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.


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.