Oct 31, 2014

Outside my front door

This belltower apparently dates to the 12th century. Although I do see bells at the top (though not from this angle), I also see speakers, and the complicated peals I've heard makes me suspect it's all pre-recorded these days. http://flic.kr/p/pAMepX

Oct 30, 2014

What a great day!

Truth be told, I'd rather have been walking, but if I had tried to choose where to be stranded I couldn't have done any better than Santhià!

‎One of the nice things about this place is it's a small(ish) town, and the hostel is in the centre of it. There's a café owned by the president of the local "Friends of the Via Francigena" chapter 50 metres away, an excellent restaurant 200 m away (La Vecchia Taverna), the library is another 200 m beyond that (free, albeit painfully slow, internet), while the hospital is 300 m from the hostel in the other direction. The main street with bakeries, produce marts, convenience stores, pharmacies, cafés, banks, etc. is 50 m away, and this section is pedestrian only.  Oh, and the pilgrim's hostel is run on the honour system, with a jar for pilgrims to deposit their €10 per night.

Since Vercelli is so close by train, I'll be able to go to Liturgy each weekend I'm here. (Although I do need to contact the parish priest to find out about service times and the exact location.) And this morning, while chatting with the bilingual baristo at the local café, I realised I could take this enforced halt from the pilgrimage to visit both Turin and Milan! Santhià is almost exactly halfway between these two cities, and it's an hour to either one by train. (The train station is about 500 m from the hostel.) I won't be doing that this week, but in another ten days or so, I'll likely be up for a day trip or two. :D  My original plan had been to follow the Via Francigena directly to Rome, which meant missing out on Florence, Milan, Venice... Perhaps this affliction of pain has been a blessing in disguise! (Perhaps? No, I'm being coy when I say that. Most definitely a blessing.)

Tomorrow I will have to post photos of what I see when I walk out my front door. Hint: it's nine centuries old, made of brick, and has bells in it.‎ The panoramic shot I've linked to below was taken from the west is what I have come to consider my front yard: the Piazza Roma. Okay, it may not be as grand as what I'll see in Rome itself, but for a town of 8,000, it's pretty impressive.

On the east side of the square, on the site which has had a church dedicated to St Agatha since the 4th century, is the main church of the town - also the church which gave the town her name. (Santhià is a linguistic corruption of Sancta Agatha.) The hostel is part of a row of residential buildings on the south edge of the square. To the west it's a row of small businesses on the ground floor, including two from which a pilgrim can request a key for the hostel. (The other two storeys are also residential.) The north side of the square is the municipio (town hall), and a hostel key may also be had from "Il Comando Vigili Urbani" in the office there. (Doesn't that sound like an awesome title?  It's so prosaic when translated into English.)

So, that's a brief introduction to where I am. But what made this a great day, as indicated in the title of this update? I mean, c'mon! My plans have been frustrated, internet access is brutally slow (oh how I miss LTE and WiFi!), I've had a minor surgical procedure to remove infected flesh from my body, received a tetanus shot in my gluteus maximus (to be polite), I'm in pain (but now that I'm horizontal again, that's subsided), I'm on antibiotics,  I'm unable to communicate fluently with most people I meet, the concept of "breakfast" as understood in North America doesn't exist here - what could be so great about all that?

Well, okay. As I just outlined it, it's not so great. But today, for only the second time since I started walking over three weeks ago, I met some other pilgrims!

Hermano and Flora are from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. When I emerged from the café after my second cappuccino of the day, I noticed a man in hiking gear with a backpack sitting in the sun on the steps of the municipio. I figured him for a pilgrim, so I walked over and introduced myself. Hermano didn't speak anything other than Italian (with a few random French and English phrases), but we managed to have a lively conversation for a few minutes. Then Flora emerged from the town hall, having acquired stamps in their pilgrims' passports. Flora is a teacher, and for the one week break at the end of October, they ‎decided to walk part of the Via Francigena. They began walking in Aosta (and had the same frustrations I did with the signed path). When they reached the L'Ospitalita del Castello in Settimo Vittone (www.lospitalitadelcastello.it/), they heard of a pilgrim who was walking to Jerusalem "per Pasqua." Yep, that's where I stayed, and I guess I made an impression on Moreno, the proprietor. Their goal for the day was to reach San Germano, the next town along the way, so after a brief chat, they headed over to visit the church. A few minutes later as I was limping across the square, Hermano appeared from the door of the café and waved me over. The church was closed, but he wanted to know if I would join them for a bit of refreshment. Not being a complete churl, I accepted their offer. After a pleasant conversation in English with Flora (with an attempt on my part to speak Italian to include Hermano), we parted, they to continue walking, and me to go to the local hospital for my follow-up visit.

On the way, I stopped by the local Co-op supermarket that had become so familiar to me in Switzerland. I had a simple lunch of bread, some local cheese, and an apple. I also bought a 30,000 word Italian dictionary fo‎r only €3.90. It's got a very cheap binding, but it only needs to last the next six (or seven, or eight, depending on the doctor's prognosis) weeks.

I'd mentioned in my last update that my visit to the hospital in Vercelli was completely free. A doctor and two attendants (nurses, perhaps?) anaesthetised, cleaned, and dressed my wound and arranged for this visit in Santhià. When I arrived at 1:30, a nurse showed me into a treatment room and then fetched the doctor, my dressing was removed, the wound examined, I was laughingly scolded for being such a sinner that I would receive such blisters (I agreed, without irony), an antibiotic cream was gently applied, the foot was wrapped up again, I was given a prescription for Amoxicillin (and the doctor ensured that I was not allergic and that I knew where to find both of the two pharmacies in town)‎, my next two appointments were arranged, and I was sent on my way. As on the previous day, there was no demand for payment, proof of medical insurance, or even a request for my home address! Italy may be suffering economically, but the system is still flexible enough to care for the stranger in their midst. Go back and read what I wrote about that way of being in the world before I started on the Camino de Santiago almost five years ago. http://phool4xc.blogspot.it/2009/12/in-beginning.html is also the first post on this blog.

I returned to the hostel, laid down, and read for a little over an hour. I love the fact that businesses shut down for up to three hours during the hottest part of the day! Then I headed out to pick up my prescription. When I pulled out my wallet, I was told that no, this was free. Gratis. (What a country! Before I reached the library {my next stop}, I phoned my travel health insurance provider in BC and asked them to close the file for this claim.)

At the small public library, I asked for the children's section, selected a book at the appropriate level, pulled out my dictionary, and started to read. Peter Rabbit was a childhood favourite, so encountering him here made me very happy! In every sentence, there was at least one word I had to look up, and the definitions usually required a secondary, and sometimes tertiary, investigation. Occasionally I ran into definitions which were completely recursive, so at that point I'd refer to the English-Italian translation app on my phone. It took me almost half an hour to read Peter Rabbit, but I learned a lot of new words in the process! Whether I'll remember ‎them tomorrow is another question. Tomorrow I should make a point of recording my newfound vocabulary in writing.

(Speaking of tomorrow, it is the first of three major feast days in a row here in Santhià. Of course November 1 is All Saints' Day, but I'm still not clear about the other two days. All I know is that, according to the nurse this afternoon, it will all unfold in my front yard, with crowds and TV cameras. {There are times when I deeply regret sending my beautiful little Panasonic LX-7 home from Liddes. Tonight is one of those times. C'est la vie.})

Half an hour reading a book for toddlers doesn't sound very demanding, but with all the dictionary work and cross-referencing that came with it, I was mentally exhausted. By then the internet terminals had opened up, so I hopped on over and uploaded a few photos I'd taken in Paris and Switzerland. My photo of the reliquary containing one of the thorns from Christ's Crown of Thorns turned out even better than I'd hoped. This was preserved in the Abbey of Saint-Maurice when the rest of the Crown of Thorns kept in Sainte-Chapelle in Paris was destroyed by a mob during the French Revolution. (Yay democracy?‎) Read more about this on Wikipedia here: 
I'd visited Sainte-Chapelle in 2010 when I was in Paris prior to the start of my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.‎ I really love that city, and having a very good friend to play host is an extra bonus. Thanks again, ya Sharif!!!

The library closes at 6:00 pm and by then my foot had begun to really hurt. This morning I woke up to a warm, tingly, tight feeling - very different from the hot, swollen, throbbing ‎mess of just over 12 hours before. Except for that brief break at lunch, though, I spent most of today upright, whether standing or sitting. I hurried on home, pausing only for an indifferent kebab plate, and got horizontal once again. Tomorrow I intend to return to La Vecchia Taverna. When chatting to two of the local guys here in English, I mentioned my preference for this restaurant. One of them laughed and said that I was almost Santhiànese, to which I replied, "Just give me two weeks!"

And so here I am, laying in bed in the hostel at Santhià, tapping away at the keyboard on my beloved BlackBerry Q10. The pain has long since subsided, and I'm about ready to send this off, say my prayers, and retire for the night. It's been a great day!

Oct 29, 2014

A few more weeks in Santhià

Yesterday morning when I checked my right heel, there was no sign of improvement. I wasn't sure whether the small red area bordering one side of the blister was the result of pressure from my ungainly limp, or if it was evidence of infection.

I stayed off my feet most of the day, reading in bed, but I did walk about 400 metres to the local public library for internet access, and another 50 metres later to La Vecchia Taverna for dinner. All told, I didn't walk much more than a kilometre.

This morning I was initially optimistic. The pain had diminished overnight‎, and I had hopes of setting off for Vercelli by Thursday. Then I gingerly removed my sock and saw that both the blister and the area of red swollen skin had expanded overnight.

I had breakfast and then called my travel insurance company. The connection was patchy at times, but I was given a claim number and told to go ahead and seek medical treatment. The Ospedale San Salvatore in Santhià doesn't have an emergency department, but they referred me to the hospital in Vercelli. The train station was just a five minute limp away and the ticket only €2.70 for a 13 minute trip. The two minute cab fare from the train station to the hospital cost more.

Since infected blisters would normally be attended to by a family doctor, I was the lowest priority patient. I'd been there for about three and a half hours when, to my surprise and delight, I recognized my name being called. After 21 minutes with the doctor, I'd been given a spray-on local anaesthetic, my blisters had been drained and then trimmed off, and I'd received a tetanus shot. As I was leaving, it occurred to me that they hadn't asked for proof of medical insurance or any type of payment. I went back in, found the English-speaking nurse, and asked about it. She looked at my papers and said that everything was in order.

I caught a taxi back to the train station, hopped the train back to Santhià, had an adequate "menu pellegrino" at a different restaurant from last night, and then limped carefully back to the hostel. At that point, I swapped out my dead battery with the spare and started it charging, and proceeded with this update.

Tomorrow morning, I'm to go to the local hospital (all of 300 metres from the hostel) to receive my first dose of antibiotics. The doctor in Vercelli told me I'd need to stay off my feet for two to three weeks, and have periodic check-ups and a full course of meds.

I probably should have done all this yesterday when I first noticed the blisters were not healing up normally, but at least I didn't try walking the 21 km to Vercelli to prove I'm a tough guy. I'll spare you the gruesome "Before" photo, but here's what the fine professionals at St Andrew's Hospital in Vercelli left me with. Think of freshly-fallen snow, cool, clean, pure, refreshing. (At least that's how it feels now. I may have a different perspective once the anaesthetic wears off.)

So, I will be doing lots of reading over the next few weeks, practicing my Italian, and getting fat(ter) and lazy in the warm Italian sun. And since the local library has internet access, I may even upload some more photos, and properly organise what I've already shared so far. I can't think of a better place for a pilgrim to spend recuperating than Santhià!

Oct 28, 2014

A quiet day in Santhià

On arriving at the municipal pilgrim's hostel ‎in Santhià Monday afternoon, my first priority was a hot shower and change of clothes. At this point I also took stock of my poor long-suffering right heel, and decided that if there was not a radical change for the better overnight, I would remain here until I could continue without fear of inflicting further damage.

When I awoke Tuesday morning, the situation had not improved a whit, so I hobbled across the square to the café which offers a free "breakfast" for pilgrims staying at the hostel and had my cappuccino and croissant. Then I hobbled back to the hostel (all of 50 metres), crawled back into bed‎, and began reading Hilaire Belloc's The Path to Rome. (Twelve hours later, with some diversions, I'm 3/4 of the way through this wonderful, witty, inspiring book.)

Periodically I emerged from the hostel to absorb some heat from the glorious sunshine in the square. These thick-walled stone houses look grand, but they are chilly in October when one is laying about. By late afternoon, I finally found the thermostat, so tonight I will not need my reflective groundsheet over the mattress and an extra wool blanket over my down sleeping bag.

After arriving late Monday afternoon, my next priority after bathing and changing was to find WiFi. Herein lies possibly my only complaint about Santhià as a 21st century pilgrim. The hostel still has WiFi, but at some point they decided to password protect it, and the password was not forthcoming when I inquired about it. (My Italian wasn't sufficient to follow the explanation about why they had cut it off for pilgrims.)‎ The contact person in the shop nearby explained that I could go to the local public library and use their free WiFi, but when I arrived five minutes past closing time, I discovered that it too was locked down. (A neighbour was not quite as security conscious, so I took the opportunity to upload a few photos.) 

On scanning for other networks, I discovered that, like Ivrea, Santhià has a municipal WiFi network available. Unlike in Ivrea, there was no possibility to register for it online. When I inquired at the tech division at town hall this afternoon, I was told that it was not possible for me to register, but that the hostel has WiFi. My Italian was insufficient to argue the point, so my photos from this beautiful town will have to wait until I reach Vercelli, the next city along the way.

I did make it back to the library today during opening hours, but rather than give me access to the WiFi, they showed me to a computer terminal. The Pentium 4 running WinXP must be laden with all kinds of third party and background apps, because it was painfully slow. Once my USB flashdrive was finally recognised, I loaded up my PortableApps suite and did what I needed to do. 

On leaving, I paused to chat with the three librarians on duty. ‎I really can't carry on much conversation, but I'm understanding a lot more than I had expected. One of the questions they asked me about Canada was whether there was much political tension between francophones and anglophones. I explained that there had been in the past, but after three referendums, Quebec seems to have accepted that the rest of Canada loves it and wants it to stay part of the country. (If I had a better internet connection, I'd have linked to the 22 Minutes video on YouTube comparing the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada to that of a glamorous French woman married to an anglophone hoser - continually threatening to leave, but in the end remaining. Ah well.)

Interesting side note: in the province of Vallé d'Aoste (Aosta Valley), most of the towns and villages I walked through had a street named after Emile Chanoux. Never having heard of him, I did a bit of research. There's nothing about him on Wikipedia in English (Sharif, feel like doing some translation work in all your "spare" time?), but I learned he was born in 1906 and as a journalist was a fervent advocate for minority rights within Italy, even arguing that these minorities are not best served by a central government and required local autonomy to truly thrive. Historically, this northern alpine region of Italy had been part of the possessions of the royal House of Savoy, a powerful French duchy, and the official signs in this region are still in both French and Italian. Chanoux was a journalist, and also worked in the anti-fascist underground during the Second World War. Eventually his published views drew the attention‎ of the state. He was captured and tortured, and died in captivity in 1944, without giving up the names of any other members of the resistance.  The occasional wayside memorials to those killed that I've encountered in northern Italy and also walking around Paris always warrant a brief pause and prayer. I've posted photos of a few of them to Flickr.

I haven't seen any of these sobering reminders in Santhià. (Then again, I haven't seen much of the town.) What I do know is that the name of the town is derived from Saint Agatha, and the current 17th century church‎ is built on the site of the 4th century church dedicated to her. The current bell tower and crypt date to the 12th century. Photos to follow once I have a decent WiFi connection.
Santhià was also the 44th stop made by Sigeric the Serious on his return to Canterbury after being confirmed its archbishop ‎by the Pope in Rome in the year 990. The diary kept by one of the members of his party still exists, and this is the basis for the modern Via Francigena. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Via_Francigena

Looking at the table in the Wikipedia article, I can see how woefully slowly I've been travelling. I began walking at Lausanne and with all my blister breaks, I've taken 21 days (and counting) to cover what this 10th century cleric and his party did in ten.

We dwellers of the modern age have much to be commended for, but I don't think we will ever match the sheer grit and toughness of the generations which preceded us, even as recently as a century ago.‎ Hilaire Belloc is one such witness, Patrick Leigh Fermor is another. And of course, the millions upon millions of boys and young men in graves both marked and unmarked, who lived and loved and fought and died in the catastrophic wars that devastated Europe (and Asia) in the first half of the 20th century.

Hmm, that took a grim turn. 

Back to Santhià! From what I've gathered, the local hostel is run by the Amici della Via Francigena Città di Santhià  (Friends of the Via Francigena, City of Santhià) with assistance from the municipal government and local business owners. One such supporting business is La Vecchia Taverna at Via Svizzera 47, just a few steps away from the hostel. They offer pilgrims a fixed price menu for €12 which far exceeded anything I had on the Camino in Spain, both for the sheer excellence of the food, and the incredible value offered. If, as I rather suspect, I am still in Santhià tomorrow evening, I will be dining at Hotel Ristorante Vittoria, which offers a similar deal. (Depending on how far it is from the hostel. I'm really trying to avoid walking right now!)

And so let me conclude on that note: warm, well-fed, safely ensconced ‎with an entire hostel to myself. Still tender of foot, but these things take time. Tomorrow when I finish with Belloc, I think I shall resume reading The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest.

Discretion, valour, and remaining in Santhià

I could, if it were absolutely necessary, walk to Vercelli today. However, I have decided to adopt a policy of not walking unless I can stand squarely on both feet ‎without whimpering.

At this rate, perhaps I'll be celebrating Christmas in Rome instead of Albania somewhere. That's not a problem, except the number of days I can stay in the Schengen Area is limited to 90 in any given 180, and I still have to walk across northern Greece.

Oct 27, 2014

I should have thought of this yesterday!

So, here I am in Santhià, a town of about 10,000 people. Unfortunately for me, the trattoria that offers a €10 "menu pellegrino" is closed Mondays, but that's fine. I'll cook up the pasta I've been lugging around for the ‎last two days later this evening.

Yesterday, I started walking from Ivrea at 3:00 pm. I arrived in Santhià, a 35 km journey following the Via Francigena, at 4:00 today. That's not bad time, all things considered. Having a good sleep in a comfy bed last night and a great breakfast this morning certainly helped!

So, what are these "things" which I'm considering? Well, when I left the B&B in Settimo Vittone on the morning of the 23rd, I was feeling great. The facility is fantastic, the breakfast was prepared by someone who obviously knows what a pilgrim needs to keep going, and I started nice and early with a spring in my step. The last of my blisters had cleared up a few days earlier, and everything felt loose and good. As I continued on my way, I became aware of a little heat on my heels, but I foolishly ignored it, thinking the callous built up there would protect me.

When I arrived in Ivrea and checked into the wonderful hostel there, I discovered a small blister had formed right where another had been. It didn't look serious, but I put a hydrocolloidal bandage on and in the morning made ‎the call to stay in Ivrea so I could attend Liturgy for the feast of St Demetrios (and give my feet a chance to heal). I limited my walking around to the bare minimum - I doubt I even walked 2 km either day.

By the time I set out on Sunday, the puffy area under the bandage had grown, but that's what this type of dressing does as it absorbs the fluid from the blister while providing a sterile padded covering.‎ The pain, however, was getting worse as I walked, so even though I was maintaining a good clip, I changed my gait so that my right foot came down flat, as if I were wearing a single snowshoe. That seemed to help, even if it was a little awkward. I was glad to arrive in Azeglio last night, but wan't overly concerned. 

I should have been. This morning, the puffy area had grown significantly larger, and it was now painful to balance my weight evenly on both feet. That's when I realised what I should have done yesterday. My trail shoes are great, and I wouldn't hesitate to buy the brand again. No matter how good a piece of footwear is, if there's physical contact with an already irritated or tender part of the foot, it will only worsen things.

Today I folded a gauze pad over the blister and used a large bandage to anchor it in place. Then I put on a thin pair of wool toe-socks and two thicker wool hiking socks. Once I felt it was sufficiently swaddled, I put on my Crocs. The location of my blister is just below where the ankle band for the Crocs secures the foot in place, which meant I had a nice cushy footbed and then no direct contact!

With my altered stride and "new" shoes, I made great time initially, covering the first 12 km in three hours, including rest breaks and lunch. It was the last 9.5 km which were problematic. From an average of 4 km/h in the morning, my pace slowed to a painstaking 2.5 km/h in the afternoon.

Still, I made it, and early enough that I feel optimistic about tomorrow. And if I decide tomorrow that I really can't face another 21‎ km walk to Vercelli, at least the hostel here only charges €10 per night. The facilities are clean but rather Spartan, but I'm still getting more for my money than I did the night I camped out in Etroubles.

Oct 26, 2014

Giardini Semplice B&B

This looks very promising! Via Roma 78 in Azeglio.‎ Daniella and her husband run a very tidy place, and they own the only dog in Italy that does not bark at strangers. (Which I suppose makes sense, for a family-run B&B.) Giardini Semplice B&B

I only walked 14 km today because by the time I got started it was already 3:00 pm and it gets dark EARLY now that the clocks have moved back.

Blessings of the feast!


Gathered for the feast


Oct 25, 2014

A big day tomorrow

It's been a very calm and restful two days here in Ivrea, but this afternoon I realised I wanted to be walking again. The blister on my right heel is still throbbing gently, but another full night of sleep should help with that.

What will also help is that I probably won't start actually‎ walking until around noon, perhaps even later. I made contact with the Orthodox priest in Ivrea and found out where the church meets and what time the services begin. Matins is at 8:00, followed by an Akathist, and then Liturgy begins at 10:00. The priest's name is Fr. Dumitru, so it may very well be his name day tomorrow. (St Demetrios the Myrhh-Streaming)

The church is 2.5 km away from the hostel where I've been staying, and the road to get there is at right angles to the route out of Ivrea that I'll be following for the next section of the Via Francigena. Although I will certainly make a 5 km detour to attend Liturgy, I'm eager to avoid any unnecessary walking. I'd found a map of the immediate area in the hostel, and had started poring over it, looking for a bridge over the river that would allow me to walk along the hypotenuse of the right angled triangle after the service. I couldn't see one, and my very handy GPS navigation app wasn't helping either, so I asked the hospitelera‎ if she had any suggestions. Tomorrow morning, I'll be riding Lorella's bike to church and then picking up my gear when I return it to her. Wonderful solution!

I'm not sure whether I'll be up for the full 35 km hike to Santhià‎ if I'm only starting at noon. There are few places to stop along the way, but according to my guidebook, most of the walking will be on flat tertiary roads with good surfaces and little traffic. If my blistered heel holds up, I could conceivably arrive by 7:00 pm. There is a hostel in town, run by the local Via Francigena organisation, and there are several local cafés which have a key.

In other news, a little while ago Lorella got news of three Irish pilgrims heading this way, about an hour's walk out.‎ As with the two British ex-pats I met at the Great St Bernard Pass, I expect they'll be travelling faster than me. I do enjoy walking alone, but it would also be nice to have some company as I travel. They'll probably be here soon. :)

Beato Taddeo McCarthy

Read about his life here: http://ift.tt/1oEPYUD http://flic.kr/p/oRxqJG

12 hours late, and in the wrong church

The relics of the Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy are in the Cathedral of Ivrea and his feast day fell on a Saturday this year. Naturally I assumed the Mass would be held here in the morning. Whoops! The sacristan set me straight. Read more about this bishop on Wikipedia here: http://ift.tt/1oEPYUD http://flic.kr/p/pNa8Xg

Oct 24, 2014

Crypt arch, with iconography


Two rest days in Ivrea

As noted in my last post, my plans to make the 35 km walk to Santhià today didn't work out quite the way I'd hoped. I was still thinking of making the attempt, because the next day it would only be 21 km to Vercelli, where there is an Orthodox Church. That would have positioned me perfectly to attend Liturgy, and perhaps even Vespers.

This morning I checked, and it turns out there's a Romanian parish here in Ivrea!‎ So, rather than push on, I'm going to give my blisters a chance to heal and see a bit more of this beautiful city. Aosta is equally ancient, but with the exception of the Roman ruins, it's a modern city with a lot of factories. The historic centre of Ivrea still looks like a medieval city.

Oct 23, 2014

So much for an early start tomorrow...

I arrived in Ivrea in good time today, got booked into the hostel which is on the shore of the Dora Balthea river, and then headed into town. After doing my best to trouble-shoot my cellular connection issues here in Italy, I'd decided it was time to buy a local SIM and store my "global roaming" SIM until I reach Albania.

Although my family back home in Canada may beg to differ, not having a phone number wasn't a great inconvenience. The main reason I decided to get an Italian number is so that I can phone ahead and arrange for accommodations. I've had too many days of finding hotels closed or fully booked, and unlike the situation on the Camino, pilgrim's (i.e. cheap) lodgings aren't available on a drop-in basis. 

There are a good number of local parishes which are willing to host pilgrims walking the Via Francigena, but they need at least a day's advance notice. I discovered this in Aosta, at which point I started trying to make those phone calls. Each time, it failed to connect, and I got an auto-text telling me there was no rate available, even when I had solid connectivity.
After listening to my fumbling attempts to explain what I wanted in Italian, the salesman graciously switched to English, asked a few more questions, and then came up with a recommendation for me. The Vodafone Holiday pack is a SIM, packaged with 300 minutes, 300 texts, and 2 GBs of data per month for €30. No contract, I just need to top up my account each month in order to keep using it.

Wow, that's great! It's a little more than i'm paying in Canada, but at home I only have a 600 MB data allowance, and that plan is no longer available. The salesman told me my account would be activated in the morning, but I popped the SIM card in‎ almost immediately and rebooted. To my surprise, I connected to the Vodafone network and even got 4G data. As in Etroubles a few days ago, the free municipal WiFi required an Italian phone number to register, and now I had that!

And then I got an SMS from Vodafone. ‎ "Vodafone Holiday cannot be activated on your SIM because your credit is under 30 euros. Please visit one of our stores or click here voda.it/holiday to top it up."

I'd assumed that if my account wasn't activated, I wouldn't be able to connect. Turns out, my very limited usage was charged against the €30 on my balance, meaning I no longer had enough ‎to activate the plan.

Back to the shop, with only 10 minutes to closing time, and two customers ahead of me. I explained the situation, and took care to state that it was my mistake. The salesman said he would call Vodafone and see about getting the charges reversed. By this time, I was the last customer there and they'd already locked the door. To make life easier for everyone, especially this poor guy who had to deal with a stoopid foreigner, I offered to just pay for my usage to top it back up. Done, no problem there. But he strongly urged me to come back in the morning so he could verify things were working properly. That's great, except they don't open until two hours after I was hoping to be on the road. Still, I thought he delivered excellent customer service, especially in a foreign language. (He's the only staff member working this evening who had a functional grasp of English.)

I'm still planning to roll out the door early in the morning. I'd like to visit the church of Saint Maurice, the cathedral, and also the duomo (palace). I figure that if I am packed and moving by 7:00, that'll give me time to get to those three places and still be at the shop by 9:00. The Roman amphitheatre is on the road out of town, so I'll be stopping by there, too. Not quite the way I'd planned to spend my time in Ivrea, but having the mobile plan should make a big difference as I move further south.  It may even come in handy tomorrow, since my original plan of walking 35 km to Santhià, the next major town, is now in doubt, due to the timing mostly‎ but also because I've got another (minor, thankfully!) set of blisters.

Everything in this part of town shuts down by 7:30 pm. The pedestrians were gone, the rush hour traffic had subsided - it amazes me how quiet these northern towns get in the evening, and Ivrea has a population of about 24,000.‎ I decided to walk around the historical centre to get my bearings for the morning, and as I was ambling along I saw a small grocery store still open. On a whim, I went in and bought a few items. As he was ringing up the sale, the clerk tossed two clementine oranges in the bag. I thanked him, and explained what I was doing. He shook my hand, and then bagged up some candied ginger as well, to help prevent colds and also for power. I thanked him again, and as I left asked him to "Preghiete per me."

The really good news from a walker's perspective, is that the signposts in the region‎ of Piemonte are much, much better than they were in the Aosta Valley. There I eventually learned which of the three sets of markings was reliable, but only after many detours and much frustration. In contrast, in the past day and a half of walking in Piemonte I have spotted six different trail marking signs and blazes, and they agree not only with one another, but also with common sense!

Well, today there was one exception to the common sense rule. There seems to be no practical reason for the loop around Lake Pistono, although walking through the regional nature reserve was very beautiful and the castle (built and improved upon between the 11th and 14th centuries) was a striking sight. It had been abandoned and had fallen into a bad state, but it was purchased in 1963 by a wealthy family. Between 1965 and 1985, the state assisted in restoration efforts.‎ It's not open to the public at the moment, so there was no real temptation to delay my arrival in Ivrea even further.

Also along this scenic detour (probably about an extra 2 km) was La Mollena Ristrotrattoria. A monella, according to my English/Italian dictionary, is a "gamin, urchin" and the restaurant's logo is a cartoon girl aiming a slingshot with a bird perched on her head. I'd seen signs advertising it along the trail for a few km, but what convinced me to stop in was the delightful, tranquil piano music they had playing over the patio. (That, and I did need to use the bathroom.) 

At 12:53, I was the first customer of the day. Ten minutes later, the waiter was setting up more tables and the air had filled with a pleasant low buzz of conversation. Clearly it's a popular place with the locals. I began to regret only ordering a panini - this was the best sandwich I've had yet in Italy, with Parma ham and some cheese on a good big hunk of fresh crusty bread covered with sesame seeds. Oh, so good!

Ever since walking into Italy across the Great St Bernard Pass, I have had nothing but wonderful weather. It did get a little warm a few days ago, but Wednesday was bright and cool and clear with a very strong wind pushing me ‎along the mainly flat trail.

And now I ought to post this and retire for the night, or my plans for some early morning site-seeing will come to naught.

Beware of Cave Trolls

The trail led beneath an arch which provided shelter for the main entrance to this multistorey abandoned home. It was surprisingly litter-free. http://flic.kr/p/oQE4w2

Evening view of Ivrea

This was the view out of my window this evening at the hostel in Ivrea. It's run by the "Ivrea Canao Club" and overlooks the Dora Balthea river. http://flic.kr/p/pv2oKE


The 8th century baptistry and 9th century church are closed off for archeological work and restoration. I was disappointed at not getting to see more than this, but glad to know these buildings are being cared for. http://flic.kr/p/pLPz8c

Breakfast at Ospitalita del Castello, Settimo del Castello

Peter is a very happy pilgrim this morning. http://flic.kr/p/puDQV9

Oct 22, 2014

Hitting my stride

This post will be a series of disconnected paragraphs. I put off writing too late in the evening, and now I'm dozing off as I type. (It is a quarter to midnight in this time zone right now.)

Most of today was spent walking along the valley floor towards Ivrea. I've decided to make tomorrow a short walking day so I have the afternoon to explore the town while still getting an early night. (Ivrea is known for its Roman ruins, but also for being the headquarters of Olivetti.) The following day will be about twice the distance, but the average of those two days will be roughly the same as the average for the last two.

From my bedroom window in Settimo Vittone, the last of the hills on either side flank a wide plain. I'm a-gonna do me some Camino-style walking soon!

I did some minor repairs on my backpack this evening. The elastic drawstrings on ‎two of the external pockets had almost completely unthreaded themselves, so I used a safety pin to feed them back through and this time tied the ends off securely.

I took an hour for lunch today in Hône, and puttered about Pont Saint-Martin for about an hour, too.‎ I've also decided that the five minutes I take to find my bearings whenever I come to a poorly marked intersection is time very well spent when it saves me over a kilometre of detour.

I'm staying in the Ospitalita del Castello. Here's a photo of my room when I first arrived.

The Road Goes Ever On And On

Just past the town of Bard, the trail joined the Roman road which has led countless people through this valley for millenia. http://flic.kr/p/pLAjdP

Church of San Marino, Arnad

The church has been closed to visits outside of services due to acts of vandalism. How sad! http://flic.kr/p/pLt5AX

This made me sad.

My rough translation: "The church is closed to visits due to acts of vandalism." http://flic.kr/p/pu27Z5

Via Francigena signpost

This signpost was actually better than some, because at least I knew I should utterly disregard it. http://flic.kr/p/pJngWh

Oct 21, 2014

All Roads Lead to Rome?!?

Well, maybe not all, even on the Via Francigena.

I hope it's only the Aosta Valley region, but so far the waymarking in Italy has occasionally been... less than helpful. Today was a very good day, as I hit and maintained my Camino pace ‎of 5 km/h for extended periods, but even today saw me stranded on a rock outcropping wondering why neither of the two paths I'd tried led to anything other than a dead end. After backtracking, I learned that the waymarking was perfectly located for someone walking from Rome. (Note to self: when in doubt, do a full 360 sweep before continuing in any direction. Maybe even unsling the pack, have some chocolate and a swig of water.)

Then there is the waymarking which leads you out of your way. After my wonderful stay in Champagne, I set out early full of vim and vigour. After an hour of following the marked trail, I found myself less than 500 metres from where I'd started‎. The official VF trail had led me up the hill a few hundred metres (and that's altitude, not distance!) and then back down again in a giant horseshoe. You know, as opposed to a giant U shape, where at least you haven't moved closer to the starting point.

My first day out of Aosta, I'd noticed the official trail branching off uphill from the road, only to cross it heading downhill again a few hundred metres later. And then crossing the road again, heading uphill. To say that shook my confidence in the official markings is an understatement. I'd started ignoring the trail markings, relying instead on the GPS app on my phone. 

Thanks to the Alison Raju guidebook, I have discovered that the older trail markings are actually pretty sensible. The trick is to know which set of markings to ignore.‎ When I did the Camino de Santiago several years ago, there was none of this. Neither was there any of this nonsense less than a week ago in Switzerland.

Today‎ was a very good day. Using my guidebook to identify destinations along the way and my common sense and GPS to get me there, I only wasted about 45 minutes backtracking today, and at no point was I genuinely lost. I had a great night's sleep last night, an early-ish start, and was taking my boots off by 4:30 PM. Here's hoping tomorrow goes as well! The forecast says 60% chance of rain with temperatures hitting a high of 17 Celsius. For the first time since leaving Switzerland, I may actually be at a comfortable temperature the whole day! :) (Not that I'm exactly complaining about my tanned forearms or having to wear sunglasses...)

So, after a marvellous meal at Il Casello B&B in Verrès (www.ilcaselloverres.com), I'm about ready to say my prayers and collapse. The rate for a pilgrim in a dorm is €25, which includes breakfast. The showers pumped out plenty of hot water at good pressure‎ without having to constantly push a button. I could have gone into town to the laundromat, but they offered to wash and dry for less than I'd have paid at a lavanderia. Likewise, I might have been able to find a restaurant on my own, but instead I ate what the owners and their kids did. And it was goooood!!! (Photos tomorrow, probably.) The only drawback is the set of train tracks that run the length of the property. If I hadn't packed earplugs, I probably would've found somewhere else to stay. As it is, I know I'm good to go!

Chi Cerchi?


Sts Peter and Paul, Châtillon

This is part of the nave of the main church in Châtillon. I'd posted a photo from below last evening, but by the time I made the climb up all! those! stairs! the church was closed for the evening. While it looks like a triple-aisled nave from this photo, the arches actually let on to side chapels which line the length of the nave. http://flic.kr/p/oP3Trj

Oct 20, 2014

Long slow day

In spite of the short distance I covered today, it was long and hot and tiring and somewhat frustrating due to all the missed turns and backtracking. The best part of the day was, after running into a road closure, I decided to unfurl my ground sheet, unfold my foam sleeping pad, and have a noon hour siesta in the warm sun on a mountain side in Italy. I woke up in much better spirits!

I'm aiming to get an early night tonight, so I'll leave it at that.

bedroom window view

The old woman who runs Hotel Dufour has herself gone on pilgrimage. The room is plain and simple, but the price is right. And this view! http://flic.kr/p/pH3pbw

Tu es Petrus

...and on this rock I will build my church. http://flic.kr/p/psFVQp

Chiesa de Diémoz


Don't leave home without it!

There are two axioms to keep in mind when packing for travel, especially if you're carrying everything on your back.

1. Everything weighs something.

2. Everything takes up space.

When I did my luggage purge back in Liddes and came away with 2 kg less in my backpack, one of the items I kept was a simple rubber drain plug. I think I paid a buck or two for it at a hardware store, but it was so long ago I really can't remember.

A shower is much more energy efficient than a bath, which is most likely why hoteliers never make a plug available even when there is a bathtub.‎ Even sinks generally drain out immediately, which makes it challenging for someone hoping to shave, or in my case, do laundry.

That's why this simple little piece of rubber is invaluable for the road warrior or pilgrim. As long as it's large enough to completely cover the drain, the water pressure will hold it in place, allowing the weary aching pilgrim to dissolve the knots and pain in a hot bath. Just be careful not to bump it loose, or your relaxing soak may be interrupted!

Oct 19, 2014

When I return to Canada...

...I may never eat pizza again.

I was a little dubious when I was quoted a price of €40 for a single room at the Hotel Cristina (http://www.hotel-cristina.org/home), although I was quickly reassured that included "petite dejeuner."

This evening, ‎the only other option I had was pitching my tent in a field somewhere, if I could find anywhere with a level patch that was at least 2x1 m and didn't have any cow patties lurking in the grass. The three options in Nus were unavailable (closed or full) and "Mummy's B&B" in the next town over was likewise dark.

It seems wrong to complain about warm sunny weather in the Alps in October, but I just wasn't prepared for these temperatures. It hit the high 20s Celsius again today, and I was ready to stop walking by 3:30. It took another 3.5 hours to find a town that had anything available, so I didn't bother quibbling about the price once I finally found this place using my GPS app and the Alison Raju guidebook loaded on my phone.

And then I opened the door to my room. And then I saw the view from the balcony. And then I saw the full-sized bathtub. Yes, this was money very well spent. After a long lazy soak in the tub, I got dressed and headed down to the restaurant. 

I wound up ordering a Gorgonzola pizza, and this explains the first line of this update.‎ The crust was paper thin and crisp, serving to contain a wondrous mixture of cheese and tomato sauce and more cheese. The question of whether to pick this up and eat it with my hands or use a knife and fork was moot. Nobody could eat this without utensils unless they lapped at it with their tongue like a cat.

So, yes. I'm supremely content at the moment. The pain and sweat and uncertainty of the previous few hours are not even a bad memory, enveloped as it all is in a hot bath, excellent food, and the promise of a good night's sleep. There's probably some sort of parable in there, but I'm too tired to draw it out.

On my way out of Aosta this morning, I stopped by the cathedral in time for the Scripture readings in the Mass. Out of respect for those who were praying, I found an out-of-the-way corner, stashed my gear, and tried to pick out what I could of the modern Catholic Mass done in Italian. (Oddly ‎enough, I found the Spanish Masses I witnessed on the Camino easier to follow, although that may be due to the difference between a parochial Mass and one served in a cathedral.) I managed not to giggle at the communion hymn, which was set to the same tune as "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night."

The church cleared very rapidly after the dismissal, so I was free to wander about and take a few photos. (Please see flickr.com/photos/phool4XC for the latest.) The Roman Theatre, the Forum and the Arch of Augustus also warranted a visit, but ‎I didn't spend much time with them.

Once I cleared the city, I discovered that I felt great! In spite of some initial soreness, I got up to my old Camino speeds. Granted, most of my walking today was more or less level, once I'd climbed to the altitude of the path. Even the heat was tolerable since I'd been careful to avoid the merino wool undershirt. 

Things began to go awry when I realized I'd missed a turn and was now‎ above the path I should have been following. Instead of the shade afforded by groves of oak, I was slogging it out on minor tarmac roads. Mercifully, all the Sunday drivers must have stayed at home, since I saw very little traffic.

Twice today, while I was standing looking confused and feeling uncertain, people came up to me and pointed me in the right direction. This is the simple experience of grace one has when you're living day to day, never knowing where you'll sleep or when you'll eat until it actually happens.

And now I think I need to see if the bed in my room matches the rest of the superlative experience at Hotel Cristina.

Clear simplicity


Pause to shoot the flowers


Looking back up to Gignod


(No) Snow in San Anselmo

The forecast for Etroubles, where I camped out Friday night, calls for snow by Wednesday. Here in Aosta, the only snow they'll be seeing in the next little while is on the mountain peaks which surround the town of 36,000 on all sides.

Aosta is justly famous for its Roman and medieval history. Founded in 25 BC as a major regional town on the intersection of routes leading both to France and Switzerland, its major architectural monuments include the Arch of Augustus, the Roman theatre and forum (the latter complete with an underground shopping mall), and a cathedral dating to the 11th century, built on the site of a 4th century church. From the local tourist info sheet, about the arch: "The monument that symbolises Aosta was erected at the time of the foundation of the town in 25 BC to commemorate the victory of the Roman troops over the local Salassi tribes and to honour the Emperor Augustus." (Pictures to follow.)

Another of Aosta's claims to fame is being the birthplace of Anselm, who would go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He would also pen the theological treatise "Cur Deus Homo," or Why God became Man. The understanding of the atonement he presents, that of a God offended by humanity's sins and in need of satisfaction to appease His wrath, was a change in direction for Western theology, leading eventually to such monstrosities as Jonathan Edwards' sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. A brilliant man and fascinating figure, according to Wikipedia he is also credited as the founder of scholasticism. Read more about Anselm of Canterbury here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anselm_of_Canterbury

When I woke up in Etroubles on Saturday morning at 5:30, I was amazed at the number of stars. One thing about camping out, you are more connected to the natural world.‎ My previous night outside was in Villeneuve, which had more city lights, as well as a full moon blotting out the stars. Last night was probably the most spectacular starscape I've seen since I was in Montana many years ago. The skies over Ballinskellig are also magnificent, but there was over a kilometre of atmosphere less to diffuse the starlight last night.

There was a bit of a chill in the air, so I threw on an extra layer and set about making a good hot cup of tea. (Realised I didn't have any sugar, but decided against tossing a Werther's Original Butterscotch candy in to sweeten it.)‎ Because there had been such a dramatic temperature change overnight, my rain poncho tarp was very heavily soaked with dew, and my ground sheet was also slightly damp. Once it started to get lighter, I broke down my camp and draped the two items over a fence in the hopes that they'd dry at least a little before I packed up and headed out. Since I'd decided to wait a bit before starting the day's walk, I paid for another hour of WiFi access from the campground and began uploading photos again. I still had15 minutes left when I decided the groundsheet was dry enough to pack away, and the tarp poncho could remain outside the pack to dry as I walked.

I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that, although I was a bit stiff, it was no worse than might be expected after sleeping on the ground. The first few sections of the walk proceded very smoothly for me‎, although in the sun it was a little warmer than I generally prefer. It was in the mid-20s, but whenever the path shifted to a forested stretch I needed to pull on an extra layer. Still, the path was broad and well-marked, and most importantly, almost completely level. When I compared my pace with the posted times, I was pleased to see I was keeping up with the average.

All that changed after lunch. I'd been making such good time, with so little discomfort, I decided to have a break at Gignod. The church was locked, but when I mentioned that to the woman at the café, she offered to phone the priest and see if he would open it for me. Since I had already walked past it ten minutes before and it was slightly uphill‎ from the café, I thanked her but declined.

Almost immediately after leaving Gignod, the path began to descend sharply.‎ And that's when my poor overworked quads started to complain. My pace dropped dramatically, as I began taking more frequent breaks. Sitting in the warm sunshine and resting felt oh so much better than walking downhill for hours on end. I continued, and after one last long climb uphill (Why?!?) and an even longer descent, I was in Aosta.

From here, I think my path steers clear of the mountains for quite some time, sticking to the major river valleys. This is very welcome news indeed, although since I'm not reading ahead in my guidebook much more than a day's worth of walking, I may wind up sorely surprised.

I didn't see any chamois in the mountains, although I did step around their droppings on some of the high altitude trails. By far the most common wildlife I've ‎observed during my time in the Alps is grasshoppers. (Who knew?) Also present: little lizards scurrying out of my way, tiny butterflies, slugs, caterpillars, snails, and eagles. Cows have been the most common domesticated critters, although I've seen a few flocks of sheep, and dogs. On the Swiss side of the border, these would bark once or twice as I passed, but in Italy the dogs continue barking untill well after I was out of sight. Oh, and I never did see any St Bernards!

Oct 17, 2014



Church of St Peter, Bourg Saint-Pierre


Me, Anne, and Therese


Alpine Update

I'd actually begun composing my last update Wednesday from Liddes, but the hospitality (and great conversation) provided by Therese and her friend Anne proved to be too great a distraction for me. Therese had lived in Quebec for 13 years until the albergue she owned was destroyed in a fire. Anne is an enthusiastic walker and has travelled quite extensively in Europe, and so she was particularly interested in the details of my trip.

I had to turn down their offer to join them for dinner, since I was hoping to be out the door and on the road by 7:00. I was successful in that, and my day of walking to the Great St Bernard Pass was relatively uneventful. When I arrived in Bourg Saint-Pierre, I stopped off for a coffee and then went into the church. As you may have guessed from the name of the town, the church has St Peter as its patron. I lit a candle and used my prayer rope for a bit, and then after filling my water bottle (checking for signs first!), I headed off again.

By this time it had started to rain lightly, so I pulled my rain poncho on and put my Tilley hat over top. I stayed warm and dry, although I was glad I'd switched back to my merino t-shirt as my inner layer. 

As I'd hoped, I made better time with the lighter pack and an early night. ‎I stopped for lunch above the tree line on the shore of Lac des Toules, created by an enormous dam. It was quite windy and it continued to rain intermittently but I found a spot on the doorstep of a Swisscom hut that provided me shelter from both. I ate leisurely, making sandwiches with the bread Therese had given me the evening before and some meat and cheese I had bought in a small shop in Liddes. Dessert was some Swiss chocolate I'd bought when I stopped for coffee in Bourg Saint-Pierre.

At some point in the afternoon, I realised the last time I'd seen an eagle (flying below my own elevation) had been several hours previously when I was still walking through the forest.‎ You know you're in the Alps when...

The rain never really stopped for long until I was within a few kilometres of the Great St Bernard Pass, so I kept it draped over my pack as a rain cover that I could easily pull back down without stopping to take my pack off. I kept climbing, and realised again just how out of shape I'd become since I walked the Camino. Eventually I ran out of water, and because I'd been sweating a fair bit I was getting a little worried about dehydration. 

As I came to the last marker before the final push up the rapidly narrowing valley, I saw a vehicle pull off the road and stop in a small parking area. I quickened my pace a little, and as I approached I saw three people get out and start pulling on hiking gear.‎ I approached them and explained my situation. Without hesitation, the husband began rummaging through their camping gear and handed me a 1.5 litre bottle of water. 

I thanked them profusely, and even had to decline an offer of food. I took shelter under a massive concrete structure which houses part of the ventilation system for the tunnel running beneath the mountain. After guzzling half a litre, I poured the rest into my 1 litre pop bottle and decided a bit of chocolate was in order. I also packed away my rain poncho, but replaced it with my brand new windbreaker.

I set out again in high spirits, which only improved when a car coming down from the pass slowed at a point where the trail was quite close to the road. I waved, and when they pointed their camera in my direction I struck a manly sort of pose. Feelin' like a champ! Looking back down the way I'd come, I was amazed to watch a bank of clouds rolling in to fill the valley -- below me! At around the same time I finally caught my first glimpse of the hospice several hundred meters above me. The next time I looked, it was gone, enveloped in a bank of cloud. Speaking to one of the Augustinian fathers who live there, he told me they have fog 200 days a year.

I arrived while it was still light, although the community had just begun Vespers. One of the lay volunteers at the hospice showed me to a waiting room and asked if I'd like some tea. On my affirmative, he went and brought a teapot, sugar, a small stirring spoon, and a cereal bowl. Now THAT's how to serve tea to cold tired pilgrims at 2473 m above sea level! Dinner followed soon after, and then I was assigned a room. After a luxuriously long and hot shower, I decided to step outside again. 

So it was that I was the first person to greet Percy and Anna as they came trudging up the slope in the rain with their headlamps on in the dark. Since I'd already been through the routine myself, I was able to show them to the kitchen where the staff were still cleaning up after dinner. 

I didn't bother to stick around, since both of my new English friends speak French fluently, but I have to assume they were well-looked after. Inscribed in the wall in the foyer of the Hospice of St Bernard is the saying, "Ici  ‎le Christ est adoré et nourri" or "Here Christ is adored and fed." That has been the guiding principle of the hospice since it was founded by St Bernard in the year 1050. He had felt called to minister to Christ in the person of the poor, desperate, hungry travellers who ventured over the pass, and this ministry has been continued by his successors without interruption in the millenium since.

Retiring to my room, I finished typing up the YMMV post and then got to sleep early. Just as at Maison Saint-Bernard in Martigny, the community does Matins at 7:15, followed by breakfast. It was at breakfast that I spoke more with the English couple who had arrived out of the dark the night before.‎ It was only at this point that we introduced ourselves, but apparently when they checked in, they'd been told of the only other pilgrim staying there that night who was on his way to Jerusalem. 

Percy and Anna have been operating a holiday resort in the Martigny area for the past year (4vallees4saisons.com) and since this time of the year is the only slow time, they'd decided to take six days and see how far along the Via Francigena they could get.‎ I'm assuming that their line of work has kept them very fit, since they'd begun walking from Orsiéres at 1:00 pm Thursday afternoon and made the 26 km hike with a 1572 m rise in elevation in the posted 7.5 hours while carrying packs and doing the last few kilometres through the rain in the dark. Wow.

They had a hotel room booked for tonight in a twon 26 km further on. I doubt I'll bump into them again on this hike, since there's just no way I'm able to do that kind of distance in this kind of terrain. Some folks (Hi Zach!) think that going uphill is more difficult than going downhill. Here's the thing: yes, going uphill will get your heart pounding‎, but all you have to do is rest until you've caught your breath and then carry on. It feels hard, sure, but it's a short term thing. Going downhill, however, is very easy from a cardio perspective. What makes it truly challenging is the constant strain on your thighs, bracing against the weight of your pack and your own body so that you don't slip or lose balance and go tumbling down the incline. Let me tell you, at this altitude, there's a lot of incline to tumble down! Even taking frequent rest breaks‎ doesn't really help, at least not the way it does for the cardio exercise of going uphill. Nope, this is anaerobic exercise, meaning your muscles strain and burn and eventually start trembling from exhaustion. And then the next morning when it's time to start all over again, those same muscles are now sore and rigid.

So here I am, under my tarp  in an alpine meadow ‎campground in the town of Etroubles in Italy. I only walked about 14 km today, but I dropped from 2473 m above sea level at breakfast to 1280 m altitude at dinner. I'm cozy and warm in my merino wool long underwear inside my down sleeping bag listening to dogs barking in the distance and a cow bellowing much closer than that.

Along the way today I had a wonderful conversation with Martin, who is doing working at the hospice in lieu of serving in the Swiss military. He'll be returning to school at the end of the month to resume his studies in history. He'd also like to add Italian to his already impressive list of languages. Much later in the day, I stopped off at the Château Verdun in Saint Oyen. This had been endowed by the royal family of Savoy to provide hospitality to travellers headed across the pass. It also served to supply the Hospice at the pass itself. It's still run by the church, and there is a cloistered monatic community attached. When I arrived more or less on a whim, having already decided to proceed to Etrouble‎s, Josef was very warm and helpful. Unfortunately they didn't have any open rooms, but he stamped my pilgrim's passport, offered me coffee or tea, and most importantly to me, showed me to the toilet.

So. That had better be all for tonight‎. I paid €2 for an hour of internet access via the campground WiFi. (I may be able to upload some photos, but it's also getting late.) There is a free municipal WiFi zone, but in order to use it, you have to register and then receive a validation code by SMS. That's fine, but it's set up to reject non-Italian mobile numbers. The gentleman at the campground was surprised when I came back asking to buy some online time, but when I explained, he laughed and said, "Ahh, Italia!"

Oct 16, 2014

Your Mileage May Vary

The acronym YMMV is a standard online disclaimer. Over the past few days of walking, I have certainly learned how true it is.

In Switzerland, the signposts along the extensive network of hiking trails do not give distances‎ to destinations. They give times. I was aware of this from reading the account of another pilgrim walking the Via Francigena. When I mentioned this to my most gracious host in Lausanne, Micah confirmed that the times were generally accurate, even for families hiking with two small children.

To this I must say, Your Mileage May Vary. When I did the Camino de Santiago almost five years ago, there were stretches where I maintained a speed of 6 km/h for hours on end. That's a pretty good clip on a treadmill at the gym (3.73 mph if you want to try it out), but carrying a backpack and wearing suitable clothing for January in northern Spain ‎makes it even more so. There were days when I walked more than 40 km without feeling utterly drained by evening.

Here's where my comparison breaks down, though. On the meseta, the trail is broad, even, level, flat, and straight. All you have to do is walk in a straight line and the kilometres just roll by with barely an effort.  (Well, and I'm no longer as fit as I was then.)

Tuesday and Wednesday provided a very different experience for me. In fact, my guidebook specifically identifies the stretch between Martigny and Sembrancher as "the worst section of the whole Via Francigena, all the way from Canterbury to Rome." The trail is narrow and steep, quite often with a dramatic drop to one side or the other where you can hear the river, highway traffic, and the occasional train all rushing past.

In actual fact, the first stretch from Martigny to Bovernier was quite nice. It was steep, and the trail was extremely narrow, but I paced myself and thoroughly enjoyed it. Then in Bovernier, I stopped in a café to refresh myself, and when the proprietor learned what I was doing, she refused to accept payment.

So it was that I started ‎the next bit of trail with a spring in my step. Free stuff is awesome, but even better is the kind of validation I'd just received. The spring in my step even survived my carelessness at the lavoir (covered water trough, in the past used as a public laundromat). I posted a photo highlighting my inadequate awareness -- after taking a good hearty swig from the tap and refilling my water bottle, I realised there was a sign prominently posted stating that this was not drinking water. First time I've seen that since I arrived in Switzerland ten days ago!

Anyway, I emptied my water bottle and continued on. It's probably just as well I got rid of the extra weight, since although the next section wasn't as unrelentingly steep as the previous, it was much more trying. ‎ It began innocently enough with a broad trail through a pine forest. (A thick layer of fallen pine needles is wonderful to walk on!) Then the trail narrowed and headed uphill, where I began picking my way across a steep slope littered with fallen boulders. That description is utterly inadequate, but I didn't dare free up a hand to take a photo. (Bear in mind that on the first stretch of the day, I paused to take a picture of the trail with a handrail mounted into the cliff face with a river about 100 metres below.)

Finally I cleared the last of the boulders - did I mention the damp, slick moss? - and returned to pine forests and peace. Once I was literally out of the woods, I knew I was close to Sembrancher. Although I'd originally planned to walk through to Orsiéres, I decided that I'd had enough for the day. When the town finally came into view in the valley below, I plunked myself down for a good long break and even went online to tweet my intention to stop there for the night. Ironically enough, I thought to myself that, yes I was tired, but that I could continue if I had to.

Blerg. By the time I'd had dinner and discovered that neither the hotel nor the campground had anything available‎, it was 6:30 PM. Light fades fast in the mountain valleys, even while the sky directly above is still glowing with twilight. I have a headlamp for just this eventuality, and while I missed out on the natural beauty surrounding me, I did eventually arrive in Orsiéres and book myself into a very nice hotel. Even with a pilgrim discount, one night there cost about as much as my three nights in Paris.

A thought which has been recurring to me over the past few blister-filled days is that perhaps I ought to lighten my load. The next day I paid a visit to the church of St Nicholas and then struck out. The trail was not particularly challenging, especially after the previous day, but after a few hours on the trail I'd decided I needed to stop at the next post office and mail the non-essentials home. Of course, I wasn't about to unpack the contents of my bag in the middle of the post office, so I decided to have a short day, find a room, and run some errands.

According to my guidebook, Liddes is the last place with any type of shop before reaching the pass, so this was a logical place to stop. The auberge right next ‎to the post office has both private rooms and dormitory accommodation available, so I decided to try my luck there. The patio was full of people socialising, and there was a good crowd indoors as well. Always a positive sign. And my first impressions were not mistaken. The owner, Therese, is an exemplar of hospitality. I'm sure most people walking the Via Francigena will stop in Bourg Saint-Pierre instead of Liddes, but if ever I return to this town I know where I'll be staying. Unfortunately, I didn't keep my receipt, so I don't have the precise address or even the current name, but in Alison Raju's guidebook, Chez Therese is listed as Hôtel La Channe. It's right next door to the post office, and it is not to be missed.

So, back to my mileage. I had assumed that I'd have already been walking for six weeks by the time I reached the Alps. Plenty of time to work on my conditioning, right? Except that, as mentioned in a much earlier post, visa restrictions forced me to ‎start walking in Lausanne. Between my relatively poor fitness level, the high altitudes, and carrying supplies for seven months on the road, I've been taking almost twice as much time to complete segments of trail as compared to the posted times. I expect that to change now that I've dropped some weight from my pack. I may not hit the speeds and distances I did on the Camino until I get out of the Alps, but I'm alright with that. I'm not in a race, and if I take longer to get somewhere than I expected, that's okay too. My goal is to be in Jerusalem in time to celebrate Pascha. Any other timelines are irrelevant.

Oct 15, 2014

The parish church of Orsiéres


Église Saint-Nicholas, Orsiéres

According to my Via Francigena guidebook, the church of St Nicholas in Orsiéres dates to between the 11th and the 13th centuries. I assume this means that the job was completed 200 years after it was begun, which is simply ludicrous to the modern mind. http://flic.kr/p/pp9Ecb

A proper breakfast

When they told me on check-in that the cost of the room included "petit dejeuner," I inwardly rolled my eyes. My experience so far has been that these may be technically a breaking of the night fast, they are hardly sufficient to keep a pilgrim walking all day. This morning I was pleasantly surprised! Just look at that coffee pot - I got three cups out of it. :) http://flic.kr/p/poRtsw

Oct 14, 2014

Aaaaah, Orsiéres!

Not much of an update today. These things take time to compose, and I got into town late after a very gruelling day.‎ Once I found a hotel and checked in, my very first priority was a long hot shower. Second priority was WiFi, and nourishment was a distant third.

My room in the Hotel Union in Orsiéres came with a set of those delightfully decadent feather comforters I first encountered while enjoying the hospitality of the Augustinians in Martigny. I won't have any difficulty falling asleep tonight!

I checked the forecast for the next few days, and if my feet are still feeling good in the morning, I'll be heading for Bourg Saint-Pierre tomorrow. That's only a 13 km hike, but the change in elevation is pretty extreme. I think I'm finally going to need my merino wool garments!

Don't look down!

Note the handrail anchored to the cliff face on the right. In the bottom left you can see a bridge for the train tracks as they pass over the River Danse. http://flic.kr/p/pF6EUs

Eglise Saint-Etienne

After learning the only hotel in town was fully booked and the campground was closed for the season, I did the only reasonable thing possible. The church was open, so I went in, lit a candle, used my prayer rope, and then started walking again. http://flic.kr/p/poyKsu

Situational Awareness FAIL

I didn't see the sign until after I'd taken a hearty draught and refilled my water bottle. At least my pack weight dropped by a kilo once I realised... http://flic.kr/p/poBi55


After completing the first stage of my walk today, which had me clambering along narrow cliffside paths, I stopped for a break in Madame's café. After she heard what I was doing, she refused payment. Sometimes it's the little things that really count. http://flic.kr/p/povWxH

Place Centrale, Martigny


Oct 13, 2014

Bunked down and thankful

I've just tucked myself into my bunk for the last time at the TCS Camping Martigny. I'm feeling very cozy snuggled under my down sleeping bag listenening to the rain come down outside. This is a great campsite, and judging from their website, the Touring Club Suisse is an equally excellent organisation. Here's a link to the campground I've taken refuge in over the past two nights: www.tcs.ch/fr/voyages-camping/camping/offres/martigny.php 

This morning after sleeping in late and having a leisurely breakfast, I decided to see how my feet were doing. I was encouraged to discover I could walk without pain, so I wandered in to town to see about buying a lighter jacket. The one I packed is just too much for hiking in, even if the temperatures drop below freezing. I can always layer up if necessary, so a light windbreaker is what I really needed. (I asked, and there is a donation box for clothing at the next train station 3 km away.)

I had a look in two sporting goods stores. The first one had something that was perfect. And it was "only" 300 Swiss franks! I thanked the salesperson for her help and explained that was a little out of my price range. And to be fair, Mountain Equipment Co-op has similarly specced jackets for similar prices. What MEC has that this shop didn't is a range of options. The next store had what I was looking for. It didn't have the double zipper or some of the other nifty features, but for 40 francs I think it will do just fine!

While I was in town, I also ‎took the opportunity to try fondue. ("Cheese, Gromit!") I approve. In general I'll be avoiding restaurants on this pilgrimage, not out of some need to do penance but simply as a matter of economics. I spent as much on my noon meal as I have been paying for two days' worth of food from supermarkets. The notable exception to this has been Turkish kebab shops. For under 10 francs I get a salad, some tasty meat, and some sort of carbohydrate, whether that's rice, potatoes, or fries. Since water fountains are ubiquitous in Switzerland, I'm able to save money there, too. My morning coffee habit seems to be getting more expensive the further I get from Paris, but I'll be in Italy soon enough!

I walked back to the campground with a full stomach and a new jacket, feeling very grateful that I was, in fact, walking. The painful hobble that I'd adopted in an effort to avoid worsening the condition of my blisters is gone. I was still walking carefully, but I was distributing my weight evenly on both feet. In another few days I'm sure I'll go back to taking painfree mobility for granted, but today I was very happy indeed. My three nights in Martigny seem to have been enough, although I'll make my final decision tomorrow morning. If I decide I'm not up for the next few stages yet, I'll just extend my stay here until I am ready. I don't want to be struck lame at 2000 metres above sea level, halfway between towns!

Once back at the camp, I uploaded some photos and waited for a phone call. Today is Thanksgiving in Canada, so I knew my parents would both be home at a time convenient for all of us to talk. It was nice to hear from them, and to get an update on my grandmother.

And now here I am, lights out, tapping away at my BlackBerry and listening to the rain. The forecast for tomorrow looks good, my laundry is done, my clothes and my breakfast is laid out for the morning. Once I hit send, I'll read the appointed prayers and get a solid nine hours of sleep!

Tomorrow on my way out of town I plan to visit the site of a Roman Mithraeum (‎https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithraeum) and stop by the local Gallo-Roman musem (What, your town doesn't have one?) before stopping off at the train station to get rid of this hot, heavy jacket. And then onwards to Orsiéres!