Shocking photo revealed of American pilgrim walking in Italy


Day 14: Santhià to Vercelli — 27.1 km (16.8 miles)

As we entered the endless rice fields today I caught a whiff of a surprising smell. The rice fields smell like, well, rice. When you lift the lid of a pan of boiling rice — that smell? That's what today smelled like.

I'd spent the night at the Santhià hostel with Charles and a new Italian pilgrim friend, Antonio. This morning at about 7:15 we rolled out of our beds, headed to the nearby cafe, crossed the overpass above the train tracks, and headed into the endless and aromatic rice fields. The map shows a highway that goes straight as an arrow between our starting and ending points, but our trajectory instead was a zigzag of rice canal pathways, multiplying by at least 50% the walk's minimum length.

Mid-morning included the day's one village — San Germano — and the server at the local bar there made us panini for our packs. A few kilometers afterward we were able to spy the spires of Vercelli on the horizon, though it would take another three hours through the rice fields to get us there.

While we walked, another drama was playing out on Facebook. A few weeks ago I heard a report of an American pilgrim who was accosted by a man who committed non-violent but lewd acts in her presence while she walked on the Via di Francesco near Rieti (a few hundred miles from here). Along with other pilgrim leaders I strategized how to get the local police to take the case seriously. Another pilgrim friend had met the man, shouted at him and had taken his photo, including the license plate of his car. Over the last couple of days the photo was shared widely on Facebook, and stories of other women's encounters with the same man — stretching back an unbelievable two years — quickly appeared as comments on my post. Finally today the story was picked up on local news, local TV and this afternoon on a Italian national news website. We are hoping this press exposure will finally get the attention of the police and convince them to get this man the help he needs –and get him off the pathways of that sacred and beautiful walk.

Finally the rice fields ended and the town of Vercelli appeared before us. We found the night's hostel, said goodbye to Antonio who's heading back to Milan, showered up, snapped a shocking photo of me sporting more hair on my chin than on my head, and went out to explore the town. Tomorrow: add more rice, rinse and repeat.

Hiking Notes: in this heat an umbrella would be nice. The pharmacy thermometer read 39c when we came into town. Antonio insisted that was impossible. It seems difficult to get quite enough water down each day.

Corn fields as far as the eye can see

Day 13: Ivrea to Santhià — 34.8 km (21.6 miles)

I have to give it to Morgan and Roberto. They didn’t snore at all. Our whole night long in the hostel next to the river I heard nothing but the sound of the water. When I awoke at 6:30, I was delighted to have slept the night through. Probably my best night’s sleep on this pilgrim walk.

By 7:00 I was up and out the door, reveling in the early start. Since today is 15 August, the national holiday that kicks off summer break, the streets were eerily quiet and every cafe was closed. This was a bad sign since I’d be relying on open cafes for food all day long.

Again I opted for the bicycle route and had a good payoff. At Piverone I stopped to enjoy a shaded bench and Charles appeared from the same direction I’d just come. He had left 15 minutes earlier, but I’d arrived in Piverone 15 minutes before him, thanks to the bike track.

Charles and I then walked the rest of the day together, first along the gentle hillsides overlooking Lago Viverone, then down in the cornfields before Santhià. I enjoyed watching Charles sweet talk two donkeys, who heehawed loudly for him as he called out, then came to the fence to share their hellos.

By 2:00, Charles and I were both feeling the effects of the heat. He was guessing the temperatures were in the 35c range (95f), and the sun seemed to draw out all the energy from each of us. The long itinerary for today kept us in the cornfields until about 4:00, when we finally arrived at the hostel in this little farm town.

Hiking Notes: I kept to the alternate itinerary today, not the bike path but the variant that sticks to the lower elevations. It worked out well. The hostel in Santhià is a nice refuge. This was a good day.

Our Ivrea hostel was the building on the river at the far left. 

Piverone. I think. 

Charles charms the donkey. 

Corn. 

Church at the heart of Santhià. 

The last mountain

Day 12: Pont-Saint-Martin to Ivrea — 23.9 km (14.9 miles)

All of my pilgrim friends agree, at least those gathered here at the Ostello Canoa Club in Ivrea, that today was an oddly tough day of walking. At only 23.9 km compared to yesterday’s 35 plus there’s no real reason to complain. Except for the heat, of course. And the crazy serpentine path that undulated unnecessarily beside the flat valley floor. Or maybe we were all simply grieving the appearance of the Last Mountain.

This morning I awoke at 4:00 and checked my phone to see if there were any important messages. I was stunned to see that once again my cell data had been turned off by TIM. Worrying that Theresa or Luke (who’s been sick in Prague) were trying to reach me, I headed out to last night’s restaurant where I’d written my blog post using its reliable wifi. I’m sure drivers must’ve thought it odd that someone was sitting on a curb at 4:00 a.m. outside a restaurant reading his email. No messages from either Luke or Theresa, thank heavens. So I headed back to the hotel for some more sleep, knowing the cell situation would again require a store visit and again guarantee me a late start.

By 9:15 I’d had a couple more hours of sleep, had breakfast at the hotel and had walked the 1.5 km back into the center of town to find a tobacco store where I could add another €20 to my phone account. Finally I was ready to head to Ivrea, the day’s goal.

Then I saw it. The Last Mountain.

Understand, for the last eight days the trail has been in the mountains. Every day has included countless vistas of sheer cliffs and jagged peaks. The terrain was rugged, of course, but the elevation brought with it the cool breezes of the tall hills. After the mountains the terrain opens out into the enormous Po River Valley, which offers only flat land, hot days, and famously monotonous miles of rice paddies built to grow the main ingredient for the Italians’ beloved risotto. The last mountain signals the end of the Alps and the beginning of the drudgery. And heat.

So the Last Mountain was not a welcome sight. And somehow it took all day to get past it.

Looking at the map, it was clear that a single highway shot directly from Hotel Point A to Ivrea Hostel Point B. To shorten the day, I set out on the narrow highway, which I soon learned was sadly bereft of sidewalks. So I pointed myself to the official Via Francigena trail, which cut needlessly up and pointlessly down the hillsides of the ever-widening valley. Every step seemed hard fought.

However, I did stop and marvel at a rock climbing center. I did see a small flock of rare, black mountain goats (please don’t tell me they’re normal goats). And I did get the good news from Luke that his fever broke and he’s feeling better in Prague. But I also did walk the crazy serpentine path over the hill across from the Last Mountain as though the route planners wanted to give one last bit of vertical punishment to pilgrims who will not see another mountain for ten days.

When I landed in Ivrea I noted the turreted castle — kinda cool in a fairytale sort of way. I did notice the charming center city, quiet for a few hours during the riposo. And I did notice the fascinating kayak course just outside the window of the riverside hostel.

As it happens, the hostel came fully equipped with pilgrim friends Charles, Morgan and Roberto. Plus, the shared, unisex bathroom reminded me of real pilgrim life. There are ten pilgrims here from all over Europe and North America. Let the snoring begin.

Hiking Notes: I should’ve opted for the bike trail today. I’m sure it would have made more sense. Tonight’s hostel is lovely, and I’m enjoying pilgrim culture in many languages with accompaniment of the roar of the river out the window.

L’il Hotel Carla, my room being the top left. 

Extremely rare black mountain goats. You saw them here first. 

Town. 

Anticipating the Last Hill, across from the Last Mountain. 

Ivrea castle. 

View of Ivrea from the hostel, across the Dora Balthea River. 

Kayakers doing their thang. 

Ancient fortresses, bridges, roads … and bathrooms


Day Eleven: Chatillon to Pont-Saint-Martin (Carema) 37.5 km (23.3 miles)

When I left Chatillon this morning I wasn’t quite sure where I’d spend the night. I’d been rebuffed at Verres, the official end of stage. Everything was full. As I made my way a few kilometers after breakfast to Saint-Vincent I met two pilgrims — Morgan of Belgium and Roberto of Milan — who suggested I join them at the parochial hostel in Donnas, about 28 km down the road. That sounded like a good idea, so while we were talking I phoned in a reservation.

Morgan and Roberto soon turned left, uphill on the official walkers’ route. I’d researched the lower, easier bicycle route and headed downhill to the valley floor on my own.

The cycle route ended up being delightful. It mostly hugged the river, giving me a vantage point uphill to the mountains on both sides. I reached Verres about noon, met a Dutch pilgrim there named Derek, and explored the town a little before heading back to the bike trail, assuming that Morgan and Roberto were far ahead.

I then spent the day in occasional shade, on gravel roads with riverfront trees shielding me from the hot sun. I walked by the Saint Germaine Castle, and later the amazing 17th century Ponte di Echallod bridge. After that I enjoyed views of the Bard Fortress, a medieval castle destroyed by Napoleon in the early 19th century then rebuilt. The little touristy-medieval town of Bard was a delight as well, and just afterward was a brief stretch of original Roman road.

By 4:30 I’d arrived at the parochial hostel in Donnas with no sign of Morgan and Robert. Since no one at all was there I had a little time to explore. Eight beds in four twin bunks. A hot plate for cooking, and the most antiquated bathroom I’ve seen in all of Italy. The toilet was a hole in the floor and on the left wall of its cubicle was the shower head. The toilet/shower was separated from the janitor’s/guests’ sink by a bright, plastic curtain, and the light bulb for seeing it all had inhaled its last breath.

I’d already walked 31km, so this whole arrangement seemed unfortunate, but serviceable in a pinch. Except — there was no soap to be found anywhere. Not a bar, not a bottle, not a dispenser of the liquid variety. I had none in my pack. Nothing. And considering the poor performance of my deodorant I was in a bind. I could not imagine climbing into my sleeping bag liner as dirty as I was. Since I was alone in the hostel (had Morgan and Roberto opted for something less basic?) there were no other pilgrims from whom I could borrow some.

My solution was to walk into Pont-Saint-Martin to find a bar of soap. The only problem? On Sunday everything is closed. The farther I walked the more I thought the hostel was a bad idea. I checked the Internet, found a cheap hotel available in Pont-Saint-Martin, made the reservation, and after I returned to the hostel and was packing up, who should arrive at the hostel but Morgan and Roberto? They looked pretty good after a long day on the upper route, but I noted that even though I’d lazed around in Verres, the bike route put me in Donnas about an hour earlier.

Though I’d have loved to spend the evening with them, especially if they were equipped with soap, I said goodbye and headed the three additional miles to my hotel. As I unpacked, wrapped a clean towel around my and walked a few steps to the shared bathroom occupied by someone else in the four rooms on this floor, I was startled to see Charles, who’s staying two doors down at the hotel. I’d ended up catching up to him by walking a long 37 km today. Though I loved seeing him (we’re having breakfast together tomorrow) it was the soapy shower that made my day. So many suds from that little white lozenge. And the bathroom? Why, there was even a separate shower and toilet.

Hiking Notes: I’m wishing I’d called lodging a day ahead as it seems some of the pilgrim hostels are filled by non- pilgrims. To me, the bike path was just fine and looking at the elevation profiles from the guidebooks I’d say it was a lot easier that’s the official walkers’ route. Plus the two do intersect frequently.

Mirning vista near San Vincent

Roberto (l) and Morgan 

The valley. 

The bike path. Not too shabby. 

View back to 17th c. bridge. 


Castle alert!

Fortress Bard

The 2,000 year old “pont” of Pont-Saint-Martin. 

Aching legs, shortcuts and a surprise visitor

Fresh snow in the mountains above Aosta.

Day 10: Aosta to Chatillon — 31.9 km (19.8 miles)

I’m not sure how I finally managed to drag myself out of Aosta. When I woke up my legs were stiff and achy, I’d been in my room for two nights and had made a cozy little home of it, and my cell provider decided for an inexplicable reason to cut off my data signal. That last problem would mean I couldn’t leave town until stopping at the TIM cellular outlet, which would make my annoyingly long day even longer. As 7:00 turned to 8:00, my bed felt so comfy. As 8:00 turned to 9:00 I begrudgingly packed, paid my bill at the front desk, and made it out the door on stiff legs.

The cell problem took only a few minutes, but waiting for the office to open had cost me two preciously cool morning hours. With 30 km ahead, that would put me at Chatillon at around 5:00. A long day, warmed by a steady drop in elevation.

To skip the hectic valley floor the Via Francigena stewards put the official route onto an up and down series of trails and roads that traverse the valley’s steep northern wall. My guidebook offered an alternate that was lower and easier, if not shorter. My stiff legs and I opted for the lower route, which I would discover was still plenty scenic. This would mean a day spent on asphalt, something always tough on the feet. It would also mean the pleasant prospect of a daylong march through a nearly seamless parade of Alpine villages. The place names give away their French influence — Angelin, Clappy, Olleyes, Rovarey, Torrent, and many more. So I set out from Aosta under blue skies with visions of my comfy bed still filling my mind.

After a couple of hours I spied another pilgrim, Sergio, from Colombia, who had set out from Canterbury over a month ago. He had also opted for the lower route and after a fun chat and photo, he took off down the hill, headed for another 5 km beyond my planned overnight. I would see him again at lunch in Nus and am guessing that due to his pace that may be the last time.

The lower route crossed the Dora Balthea River — the main waterway in the Aosta Valley — at the touristy village of Feniz, with its charming fairy tale castle. A bonus for taking it easy!

It was somewhere around Arlier where I spied my surprise visitor — a gorgeous, red fox — little smaller than our northwest coyotes, and really rather pretty. He silently crossed the road ahead of me and disappeared into some bushes. Of course he considered me to be the visitor, I’m sure, but I appreciate how unusual it is to see one of these clever animals in the daytime and feel a little blessed.

After what seemed like forever I finally crossed back over the Dora Balthea into the foot of Chatillon. I’m not sure why they put the town’s cathedral at the very top of the town, but my legs allowed me to walk up there for a couple of photos of the church and the gorgeous valley below. Overall a long and hot day, but one full of interesting scenery.

Hikers’ notes: I’m not sure the value of Alison Raju’s lower option from Aosta to Chatillon. Lower, yes, but seemingly also leading to the far reaches of the valley in order to avoid a climb or two. Just a guess, but the bicycle route, which she doesn’t mention and perhaps is new, may actually be quickest and easiest option of all. I spied it on the map and saw it from above as I approached the river crossing into Chatillon from the south. I’ll be looking to see what the bikers have available to them tomorrow, since I’m told there’s a steep climb between here and Verres, tomorrow’s more modest 19 km goal.

Tarmac and vineyards between villages.

Sergio e io.

View across the valley.

Castle at Feniz.

Um, a church.

Quite a church. Atop Chatillon.

Inside the Chatillon cathedral.

Walk hard today, rest tomorrow

The town of St Rhemy


Day 8: Col St Bernard to Aosta – 37.1 km (23.1 miles)

When I awoke this morning and looked out at the weather outside my window atop the Great St Bernard Pass I faced a tough choice. Should I walk in the rain and cold or stay another night in this frigid, socked-in outpost far from civilization? At coffee, Ursula, who had stayed across the lake at the famous St Bernard Hospice, told me she was staying put, even though the weather report for tomorrow includes snow at this elevation. That set my choice for me. One day cooped up in this beautiful but quiet place would be bad enough. Two would be unbearable.

Since it’s clear our schedules are unlikely to intersect again, Ursula and I shared a poignant farewell. I headed to the hotel’s breakfast room, where I stuffed myself on my typical pilgrim breakfast — pastries slathered in yogurt. I packed and headed out around 9:00 — a very late start — and headed down into the clouds with the goal of reaching Aosta, some 7,000 feet below.

Above the trees, with the clouds gently brushing the top of my head, I began to realize it wasn’t raining after all. Like yesterday’s trail, except steeply downhill, the terrain was rocky and rough, with heather and lichen the primary greenery. Most of the trails were also tiny streams, and only once did I have to carefully jump across a 5-6 foot creek.

As I neared the exit/entry to the car tunnel across the canyon the trees picked up again, and stayed with me the rest of the day. Sometime after Saint Remy an irrigation canal — the Ru Neuf — became a noisy companion as it loudly splashed a two foot channel of water down the hill.

The canal construction, with its adjacent service pathway, kept the downhill grade very gentle for many miles. Sometime around Gignon the canal turned aside and the remainder of the day was hide and seek with the tiny towns that make up the Aosta Valley.

Charles takes a photo.

After lunch in Etroubles, roughly the day’s halfway point, I noticed a serious-looking hiker ambling down the path. By Gignod I had caught up to him — Charles of New Brunswick, Canada — who is halfway along on his walk from Canterbury to Rome. We talked loudly as we made our way down and farther down between houses to Aosta. Finally. We checked in at Hotel al Caminetto, a bargain spot, and headed to our rooms. Since many of my clothes were still damp I headed to the laundromat to do the wash and then joined Tomaso and Charles for an intense dinner discussion. Just what caminos are meant for. The intensity was fueled by too much wine and many days’ lack of conversation. We came to realize that we three, from vastly different backgrounds, had a lot in common.

After walking nearly 40km in a relentless downhill grade my feet are sore. I have no blisters, but I am dealing with a wayward toenail that rubs against my shoe in an awkward way. I think it’s smart to take tomorrow off, to heal up, get refreshed, and let my body heal itself from the abuse. Tomaso and Charles leave without me, but they have their walk and I have mine. I’ll miss them, along with Ursula, my Via Francigena family.

Hiking Notes: going this distance was unnecessarily brutal, but by doing two stages I’m able to stay on schedule while also taking a rest day tomorrow. I recommend an overnight at Etroubles for those who want to break up the otherwise long walk. Signage was great, the constant downhill was punishing. I’m looking forward to exploring this charming, mid sized city tomorrow.

 

Alpine wonderland.

Can you fnd the cows?

Below the tree line.

Canal on right. Great footpath on left. For many km.

Wayside chapel.

Nobody knows the Etroubles I’ve seen.

Below Gignod.

Love these guys. From left: me, Tomaso, Charles at the hotel’s dinner.

Dancing uphill from Switzerland to Italy

Day Seven: Bourg St. Pierre to Col St Bernard – 12.4 km (7.7 miles)

Ursula, my new pilgrim friend, and I arranged at dinner last night to have breakfast together. As we ate in halting French conversation, a man began to speak to us in French about pilgrimage. Once he said he was from Milan we switched to Italian and learned his name is Tomaso and he's a pilgrim, too. Soon we agreed in Italofrenchlish we would walk together – a great relief to each of us since no one wanted to walk alone – and we agreed we would meet up at 8:00 and head up to the Pass.

If you look only at the distance — 12.4 km — you might think the stage would be pretty easy. The only problem is its beginning at 1632m and its culmination at 2457m. That's a vertical climb of 825m (2,700 ft). In under 8 miles. As my FitBit would say, that's 341 floors while burning 2,400 calories in 32,000 steps. Or as my lungs would say, that's into the thin air and beyond.

So we three pilgrims set out for what I can only describe as a magical, Alpine walk. After Bourg St Pierre we climbed to a dam above the tree line and then kept going. We saw falcons, a marmot and what we believe was an otter. Moss, heather and lichen replaced the trees and above the pastureland it was just the sound of our footfalls and the occasional screeching of a falcon.

The path was often steeper than a stairway, and usually it was also home to a tiny rivulet. A few times we crossed the old St Bernard Pass Highway (now a tranquil lane thanks to the modern tunnel hundreds of feet below), but mostly we were above or below the highway, carefully choosing where we would plant our feet each step of the way up, up and up the mountain. With nary a drop of rain and temps in the 12c (54f) range we were never too hot.

Finally we arrived at the Hospice atop the Pass. Yes, this is where the St Bernard dogs would rescue stranded travelers with a small keg of brandy. They still keep dogs here, but the St Bernards are for show and the German Shepherds do the work.

Ursula very kindly bought the men lunch and the hard climb, lack of sea level oxygen and my own lack of practice made it impossible for me to hold up my end of the conversation. Tomaso continues on down the hill, while Ursula is staying as the Monastery's Hospice. I have a room in the pricey but charming Hotel Italia, across the little lake from the Hospice.

Hiking Notes: The way is very well marked and there's not really a need for directions. Bring a snack since there's no food between start and finish. The scenery is stunning and though my pics turned out fine there's no way to capture the extraordinary beauty of this day. Definitely one of the best and most memorable days of hiking in my life, made even better by two happy and fun companions.