Day 6 of our pilgrimage took us from Martigny to Orsieres. Total distance: 15.4 miles – 12.2 for the walk, .6 for pleasure, 2.8 lost due to navigator error (mine). Weather: clear, high of 80.
It was still dark outside when we departed the Protestant church at 6:20 a.m. We chugged down water, yoghurt, and a piece of fruit. The moon was glowing brightly as we began walking, and Mom shared that the English ladies who had reserved the sole room with the church the night before had indeed shown up; their flight had been delayed a few hours. It was THEY who wound up sleeping on mattresses in the church dining room.
Mom relayed the English ladies had seemed super pleasant and understanding about the change. However, because we had taken a room that had been intended for them, I fervently hoped we would not run into each other.
There are times when a big smile only gets you so far.
Route to Orsieres
We followed the Dranse river out of town and began a nice hike through the woods. The yellow leaves on the trail were the subtlest reminder that the seasons were changing.
After an hour, the hiking became more aggressive and we came across our first American – a pilgrim from New Jersey!
The route only continued to get tougher, with a long stretch of large boulders taxing every muscle. Fortunately, the Swiss seemed to understand how easily someone could get lost. This section was brilliantly marked, with yellow diamonds on stones and trees showing the correct path. Provided there was daylight, it’d be super tough to get lost. There’s absolutely no way to safely navigate these boulders in the dark.
Two things brightened up this very physical portion. First, the discovery of thousands of sweet blackberries. We took many breaks to stop and eat. Secondly, we met a nice Romanian, who had begun his walk in Amsterdam. He astounded us by carrying a 35 pound pack and spending many nights at campsites. The Romanian smoked a cigarette while we ate chocolate biscuits. After he finished, he wrapped the cigarette butt and took it with him. Despite the heavy backpack and smoking, his lungs appear to be working great. Within a few seconds, we lost sight of him.
Hardest Part of the Day
The hardest part of the day was my fault. The route had been so perfectly marked that we were both alarmed when we exited the woods and entered a rock slide with no markings. We must have spent an hour trying to crawl up, only to slide several feet down as rocks came loose. Frustratingly, according to the Via Francigena app, we were RIGHT ON TRACK!
Fortunately, we saw two American ladies exit the woods, look around a few minutes, and then start blithely walking – not into the basin as we had – but on top of the ridge. It looked dangerous but effortless. We retraced our step and caught the ridge. Thankfully, the time on the narrow ridge was mercifully short.
Misplace a foot, and you are in for a very nasty day.
However, if you make it past the rock slide, the last few miles look like a fairytale picture book.
Water fountains spew clear, cool water non-stop. There are spearmint fields and tea-growing regions, an abundance of wildflowers, and field after field of lush green grass.
(That that magnificent beauty comes at a cost – the fields are highly pungent courtesy of liquid manure.)
Switzerland does not strike us as especially religious. Of the four churches we visited in small towns today, one was closed and three were completely empty.
These churches are architectural marvels. I love the hand-carved wooden sculptures and stained glass windows. They are exceptionally well-maintained and very clean. But visitors? Judging from the number of lit offertory candles, there are not many.
And yet – it seems every town and city is set to the church. Since the Swiss have a reputation for timeliness, it seems interesting how often it’s the church bells letting everyone know what time it is.
The Swiss also seemed to take a pragmatic take on religion. The facade outside one church depicts farmers gathering grapes from the vineyard, and bringing wine barrels over for a blessing. After all, this is an agricultural region that takes a lot of pride in its wine. It makes perfect sense that wine would be an important part of daily life here.
Outside of the Orsieres church we encountered a lovely and very fit couple from Switzerland with the best smiles. Having observed our hiking poles and glazed eyes, the immediately announced we were very close to the Gite. We chatted a bit from the church steps, learned they lived in Aigle, were hiking the pilgrimage in sections.
Church Lodging at Orsieres
We accessed the Orsieres church-sponsored lodging after entering the special passcode we had received at the Abbey in Saint-Maurice. As in Martigny, there was a self-service kitchen, toilet, and shower. A dormitory loft with eight mattresses was on the floor above.
We self-stamped our pilgrim passports.
A good thing, too! A sign on the outer bathroom door had an important message.
“Given the increasing number of people pretending to be pilgrims and using the gate as a hotel and in doing so disturbing the tranquility of real pilgrims, the municipal police of Orsieres will come and do checks (pilgrim passport) unannounced.”
Upstairs, we saw three mattresses had already been claimed. After inspecting the registration document, we realized that two of those mattresses belonged to the English ladies whose room we had taken in Martigny. Gulp.
We pulled out two mattresses and staked out our claim on the floor.
Sometimes, Only a Beer Will Do
Orsieres is a gorgeous but fairly small town. We had to hunt for an open restaurant, and came across a bustling one near the train tracks.
There have been many “firsts” this trip. Today was my first time buying my mom alcohol. The very fact that she allowed me to buy her a beer was proof that the day had been a hard one.
We were not the only ones who felt that way – we ran into the American from New Jersey and his hiking buddy. I also recognized the silhouettes of the American women who had inadvertently rescued us from pawing in the rock basin, and the Swiss couple we’d met outside the church.
One of the best things about this walk is that simply by doing it, there’s a shared understanding and instant, automatic sense of camaraderie. They had been total strangers, and yet everyone can just pull up a chair and start laughing and chatting.
It’s a happy hour in the truest sense.
One of our roommates for the night is a friendly young Frenchman who funds his love for walking adventures by working at a toy store every winter.
I asked him why he was walking the Via Francigena.
He gave me a quizzical look.
“I want to feel alive.”
(The sound came from a nearby cow from a nearby pasture, and caused us both to crack up.)
Perhaps it was because he delivered the words as skillfully as a French philosopher, but the way he said it made me reflect. Mom and I were bone tired, filthy, hungry, dehydrated, our hands a tad raw from sliding down rocks, slightly sunburnt…and gloriously alive. Granted, we’ve only been l doing this a few days, but the pilgrim life thus far has been very satisfying.
Every day we awake with a clear purpose and a destination. We get the satisfaction of earning every mile using our feet. Every hour is different from the last.
We’ve also developed a very strange kind of kinship with fellow pilgrims. I had been worried some interactions would feel forced. Instead, everything is unfolding quite naturally. One simply doesn’t have the energy to pretend!
It’s a simple, pared-back life. It’s amazing and liberating to find how little you need.
And, make no mistake, this life is FUN! I have to pinch myself that we get to sleep in a loft, with a church on one side, and a pastures on the other. Every time I hear a cow moo I grin.
In the Navy, I felt that instantaneous bond whenever I saw someone in uniform. Now it comes from seeing a person with a backpack, hat, and two walking sticks.
If You Go
Is the route to Orsieres challenging? Absolutely. Start early.
We’re very curious about exactly what standards the persons in charge of creating the Via Francigena app and posted signs are using. According to official sources, today’s hike should have taken 5 hours. Discounting the hour we lost due to my navigational error, it took us almost 9 hours to get to Orsieres.
We really relied on the walking poles to get through the woods and over the rocks. This is a rugged route that passes by very small towns. Do not expect to find any open grocery stores or restaurants until you reach Orsieres. For that reason, HIGHLY RECOMMEND packing your own lunch and snacks for this segment.
Happy walking to you!
Next stop for us tomorrow: Bourg St. Pierre
Pilgrims encounters: 1 Romania, 2 Switzerland, 1 France, 2 USA (NJ and Michigan), 2 England
Breakfast and Lunch: Migros supermarket leftovers
Dinner: 15 CHF ($16.84)
Glass of wine: 8 CHF ($8.98)
Pilgrim place in upstairs loft shared by 5: 15 CHF ($16.84)