VIA FRANCIGENA – The Road From France (Canterbury to Rome) Part 2 by Michael Tarte



Part 1 of Michael’s journey was published in our last edition of Fifty Five Plus.  Michael’s story is told in three issues and we rejoin him as he resumes his journey in Bescancon.

Ornons and La Loue

An hour later a vehicle pulled up alongside us.  Inside there were and older man and a boy – a fellow and his grandson.  The man’s name is Jean-Pierre.  He asked us (in French) where we going and where did we come from.  He invited us to his home nearby for something to drink.  We sat outside and and drank mineral water and chatted (in French).  We looked at maps of the route and the route we would take from here, and where we lived in Australia.  We still had 10 kilometres to our bed and we should go.  Wait!  Jean-Pierre rushed inside and soon appeared with a small wine bottle and filled with his home made prune plum brandy.  Only a small sip at a time! he advised.  I made a joke about Asterix and the druid’s elixir.  Jean-Pierre was delighted.  Asterix is a great favourite of the French.

Michael Walking Along The Loue

So we walked on to Ornons, deeper into the Jura and sitting above the Loue Riviere.  Dinner that night was a splendid affair of beef cheeks and then Baba Kouglaf au Rhum.  Next to the restaurant is the house where the artist Gustave Colbert was born.  From Ornons we walked by the Loue through Mouthier-haute-Pierre and then to Pontarlier.  We had the option of walking along the road or taking the trail along the Loue.  Our guide book says the trail is for the agile (that was us!) and not to be taken in the rain or alone because if there is a mishap no one will find you.  It stopped raining that morning so we took the trail.  The trail was wonderful, hard work, but wonderful.  The Loue is a wild river there and we followed it upwards for about eight kilometres to its source.  A limestone cliff soared in front of us and at its base there was an enormous cave and from there flowed a fully formed river, La Loue.  Gustave Colbert painted this scene in 1864.  The painting is entitled Grotte de la Loue and hangs in the National Art Gallery, Washington.

The Italian Alps – Walking Above The Valley Floor

Anjo was waiting for us in Pontarlier.  She will travel onto Lausanne from there and we shall not see her for a few days.  From Pontarlier we walked from Douce France into Switzerland to the town of St Croix.  Immediately the changes are visible:  signs for the Via Francigena, public rubbish bins, seats under shade trees, drinking fountains, shops and bars are open in the afternoon, and there is an absence of rubbish along the roads.  But everything is hellishly expensive.  From St Croix to Orbe where we had an interesting lunch: a curry salad of lettuce, tomato, peach, raisins, chicken pieces, and curry sauce.  We both took the curry because the alternative was roast horse!  The next day’s walk was to Lausanne where we met up with Anjo and we took a rest day.  From Lausanne we took the ferry on Lake Geneva to Villeneuve.  The ferry ride was splendid and we travelled not far from the shore, stopping along the way to let passengers off and on.  In Villeneuve we put Anjo on a bus to Aigle and Andrew and I walked.  We had to take a train up into the mountains from Aigle to Leysin as that is where we could find accommodation.  We could see snow capped peaks in the far distance.  Train down in the morning and a walk to St Maurice.  The town was named after a Roman soldier, Mauritius, who refused to kill local christians.  He was executed for it.  We were now looking to climb from the valley floor and up into the alps.

Col du St Grand Bernard – dogs out for a walk

The walk to Orsieres steep and up and down with a net gain after 26 kilometres of 430 metres.  There we met with Anjo.  The next day was shorter (15 kilometres) and steeper with a net gain of 873 metres.  The alpine scenery was magnificent.  Then from Orsieres to Bourgeois-St-Pierre and a net gain of 731 metres.

And from Bourgeois-St-Pierre to Col du St Grand Bernard with a net gain of 841 metres.  The walk was through cloud and it was cold.  There were wild raspberries by the path and they were delicious.  There were marmot burrows beside the track but did not see one critter.  At one time we looked up through the mist to see a St Bernard dog on a lead.  Anjo had bussed ahead and had secured bunks for us in the hospitiliere.  This establishment has operated continuously for over a thousand years.  In the night it rained and by morning the rain had frozen and all was covered in white.  There were young adults sharing our dormitory and after dinner they walked into Italy for drinks.  It’s only 400 metres down the road.  The staff looked after us and we ate with them in their dining room.

The next day Andrew and I walked into Italy.  We walked down 13 kilometres and over 1000 metres of descent to Etroubles.  Andrew picked the path down.  The last person to use it was Caesar’s road surveyor and he gave it up as impossible.  On the way down we met with Lucian and Elena.  Anjo found there was no bus from St Bernard to Etroubles.  She asked a man wearing a coloured vest, perhaps a road worker, if there was any public transport.  No, he said, but wait here.  He stepped onto the road and stopped the first vehicle.  Would you take this lady to Etroubles?  Certainly, they said.  And they deviated from their journey to take Anjo to her hotel.

From Etroubles we walked to Aosta and the rapid descent diminished.  Much of the day’s walk had us contouring around the mountains.  We had a stretch of level track beside a channel of fast flowing water and through a forest and this was particularly pleasant.  We came upon a young man from a South American country pulling a trecking trailer, a giant golf buggy.  He had stopped and was fiddling with his machine.  I suggested he could us a 7 iron from there.  Later I helped him haul his trailer down from a concrete wall and we exchanged notes on walking the Camino.  In Aosta, a big town, we came across our Italian friends, Lucian and Elena, having lunch.  They were to go home from here and will resume their Via Francigena next year.

From Aosta to Chatillon which was a fairly gruelling walk of 31 kilometres with a great amount of climbing and descending.  We met a young Italian woman who knew about us from Lucian and who told her she would meet us sooner or later.  She had also met our Australian friends, Peter and Christine.  Later she would meet Anjo and have dinner with her.

The Bridge At Pont St Martin

The next day we walked to Verres, keeping above the valley floor.  The alpine scenery was inspiring.  We met an Italian couple who started at Col du St Grand Bernard and would end their walk in two days.  They will resume their walk next year when they have a week to spare.  We exchanged thoughts on the effort of walking down steep hills and how it hurts one’s knees and thighs.  The young lady said her solution to this was to walk down backwards!  I think there are some problems with this method.  We stopped at Berriaz for lunch.  A considerable time later, up in the hills, I realised that I had left my glasses on the restaurant table.  My outline plan was to take a taxi from Verres back to the restaurant in Berriaz, probably seven kilometres by road, and collect them.  When we got to our apartment we met the owner, a young man, and I asked him about a taxi.  No, he said, I will drive you.  He apologised for his English adding that his French and Spanish were much better.  And I got my glasses back.

The next day we walked to Pont St Martin.  Much of this walk was in the rain but it was pleasant nonetheless.  The walk was on fairly flat ground and with the valley narrowed in so cliffs were close on either side.  The gap carries a river and a busy highway.  The names of towns and streets in this region are mostly in French.  A buon giuorno from us would often elicit a bon jour or salut in reply.  It’s an historical thing from when the area was part of France.  Our host from last night, the young man who drove me in search of my glasses, was passing as Anjo was ready to leave that morning.  He drove her to the station.  The pont or bridge of Pont St Martin is impressive.  It was built in 126 AC.

Lungo Lago, Viverone

We walked from Pont St Martin to Ivrea and the light rain continued.  The grapes here are grown on trellises.  The grape vines make a canopy you can walk under and easily pick the hanging bunches of grapes.  From Ivrea to Viverone and our hotel is by a lake, Lungo Lago.  Anjo has gone ahead to Santhia.  Our route that day to Viverone was very pretty passing through villages which are very old.  There were the ruins of one church that was so small that it could fit only the priest and two fat ladies.  The choir had to stand outside and sing through the window.  We stopped in one small town for lunch and we each had cold zucchini soup with some zucchini blended, some diced, with zucchini flowers, crisped pancetta, and a ball of mozzarella.  Brilliant!

Covered Bridge across The Ticino, Pavia

From Viverone to Santhia where we met up with Anjo.  The alps have faded away and were no longer to be seen.  We entered the flat, wet country where Italy’s rice is grown.  We met a young Australian walker, Vince, who is walking from Rome to Canterbury, in the opposite direction to us.  Vincent put the case that the track ahead of us will be roadways and not paths, flat and boring, little shade, with long distances between towns and no certainty of securing accommodation, and lots of mosquitos.  He was told by people who had walked this stretch that it is better to catch a train and spend the time saved in Tuscany.  The three of us took the train from Santhia to Pavia.  Pavia is a lovely university city with a grand covered bridge across the Ticino River.  Anjo stayed there an extra day and we were to meet her again in Piacenza.

Across The Po With Danilo The Ferryman

The next day Andrew and I walked to St Christina and stayed in a church ostello.  We had beers in a bar owned by a Chinese fellow and had dinner in a restaurant owned by a Chinese family – pasta!  We were to walk to Corte San Andrea where we would take the ferry across the Po River.  The ferry ride is an institution for walkers and not to be missed.  The alternative is to walk a bit further and cross over a bridge.  We telephoned Danilo Parsi, the ferryman, who could not take us that afternoon.  So we stopped at Orio Litto, just short of the river and he would take us the next day.  We stayed in a church ostello.  We walked up the street to buy provisions to cook for the night’s dinner.  There we met Maggie, an Australian woman of a certain age.  She had just got off the train and had bad blisters on the soles of her feet.  We took her with us to the ostello and shared our dinner.  She was to stay there for a number of days.  We met Roberto, an American, whose grandfather was Italian.  Roberto spoke Italian fluently, having lived in Florence for a year as a student.  We took him with us to the ferry as he was not confident to navigate there on his own successfully.  The ferry ride was great fun and Danilo was larger than life.  We went to his home near the far river bank to have our pilgrim’s passports stamped and to have our names recorded in the book of crossings.  Danilo kissed me on both cheeks as I was older than him!  And then we walked a further 20 kilometres to Piacenza and met up with Anjo once more.  We left Roberto behind as he walked at only a moderate pace but it was a pleasure to have his company.  The first part of our walk that day was over river flats and farmland.  We put up four pheasants.  The second part was into the city and through it.  There were lots of car yards – Parramatta Road!  We stayed for the next day in Piacenza in a B&B attached to the restaurant next door.  There I had the best pasta in my life and Andrew had the best tiramisu.

Michael’s walk to Rome will feature in Fifty five Plus on 4th April.  I hope you will join me to celebrate a fantastic walk and the money Michael raised for cancer research.