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.

Credit to wanderlands.ch for the great elevation profile. 

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.

Leaving Bourg St Pierre. 

We head up the mountain. 

The dam. 

My pilgrim friends, Tomaso and Ursula. 

The dammed river. 


Now above the trees. 


So green. 

Only the hardiest plants survive the brutally cold summers. And winters. 

Great way marks. 

Many laughing waters. 

The Pass is in sight — we see a building. 

My hotel is just over there, in Italy. 

St Bernard at the top. 

Suisse on one side. Italia on the other side of this international border marker.