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.