Day 9 of our pilgrimage took us from the St. Bernard Pass to Echevennoz. From Switzerland into Italy. Distance traveled: 10.9 miles. Weather: clear, mid-70s.
Breakfast was served in a communal room promptly at 8 a.m. Mom and I created a bit of disorder when we sat down at one table. The hospice is Swiss and very organized. Therefore, guests’ names are written and posted at each table in advance. (We hadn’t seen the signs on the tables.) Happily, when we moved to our correct table, it included the Romanian, Frenchman, two nice young ladies from Lausanne, and an Italian cyclist.
We had a delightful breakfast with them over bread, butter, jam, coffee, and tea.
The St. Bernard dog museum didn’t open until 10 a.m. As we had already visited Barryland in Martigny, we decided to forgo the museum and begin walking to Echevennoz.
Au Bientot, Switzerland! Ciao, Italy!
Given the thoroughness of passport controls officials when we arrived in Geneva, we had braced ourselves for a similar experience crossing into Italy.
Instead, the process was as simple as crossing a street. We blinked and were in Italy.
Generally, when you hear the expression “It’s all downhill from here”, you think that either the best of something has passed, or that the remainder of what you have to do will be very easy.
Neither interpretation works for the Via Francigena. The descent from the Pass is rocky and very steep. Furthermore, there are several hiking trails near the St. Bernard Pass. We eventually figured out that the markers we wanted for Echevennoz were 13 or 103. The Swiss Via Francigena route 70 signage was no more. The yellow diamond marker was also gone. In its place were yellow arrows.
Pilgrims we met who had previously completed this portion of the walk had raved to us about the beauty of today’s segment. During the first couple of hours clearing the rocks, I was skeptical.
However, once we were free of the boulders and the terrain evened out, I suddenly understood their enthusiasm.
The tree line returned. Vegetation became thicker and more luxurious. Once again, Mom discovered wild raspberry bushes. The water spurting from the well-placed water fixtures was ice cold. Wildflowers were everywhere. Even the air smelt clean and fragrant.
The Power of the Coffee Bean
Our ears popped several times as we continued our descent. We arrived at the tiny village of St. Remy and saw many hikers making the same rest stop for coffee.
It’s been over two decades since I last lived in Italy. I was delighted to find my Italian was not as rusty as I thought it would be. It’s choppy and unrefined, but apparently understandable.
When our espresso and cappuccino arrived, Mom and I had a laugh at the cup sizes. The Swiss had served coffee and tea in what looked like soup bowls. Italian cup sizes are much smaller.
That’s a GOOD thing! Because their brews are much more concentrated, I knew our beverages would hit us like a pair of cattle prods. We braced for the power surge.
Genuine Italian espresso will get you MOVING.
I looked at the Via Francigena app and the posted signage in disbelief.
“Mom, you’re not going to believe this. We’re ON TRACK. Our times are actually matching those on the signs!
“You’re joking! Really?”
The time estimations in Italy have been practically perfect! In Switzerland, our technique for estimating arrival time had been to take whatever was posted on the sign and add two to three hours to it. The Swiss times were so fast, we thought they were using infantry soldiers or retired Olympians to establish their baseline. Then again, the Swiss are known for timeliness and efficiency.
Perhaps it’s the case that Italian signage estimations are based off of Italians who just finished a 5-course lunch, are big on taking Instagram pics, and stop at every church to pray.
In any case, Mom and I are thrilled.
Beauty of the Walk to Echevennoz
The constant variety is a big part of what makes this walk so beautiful. We encountered two friendly donkeys; ancient stone houses with pots of colorful flowers on the windowsills and balconies; lovingly maintained churches; fields of perfect agriculture. Do you like mountains? Valleys? Tranquility?
It’s all here.
One of my favorite sections of today’s walk took us through Etrouble. The small village was a favorite Roman rest stop en route to the Great St. Bernard Pass. Centuries later, Napoleon and his troops also visited and overwhelmed the tiny village. Today, Etrouble is a popular place for outdoor recreation and is famous for its fontina cheese.
Departing Etrouble, we began a lovely hike through the woods into Echevennoz.
Because we were making such good time, Mom and I briefly discussed whether it was worth it to press on to Gignod. Ultimately, we decided to stop in Echevennoz.
Happily, the lone gentleman we saw said that if we wanted an inexpensive room for the night, his mother ran a hostel less than 400 meters away.
I thanked him and asked if he knew if there might also be a restaurant or cafe nearby where we could grab dinner.
His mother also ran the trattoria. My eyes lit up as soon as he said his mother was involved. In my experience, no one will spoil you quite as extravagantly during mealtime as an Italian nonna.
The kind man had his son escort us down a small hill to the boy’s grandmother. After a warm welcome and conversation, her grandson took us to a door under the church. Mom and I had a room with twin beds. The shower and toilet facilities were shared with the room across from us. The €45 Euro (each) included lodging, morning breakfast, and dinner at Trattoria Marietty at 7 p.m.
And, oh what a feast that Nonna and her husband served up!
Wine. Bread. A vegetable greens soup, the tastiest potatoes, tender chicken and flavorful sausages, a fresh garden vegetable salad, and – for dessert – fresh ricotta cheese with raspberry sauce. It was the perfect mountain food. You could practically feel the love pouring out of it.
Nonnas are THE BEST!
Changes Between Switzerland and Italy
The differences between the two countries was immediate and abrupt. “Bonjours” have become “Buon Giornos”. Our Swiss Francs are no good anymore. And, as many Via Francigena pilgrims will tell you, Italian drivers are much more aggressive on the road.
Other differences are more subtle. At the places we’ve been staying, the Swiss have not been big on napkins or bedsheets. (Their bed covering is itself encased in a sheet.) The way they enjoy their coffee is different. The way the countries understand time is also different.
I love how punctual the Swiss are. There’s beauty in order.
On the flip side, I’m amused by how many clocks in Italy don’t show the correct time. In a way, that’s part of Italy’s charm.
One of the changes we really love are the prices. Things are far less expensive on this side of the Alps.
It’s been an altogether lovely first day back in Italy. Tomorrow, we meet up in Aosta with Dad and my youngest brother Dan. The menfolk started their adventure in southern Italy, and have been making their way up North by train. We’re looking forward to joining up and walking together!
Pilgrim encounters: 1 French, 3 UK, 1 Romanian (old friends) + breakfast friends: 2 Swiss, 1 Italian
Breakfast: bread, butter, jam, coffee (included with Hospice du Grand Saint Bernard lodging)
Lunch: Supermarket leftovers
Coffee at St. Remy: €3 Euros
Dinner at Trattoria Marietty: Included with lodging
Lodging in Echevennoz (per person): €45