A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Via Francigena: Days 1 & 2: The Great St Bernard Pass To Aosta

Saint-Rhémy. (Wikimedia image.)

The Aosta Valley (Valle d'Aoste) is the smallest of Italy's twenty administrative regions and the least populated. To an extent it's a region apart — some settlements are remote and difficult of access, and French (well, a kind of French) is spoken here as well as Italian. Some locals also speak Valdôtain, a dialect of Franco-Provençal, an endangered language of east-central France, western Switzerland and northwest Italy.

It was a blissful if strenuous two-day trek from the Col du Grand St Bernard (with its hospice, Augustinian canons and St Bernard dogs) down the Great St Bernard Valley to the pretty, surprisingly chic Roman town of Aosta in the valley of the Dora Baltea, a green ice-melt river flowing from its source on the slopes of Mont Blanc to join the mighty Po at Crescentino.

The weather was hot, but not insufferably so as it later became in the Po Basin. The altitude was, of course, much higher here, and with more shade. I passed through some attractive mountain villages — Saint-Rhémy, Saint-Léonard, Saint-Oyen, Etroubles — and broke my journey in the hamlet of Echevennoz, where I slept cheaply in a dormitory next to the bar-trattoria. I was the only pilgrim there.

The Valpelline. (Wikimedia image.)

The next day was one of those magical days. A hot sun shone, but I followed a cool, forested track along the Ru-Neuf, a medieval, man-made watercourse which collected glacial water from the high mountains and distributed it to the cultivated crops below. Just before Gignod I stopped for a rest by a Virgin and Child grotto with a stunning view across to the Valpelline — a side-valley of the main St Bernard valley. For a few minutes I felt I was truly in paradise.

Aosta. (Wikimedia image.)

In Aosta I stayed at the friendly and inexpensive Hôtel Al Caminetto on the outskirts of town. The evening meal was amazing: as much antipasto as you wanted from a vast selection, a spaghetti primo piatto, a meat-based secondo piatto, vino, dolce, caffèdigestivo  — and all at such a low price. This was very good for my budget after England — and a recent stay in Germany! And the service was impeccable (all performed by the Romanian manageress who was so deft and attentive) and the company enjoyable (I sat next to a lovely Japanese IT guy of such easy-going intelligence — his humility and quick-wittedness put me to shame. I happened to mention Goethe's Italian Journey, which he had read only a few weeks before . . . )

Aosta. (Wikimedia image.)


Ruth said...

It is good to read of your travels again, Robert. This region looks and sounds glorious.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it was a glorious beginning to an at times difficult trek, Ruth.

Laura said...

Stunning views! Is the path well marked?

The Solitary Walker said...

It varies, Laura. Here yes, but later in the Po Valley the signing was erratic. Still further on, in Tuscany, it was very well marked.

Laura said...

Thanks - I'm very interested in this route.

dritanje said...

The views are breathtaking. To see these, the next best thing to being there.

The Solitary Walker said...

Laura — it's a great long-distance route, make no mistake. However, it can tough — especially mentally — for a Camino novice (if you are, I think you are?), and perhaps not the one to start with. Many parts of the first half through France and Switzerland are poorly provided for both in waymarking and in accommodation. And the nine days through the Po Valley can be soul destroying in their flatness and killer mosquitoes! Not that I'm doubting your obvious fitness and ability, which is clear... Starting the route in Tuscany would be good, I think — beautiful, at first some strenuous but but not impossible uplands, good signage and beds for the night, great countryside and views. But don't do it in July or August — far too hot!

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, the Aosta Valley was impressive, Morelle. Unfortunately I wasn't able to take my own pictures on this trip, so I'm relying on Wikimedia's excellent offerings.

am said...

Novel, isn't it? To walk without carrying a camera. I've taken to leaving my camera at home when I walk in the mornings before starting work. I'm grateful for your writing -- those few minutes in paradise side by side with insufferable heat and the down-to-earth company of others who walk. This is my favorite time of year to walk. Autumn light is sublime.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, it was novel, Am. I did wish from time to time I had my little pocket Panasonic Lumix with me, but (for complicated reasons) I didn't. And my phone was ancient and didn't do pics. And my Sony Nex was not compact enough, specially since I had so much other stuff.

It was interesting, and beneficial I think, to suppress the urge to take photos. (Normally, however, I only take photos now and then, and do it quickly, as I don't like to feel I'm a 'slave' to the camera.)