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.