|Quart Castle on the Via Francigena — such a grand setting high above the Dora Baltea. The path passed right by it, and the views were impressive. (Wikimedia image.)|
For the next four days I would follow the emerald-green Dora Baltea river for 90 km from Aosta to Ivrea. This was a magnificent walk, but a tiring one. If your concentration slipped it was easy to miss the signs, and I went wrong twice. The valley is the area's main artery and contains, apart from the river, two roads (including an autostrada) and a railway. So, even though the marked Via Francigena route clung to the northern slopes and avoided the valley floor as much as possible, it was hard to escape the drone of traffic.
The other constant backdrop noise for the pilgrim is the sound of barking dogs. It's extraordinary how a dog can pick up your scent or footfall from even a kilometre away. When one dog starts to bark, others will join in — this canine cacophony often lasting till you're well past the village. Normally most dogs are in secure compounds, but every now and then there's a loose one. Somewhere between Aosta and Châtillon an enormous white Pyrenean Mountain Dog jumped out at me from a barn, teeth bared and growling — and scaring me half to death.
It was mid-afternoon and the weather was hot. I'd walked 30 km from Aosta and felt exhausted. Even though I knew I wasn't far from Châtillon, my day's destination, my attention lapsed and I lost my way. The path wound through an eerie deserted village of tumbledown stone cottages, then petered out on a steep and tussocky mountain slope. I lurched down to the railway below, slipping on the grass, very conscious of avoiding an electrified fence which bordered the line.
I was too tired to turn back. But continuing straight on was no option either. I passed under the railway via a workman's or shepherd's access tunnel and found myself on the valley floor. A dangerously busy main road, a motorway and a river streamed through the narrow gap. This was no place for walkers. But I noticed a little lay-by just beyond the river bridge, and here I stuck out my thumb, and before long a van had stopped and a friendly Italian took me the remaining short distance to Châtillon. He offered to take me all the way to Milan if I'd wished! Trail angels appear in many guises . . .
In Châtillon the couvent des Capucins seemed reluctant to find space for me — a monk told me unconvincingly they only had two beds and both were taken — so I went round the corner and booked a room at the Hôtel Dufour. It was a large double room, but I was charged the price of a single. It had a proper bath — the only time I was to have a bath rather than a shower in four weeks. I was most happy and relieved. It's strange how your mood goes up and down like a roller coaster during such intense trekking days, days full of deep impressions and unique experiences. So many highs and lows in just 24 hours . . .
I stripped off my sweaty clothes and promptly fell asleep in the bath. Later I ate at a cheap restaurant, where I met a drunk American who'd had three wives, seven children and two hip replacements . . . The life of a pilgrim is never predictable, but always entertaining.
|Châtillon in the Aosta Valley. (Wikimedia image.)|