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.