Walking the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome
Christine Evans decided to walk the Via Francigana from Canterbury to Rome in honour of her late mother. Here she describes two days from the middle section in Switzerland, which leads to the St Bernard Pass.
I can’t remember exactly when I decided to walk the Via Francigena. Like the Camino de Santiago (which we walked in 2016/2017) it just grew in my mind until I knew I had to make the attempt.
My mother had followed our Camino in Spain with interest when I walked it to honour the life of my brother. He could never have walked the Camino so I walked it for him. I began to turn my mind to a walk to honour the life of my mother following her death in 2018.
She was inspirational always. When you have an example like that a walk from Canterbury to Rome doesn’t seem like such a big deal: we had walked the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, the Camino de Santiago (Frances Way) and a few weeks after she died we walked The West Highland Way in Scotland. We weren’t especially fit, we were in our 60s, but Sigeric the Serious made it in the 10th century so surely we could manage it now.
Being a fair-skinned redhead I knew I would not want to walk through the summer months when France and Italy can be very hot. I was determined, but was overweight and had knee niggles. But I also knew it was a case of putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going and if I didn’t at least try I would always wonder if I could have managed it.
I am writing this article now to tell you that if you are thinking of doing this walk then read the guidebooks, make your plans, and get some training walks in: then just start walking… and keep going.
The whole walk averages approximately 90 to 95 days so this meant either leaving very early in the year, or late in the year, to avoid summer temperatures. I was determined, though, to walk over the St. Bernard Pass, or Grand Col Bernard, as it would be an anchoring point approximately half way and seemed, literally, to be one of the pinnacles of the walk.
Due to it’s elevation this pass is snow covered between September and June so to walk over it you have to arrive there around mid to late June at the earliest when it opens, and no later than mid-September when it closes. So it dawned on me to split the walk into three trips.
It wasn’t my original vision of a sustained walk but it made practical sense and fitted in better with my husband taking time off work. Sometimes you have to compromise in order to achieve your goals - one of the lessons of pilgrimage, and age.
So we walked Canterbury to Langres, Langres to Vercelli (Italy) then Vercelli to Rome. What follows is two days of diary entries from the middle section in Switzerland, as we approach the pass – buckle up!
Day 46 Aigle to Martigny 18 miles
Well, this wasn’t the day we had anticipated due to a change of route plans.
Last night we looked at Sunday’s walk to Orsieres where the direct route involves a narrow path (which horses and cyclists are not allowed on) over a 3.5km section following the contours of a narrow valley with a sloping path – according to some the most difficult bit of the Via Francigena.
I dug my heels in at attempting that as I am not good on narrow paths by a drop – on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path I had walked looking landward, trying to ignore the drop seaward.
Fortunately, as always, there were alternatives. In this case they were a short train journey, or follow another route. The alternative walk was a very steep climb uphill then steeply losing height again, something no walker really likes to do, but it sounded less dodgy so I decided I preferred effort over feeling unsure.
Doing this would leave us with a huge day of walking because of that uphill climb, so we changed plans and did extra kilometres today to make tomorrow less lengthy.
Early this morning I found accommodation in Martigny for tonight and we had to walk 18 miles rather than 12. We lost 84 francs on the cancelled accommodation, but you live and learn. We should have read the guidebook with closer attention!
Actually it was a good day. We left Aigle at 8.30am and walked beside the Rhone river, a turbulent torrent of meltwater looking like rapids a lot of the time, noting herons, squirrels, a Marble Fritillary butterfly and circling buzzards.
We managed 8 miles in 3 hours and stopped in St Maurice for coffee, sitting in lovely sunshine in the square, a very pretty little place. We called at the Abbey before leaving, enjoying its peaceful atmosphere and the huge bronze doors with wonderful reliefs of writing and figures.
Moving on the route took us along woodland paths to the village of Evionnaz and a second coffee stop. For me, part of the huge enjoyment of being on a pilgrimage are these opportunities to pause, boost the local economy, have interaction with local people, visit churches and light candles and think of loved ones and reflect on what the day brings.
At the next village I called at the hotel where we had been due to stay, as a courtesy to explain our cancellation. We were sort of glad we weren’t staying there, and even more so when we stopped by a 250ft drop waterfall for lunch. Had we been on our original schedule we wouldn’t have had time to spend sitting, being refreshed, by the spectacular volume of water coming over.We arrived into Martigny footsore and tired, but avoided the most tremendous thunder storm with lightning, so very lucky timing.
Another thunderstorm was forecast for tomorrow and I was even more certain I wouldn’t have wanted to do the direct route in that and wet conditions, so felt happy with our decision.
Day 47 Martigny to Orsieres 12 miles, but mostly upwards
We departed Martigny at 6.30am without having any breakfast but called at the patisserie for an almond croissant, which we didn’t actually eat until over 4 hours later – it is amazing how you can find such resilience within yourself which you could not have imagined possible, but believe me, it really can happen.
Following the alternative route we left town looking for some railway tracks behind the houses with the path going across them and then onto a track going up the hillside.
We found the place to cross and no trains were coming so over we went. This was a common feature of our experience with train crossings on the Via Francigena – there are no barriers or signals, you just use common sense.
What we had failed to notice, however, was that the route up from the tracks on the opposite side had been blocked, with metal poles across the gap from the tracks to the path uphill. So there we were, with my husband just about to try and climb over the poles (because with a backpack on you couldn’t fit through between the poles) when I realised a train was coming. He quickly clambered over but the poles were too high for me to climb over quickly, I definitely couldn’t squeeze between the poles with my pack on, and there was no time to remove it!!! AAAGGHH!
So, trapped between an oncoming train and a hard place I turned sideways to present the least bulky obstacle and … the train passed me safely. Phew. The poor driver (who I could clearly see as he was so close) was gesticulating at me madly, and I don’t blame him, it was stupid of us. We should have crossed one at a time for starters and my husband would have realised the path was blocked but been able to get over and I could then have taken my pack off before crossing enabling a quick manoeuvre through.
Also, we had seen the twisting road going up the mountain was accessible by walking out of town a bit then turning onto it, but no, not the sensible route for us, we had gone for the quicker vertical route that went straight up via the railway lines!
Anyway, after it passed I thanked whichever Guardian Angel was looking out for me (probably my Mum), took my pack off, posted it through the gap between the poles then clambered through myself. So much for this being a safer route! Note to my kids: do not follow this parental example.
That excitement over, we proceeded up, feeling the strain on our achilles tendons. While the road wound up the contours we were crossing it perpendicularly on our route. Finally, the aptly named Hotel Beau-Site hove into view.
We were not at the top yet, but had done 2.5 hours upwards non-stop so I was not passing it by! My husband declared it shut, but I had asked a passing local who said it would open soon. Sure enough, just as we got there the owner arrived on a bicycle and, recognising desperation when he saw it, opened up, welcomed us in and made us a pot of tea - yes, a pot!
Over 1000 miles we probably only ever had two pots of tea, generally it was a cup of hot water with a teabag on the side. This was nectar as we had only had water so far today. He was warm, friendly, running this traditional old hotel as a yoga/vegetarian/holistic venue. It had a lovely ambience and I felt I wanted to return one day.
Rejuvenated we walked through the charming, picturesque village. It had beautiful stone and wood Swiss chalets, some very old ones straight out of my Heidi book cover. It was overwhelmingly lovely everywhere you looked, with sheep and cows in meadows full of wildflowers, wearing bells that tinkled and clanged in harmonious tones. I felt I was truly in Switzerland and was glad we had taken this route.
Cresting the mountain, enjoying stupendous views, we headed downhill into Vens and my legs were jelly-like with the strain when we arrived at the Crevasse Café. Being Sunday it was shut, but we sat outside figuring they wouldn’t mind, and ate our croissants: first food of the day! Our view was the café’s namesake, a huge crevasse leading down to Sembrancher, our next stop.
In Sembrancher we shared a pizza – by this time we had been going for over 6hr on a croissant. Unusually, we saw another couple walking who had taken the direct route, which they described as "difficult but ok". So no doubt I would have been fine, but I was happy to have seen the Heidi village up the mountain and it stands out in my memory, along with its hotel.
I felt it was a case of ‘The Road Not Taken’, as in Robert Frost’s poem. Our last 6 miles were through a beautiful valley with glorious weather and none of the promised thunderstorms. At Orsieres Station waited the Saint Bernard Express with a St Bernard dog adorning its side, beyond, the mountains over which we were to walk. It was immensely exciting to be approaching one of our pilgrimage highlights.
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