attraversano il nostro paesino come giovani conquistatori? E perché una ragazza con uno zaino pesantissimo, macchina fotografica al collo, bacchette e scarpe da trekking è assieme ad un ragazzo con uno zainetto leggerissimo e dei sandali puliti ai piedi? Queste persone non sanno che Julia ha già percorso 1100km arrivando dall’Inghilterra a piedi e io ho aspettato che approdasse in Italia e giungesse vicino alla mia città per poter contribuire al suo percorso affiancandola per 35km da Verres fino a Borgofranco d’Ivrea. Siamo partiti alle 08.00 con un cielo azzurro limpido e un sole che non vedeva l’ora di accendersi come un faro abbagliante sulle nostre teste.
E così mi sono incamminato con Julia. Sono passati due anni dal Cammino Francese verso Santiago dove ci siamo conosciuti. Ho percorso tanti, troppi km assieme a lei e conosco il suo passo, i movimenti duri delle sue braccia che si muovono a tempo e il suo sguardo sicuro quando si ferma per controllare se siamo sulla strada giusta. Verres, Arnad, Hone, poi ancora Bard e paese dopo paese attraversiamo questi pezzi di mondo meravigliosi passando per boschi, superando stupendi ponti di pietra e calcando strade romane che ancora lì, giacciono anonime dopo migliaia di anni. 35km passando per boschi, paesini, sentieri e pietraie sono impegnativi, considerata la distanza, il dislivello e i sandali nuovi di pacca che mi provocano tagli e bolle ai piedi. Ma camminare in questa parte di mondo parallelo è incredibile, la Via Francigena, un mondo la cui verità è dettata da una freccia gialla dipinta sui muri. E poi quei sentieri che diventano strade, quei paesini che appaiono solo se fai lo zoom sulla cartina, quei campanili che vedi spuntare da lontano come funghi. Eccolo laggiù. Ci siamo quasi. Un altro paese. E si arriva a Borgofranco alle 17.00, dopo 9h di cammino, i piedi distrutti e la faccia cotta dal sole. La strada domani sarà ancora lunga per Julia, la mia finisce qui.
Ci abbracciamo e faccio autostop per tornare indietro.