Day 10 of our pilgrimage took us from Echevennoz to Aosta, capital of the Valle d’Aosta region. Distance traveled: 9 miles. Weather: clear, mid-70s.
Aosta lays claim to having the largest number of Roman ruins outside of Rome. With a population of 33,000, it’s the first big city in Northern Italy after clearing the Alps.
Breakfast was offered at Trattoria Marietty at 7:30 a.m. I really like these simple country breakfasts we’ve been enjoying on the road. Sometimes bread, butter, apricot jam, coffee, and tea are all you need for energy. When we exclaimed over how delicious the butter was, the Nonna proudly explained that it came from local mountain cows. The milk, too, was fantastically frothy. We thanked the husband and wife duo for their amazing hospitality. They could not have been sweeter.
Right before we entered the woods we came across a vegetable garden. Mom excitedly pointed to one patch that had recently been dug up.
“That’s where the potatoes we ate last night came from!”
This part of Italy truly prides itself on freshness. Of all the wonderful food we’ve enjoyed this trip, last night’s meal was the best.
Blackberries and a Friendly Word of Caution
The morning walk took us almost immediately through the woods and alongside ancient Roman “rus”. The Romans fashioned the rus (narrow artificial canals) as a clever way to divert stream water to the farmland. This irrigation system has got to be one of the most genius inventions to come out of the empire. I was astounded by how clear the water was, and how rapidly it was being pushed UP the slight incline. It was a vibrant, energetic sound.
An added benefit was that because the water came from the Alps, the cold rushing water acts has a marvelous cooling effect.
One of the most unexpected things we found was a grotto with a small statue sheltered from flowing waters. The statue is unique in that it is said to represent Mary showing an adolescent Jesus the way ahead.
Once again, Mom and I discovered thick patches of berries on the forest trail. As we approached Gignod we ran into a nice Englishman who was waiting for his wife. We heaped praise over what a lovely and fit lady she was. As it turns out, she had also told her husband about us. During our chit-chat, he shared some critical news: there were reports of serious problems for tomorrow’s segment from Aosta to Chatillon. Apparently, there are major detours that would add extra mileage to the trek.
We decided to discuss this news with the guys once we met up and see how they felt. Were they hard-core purists? Or would they be okay jumping ahead to the next segment?
The Church at Gignod
We stopped at the exquisite 15th century church in Gignod. In 1630 the Aosta valley was struck by a terrible plague. The devastation was so terrible that the Parish of Gignod vowed to make a yearly procession every August 16 to a local mountain to give thanks for having been spared, and to pray for an end to plagues and epidemics.
What we found so interesting was that in 1675 an ordinance was issued making the procession to the mountain mandatory. Any man who did NOT take part was fined.
Tragically, during one procession there was a dispute amongst parishes as to where the wooden cross should be placed. During the fight that ensued, many people died.
Mom and I have seen so much goodness and beauty on our journey. We’ve received nothing but kindness and hospitality from priests and at churches. Reading this story was a potent reminder.
Religion has the power to uplift and enrich people’s lives. Zealotry and stupidity has the power to rob people of them.
A Beautiful Perfumed Walk to Aosta
I love just how fragrant the walk from there was. The day smelled of woods, figs, apples, blackberries, and fresh hay. As the day grew warmer, the aromas only grew richer and more delicious.
To keep the day from being too perfect, we discovered a dead snake on the paved road.
As we grew closer to Aosta, a kind man at the playground with his kids spied our walking sticks and told us to forgo the street overpass and cut through his private street. The street was bursting with apples and grapes, and made for a much more scenic stroll. What a kind and classy gesture!
Big City Life
The final segment into Aosta came on a paved, but incredibly steep downhill street called Rue de Eidelweiss. Lamp posts bearing the distinctive pilgrim silhouette lined the full length of the street on the right; grapes overhung temptingly on the left. It was such a creative and inviting way to enter the city!
After days without sharing the road with anything faster than a bicycle, it’s a bit jarring to rediscover vehicular traffic. We had also gotten a bit spoiled with Swiss drivers giving pedestrians ample time and space to cross. That’s definitely not the case in Italy.
Aosta is a charming, utterly picturesque city. Through spotless window pastry shops feature scrumptious pastries and stations piled high with gelato. Attractive people wear fashionable clothes. The streets are full of outdoor diners feasting on something that looks and smells delicious. In a strange way, it reminds us of Epcot. It’s so pristine it hardly seems real.
The first thing Mom and I did was swap our CHF for Euro. We then asked a carabinieri for directions to meet Dad and Dan for our established rendezvous.
“Mi scusa, Signore – per andare a statione di treni?”
“E li, cara, sempre diretto.” (Over there, dear, keep going straight.)
“Di niente, cara!” (No problem, dear!)
The carabinieri blew us several kisses.
We are definitely in Italy!
Reunion with the Guys
Mom and I met Dad and my brother Dan by the park, caught up on each other’s adventures, and spent the remainder of the afternoon visiting a few of the Aosta’s famous Roman ruins. We saw the Arch of Augustus, built by the Romans in 25 B.C. to commemorate their victory over the Salassi and the Praetorian Gate.
We also relayed the information we had gleaned from the Brit earlier in the day about tomorrow’s segment being fouled. As we suspected, they are not hardcore purists. With that, we have decided to forgo the walk from Aosta to Chatillon.
We will instead take the local train to Chatillon and walk to Verres.
Pilgrim Party of 4
One of the great joys about this pilgrim life is meeting so many different people on the road. However, I think there’s a good reason most pilgrims travel either alone, or with one partner. Dynamics change anytime you add more people to a group. Our group of four is definitely unique.
For starters, Dad is also a retired Navy commander. My admiration for him is one of the biggest reasons I joined the Navy. Dad’s love for Italy is so strong he asked to be stationed there three times during his career. Obviously, he speaks the best Italian in the family. I love traveling with Dad because, not only is he curious and open-minded, he’s great in an emergency and has the best sense of humor.
Dan, the youngest of my seven siblings, is 17. Tomorrow, he’ll probably be the youngest person on the Via Francigena pilgrimage. I’d be curious to know if he’s also the first person with Down Syndrome to do it.
The fact that we didn’t put a lot of thought into how well Dan would do on 400+ miles of the Via Francigena is not because we don’t care. Rather, I think it’s because we find him SO CAPABLE it didn’t seem worth worrying about. He comes on EVERY family adventure. Despite the physicality involved, there was never any talk of leaving him behind.
My brother also brings his own gifts. Dan is incredibly organized and has a phenomenal memory. Once he learns something, it sticks. One of the traits I’m most intrigued by in my brother is that he never complains. It’s a quality I have great respect for. However, I am worried as to whether he’ll say anything if there is a problem.
Living it up in Aosta
Mom and Dad are staying the night at a hotel across the river; Dan and I are staying in a hotel closer to town and the train station. We headed out for a late night pizza and to carb load.
We are ready for tomorrow!
Breakfast: Included in night’s lodging
Lunch in Aosta: €18 ($19.36)
Dinner in Aosta: €11 ($11.83)
Lodging at 2 star hotel in Aosta: €75 ($80.67)