Monday, 10 August 2015

Switzerland to Italy in less than ten minutes !

Col St Bernard to Etroubles
13.2km, Distance from Citeaux Abbey, Dijon 346.9 km

Well a new day and a different country beckons. Once again it was a long walk as we were all keen to complete two short days in one. With breakfast pre-arranged for 7.15 it was another early start. We had been sharing a large mixed dormitory and not everyone was getting up at the same time in our room, so with the lights off we all fumbled around to pack our sleeping bags and clothes into our bags, making as little noise as possible. Job finished in the corridor we traipsed down for breakfast only to find out that a local walking group was already up and breakfasted. This group were staying a few nights, walking in the mountains, averaging around 1000 metre climbs each day, with bags carried by a mule! Wonder if I can arrange something like that with my local walking Group - Your Outdoor Group?

Once again Bert and I separately set from our other Pilgrims. We took advantage of the early morning sunshine to take selfies while we were still in Switzerland and then within a two hundred metre walk we were crossing the border uneventfully into Italy!

It was a steady walk down off the mountain, following a well trodden route through fields, across electric fences and along hillside terraces. All the time we were being dogged by our fellow Pilgrims close behind. Bert had mentioned the previous night that  jokingly we really did not mind if they wanted to walk with us! Eventually this became the case and as we naturally came together we all chatted away in a mixture of Dutch between themselves and English wanting to keep me in the conversations.

With the hot weather it is common for the fields to be sprayed with water on occasions to stop it drying out. As we left the village of Cerisey we encountered one such event. The field we had to pass through was littered with water sprayers and the ground was a veritable quagmire. By now the other Pilgrims were in kind of them to show us how to get through. As they watched the machines at work to identify the pattern of their water dispersement, they slowly made their way through. Thinking they had outwitted the machines Margy was blasé and was treated to a quick drenching as one of the machines quickly turned itself on her back to the sounds of squeals of shock. Next it was our turn and like dancers on a ballroom floor we tango'd through the  machines uneventful,  aside from a river of water in my shoes.  

We continued to Etroubles, the half way point of the day and yes it was coffee time. Our companions asked if they could join us and of course we said yes so we found a sunny terrace and quenched our thirsts. 

With the same distance ahead in store we set off, by now having taken our time with the drinks it was well after midday. The route was a steady decline to Aosta passing through fields, wooded paths and alongside the numerous aqueducts that littered the valley edge. By now Bert and I were once more on our own, did we smell? Well quite possibly yes!

The views were to die for, the horizon littered with numerous mountains, some with snow like icing sugar on a cake, oozing down the sides. The sun was hot but the air was dry and not humid like we had experienced in Switzerland. 

Just before mid afternoon Bert announced it was probably time for something to eat and I asked where he had in mind. He replied that just around the corner was a bench and stream just waiting for us, well it wasn't round the next corner but round the next did he know? We set up camp for our lunch spot and I took the opportunity to take my boots off and put my feet up. No sooner than we had had the first bite of our obligatory jam sandwich then our Pilgrim friends appeared. We all laughed and they joined us and we all grazed on our jam butties. We were soon in deep conversation about all manner of things, laughing and joking away once more.

After a good break it was on with the boots and this time we all walked together chatting away. Soon we were in the centre of Aosta and this time all heading to the Tourist Information to find a bed for the night. As we made our way there an extremely tall and I mean tall, probably over seven foot American asked if we were Pilgrims, we replied yes and set off together to the Tourist Information. Bert and I were offered a hotel about a kilometre away and I asked if there was any closer in the town. Yes came the reply, it's a few Euros extra and it's only a double bed. We looked at each other and replied we'll take the first one please! Jean (pronounced Jon) turned round to me and laughing loudly told me it was probably Bert and my destiny and we should have taken the one with the double bed.

Once we had secured accommodation we retired for beer. By now we were all in high spirits have been up an Alpine mountain.....survived ......and come down. By the time the second large beer arrived we were all joking and crying with laughter and probably could have stayed there all night. Everything must come to an end and it was Berts final days walk and with beers drunk we all hugged and gave the traditional triple cheek kisses, including the men!

Bert and I wandered off to find our hotel which turned out to be across a very busy dual carriageway. With perfect timing we crossed the road alive. The hotel was basic, there was no extra charge for the traffic fumes or noise, it was cheap and once again the beds were very very separate. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Orsiers to St Bernard's Pass

Orsiers to St. Bernard's Pass 25.3 km.  Distance from Citeaux Abbey, Dijon 333.7km

With a very long and hard day in front of us and an anticipated walk of nine hours and twenty six kilometres, we woke before six for breakfast. We had previously arranged an early breakfast and our host was only too pleased to accommodate our request. Breakfast was laid out in the owners kitchen and naturally we consumed almost everything that had been laid out for us and also made sandwiches to take us through the day.

By 6.30am we were out of the door and straight away were climbing a very steep track, fortunately after what seemed an age the path levelled out to a more manageable one as we snaked our way up the mountain. By mid morning we had reached an opportunity for a coffee stop but as this meant a detour off our path and extra time and distance, with heavy hearts we declined the opportunity. By mid morning we had completed a third of our climb and after another steep section we decided enough was enough and pit stop was needed. We sat on our own respective boulder and fed our faces with jam butties.......

After a good twenty minutes we set off again. The weather forecast was for rain and cloud and by now this had come true but fortunately it was only very fine drizzle and not enough to put waterproofs on, something that neither of us wanted to do.

We continued to climb with the views around us becoming increasingly different and varied almost at every turn of the path. Passing a small weekend house/hut in the middle of nowhere the owner popped his head out of the door and asked if we were Francigena, again we said yes. A conversation ensued but in English and we were surprised to learn that the walk to Rome is becoming more popular with around ten Pilgrims a week now passing by. We were wished Bon Journey and carried on, once more the weather treated us to a quick wash but again we resisted putting waterproofs on because of the humid conditions. 

Our journey up the mountain was progressing well and we were ahead of schedule so after reaching the top of a reservoir we made our way to the stream feeding it and had our lunch. This time dining on boiled egg sandwiches I had cooked the day before and cheese also left over......,a feast fit for a king! With mountains almost all around us with the occasional dusting of snow in corners that are missed by the sun, it was hard to start walking again.....but needs must.

We were less than six kilometres away but with a significant amount of climbing over a short distance in store, so we pressed on. Once more we were soon ascending a very steep track. Just before the summit the weather closed in and the clouds descended onto our heads. In misty, gloomy by now rainy weather, waterproofs were a necessity and once adorned we made the decision that the last two kilometres we would complete on the road. After less than an hour we reached the summit and a very welcome sign that were had reached the top of the St Bernard's pass. Needless to say after a quick photograph it was straight to the cafe to celebrate with a beer.

Once our drinks had been quaffed we completed the final two minutes walk to the monastery of St Bernard, Bert did ask if there was a taxi available! We were greeted with open arms by Brother Frederick and once we had dispensed with our wet outer clothes and footwear and adorned ourselves with obligatory free crock shoes we went for hot drinks. 

The evening continued to be an eventful and moving experience. After visiting the museum and the local St Bernard dogs, all looking happy and content and absolutely cuddly, I went to set up my bed for the night. Once more we bumped into our fellow Pilgrims, were they following us or we were following them?

At 6.15pm we all descended into the crypt for Vespers and another different way of delivering the service followed. All the monks were very animated in there expression and delivery of the service and once more it was very personable. There were many references to Pilgrims and their journey. And as there were many Explorer Scouts present, one of them read one of the readings.

It is one place that I will definitely return to and if you are in the area I would truly recommend experiencing it.

Once Vespers was over we all headed to the dining area for the evening meal, a simple three course affair but perfect energy food. There were a lot of visitors to the abbey and the dining room was full. Tonight we were to have the pleasure of our fellow Pilgrims company and tales of our walk experiences before retiring for the night early. 

Martigny to Ossiers

Tuesday 28 July 2015 - 22 kilometres

Today was a short walk in distance but the profile was very hilly, so it was expected that it would take most of the day. As we left our flat we bumped into our fellow Pilgrims but again went on our separate ways. We stocked up on some fresh fancy breads for lunch and a cheese tart each as second breakfasts which were consumed immediately. From the start we went the wrong way out of Martigny and added and extra three kilometres onto the days walk. We also realised that Martigny is famous for its almost complete Roman Amphitheatre, sadly we missed it. We eventually found the actually path we should be following and were given the option of three separate routes. Option one, a more direct route but a stiff 800 metre climb. Option two, a narrow track on a precipitous hillside considered dangerous by some walkers. Option three, a short section on a major road or as Bert hankered for .....a bus! Needless to say we opted for number three and the walk alongside the main road, which despite the traffic we both survived.

At the first village we came across it was coffee break time and despite how early it was in the morning some of the locals were already drinking beer or wine. Bert sat down and I went in to the order the coffees. These dually arrived and the proprietor asked us if we were walking the Francigena, both replying yes Bert to Aosta and me hopefully or Rome. At the mention of this she commented how pleased she was for us and the coffees were on the house..... One of the first kindnesses we had been shown as Pilgrims. We naturally had to responded by buying second coffees before we set off again. There was no sign of our Pilgrims friends as they were taking a different route.

Our path soon took us up into the mountain side and along very narrow and steep paths above the road and the river below. Despite the tranquility and beauty of the walk, it was one to be taken cautiously as one missed step could have resulted in a very nasty fall. The path was indistinguishable in places and only marked from boulder to boulder as we picked our way along. After a while traipsing along the hillside we descended close to the road before crossing a dry gorge bed and then once more climbing up to and scrambling across the mountain hillside. 

From Sembrancher the route took us along Sigerics original footpath to Rome via the village of Ossieres and our booked bed and breakfast that had been recommended to us. On reaching the village naturally we had to go to the first bar to replenish our fluid levels. Once accomplished we made our way to the b&b and sat in the garden until the owner arrived. Our room for the night was too very apart single beds......and a balcony to hang our washing out on. Once more we were treated to views of the Alps and the formidable task that awaited us the next day...the constant climb up to St Bernard's pass. Something we were looking forward to with nervous trepidation, but that was a for tomorrow.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Bex to Martigny

Monday 27 July 2015 - 23 kilometres

After the long previous day and a very arduous climb to the convent, today was to be a relative easy one. All four Pilgrims virtually set off together and in Saint Maurice we stopped off in the Abbaye Saint Maurice, parts of which date back to the Middle Ages. The sister at Les Polous are from the order of Saint Maurice. 

We left Saint Maurice behind and was soon climbing into the woods along the side of the valley. Our path took was to take us over a bridge across a wide gorge, but the bridge had been washed away, a clear indication of the amount and force of the water that comes from down the mountain. We made a detour up the mountain side to cross the gorge that currently resembled more of a stream rather than a raging torrent. We descended the hillside to happen across a pub / cafe with a table and seats outside so it would have been rude not to stop. Once again we had our morning coffees and I took the opportunity to get some air to my feet and to dispense to first aid to them. After about ten minutes our fellow Pilgrims appeared and as they reached us asked me how my feet were, I pointed to the battered and plastered appendiges and Margy just burst out laughing.......She did however apologies, but I did understand her mirth. Bert asked how they had got across the gorge and they replied that coming across the broken bridge they had just gone to one side and walked across the stream!

Our fellow Pilgrims carried on and we were also soon on our way, the day being an uneventful one until we arrived at the Pisse Vache waterfalls. Now I don't speak French but it has since been pointed out to me the literal translation of that name. The first part well it speaks for itself just make it the second word of the sentence and you have cow p**s waterfalls..... 

From the waterfalls we ambled through orchard before arriving at Martigny. We had not booked accommodation and so headed to the local church office to seek a bed for the night. We were again received with open arms and enthusiasm and after completing all the paperwork and receiving a Pilgrim stamp for our passports, we were taken to our own flat. In Martigny they have a small flat available that consists of a working kitchen with some limited supplies, a bathroom with a bath! And a dining / bedroom / living room. All this for just twenty Swiss francs a absolute bargain. There was just one very small almost insignificant problem... And that was the distance between the two single beds.... I think you might have been able to get a piece of paper between the beds...just! But they were definitely two single beds

After the hot days walk we went in search of some sustenance and more of our five a day with two beers each and then to the supermarket to stock up on supplies. It is very expensive for everything in Switzerland so with that in mind I volunteered to cook for Bert, nothing elaborate just a pizza and a fresh salad all washed down with a bottle of local white wine.

We retired to bed early and despite the close proximity to each other we both slept well.

Montreaux to Bex (Saint-Maurice)

Sunday 26 July 2015 - 34 kilometres

We woke early as it was a long walk today to our accommodation at the convent Les Poules in Bex. This was not on my original planned stop over for the guide book that I am using but in Berts book it is a must stop over, so we we're going to do it.

After an interesting breakfast with Kevin, our new friend, and the completion of selfies, we were on our way just after 8am. The days walk continued where we left off the previous day, walking alongside and to the end of lake Geneva. The day once more was hot and sunny and soon, just before entering Villeneuve the route took us past the 12th century Chateau Chillon.

We have developed a well tried and tested routine now for the days walking that involves a coffee break in the morning and afternoon and with one such occasion we took the opportunity to sit on a hotel jetty set out for the guests hotel breakfasts on the lake. It was very tempting to just sit there for the day with lake stretching out in front of us with views as far as Lausanne but knowing the distance in store for us we wasted no time and was on the way once we'd had not one but two coffees.

The route took us away from the lake to walk alongside the river Rhone for much of the day. With caffeine levels seriously depleting we stopped off at Illarsaz to rehydrate, my feet were a bit sore with the constant pounding on the hard walk surface and so I felt I needed a reward and bought a gorgeous apple flan type thing and it also counted as one of my five a day. We sat there outside in the sun drinking coffee, eating our sandwiches which we had made from our breakfasts at the hostel. Two more coffees drunk and once more we were on our way to continue along the Rhone.

As the day progressed and our end goal became nearer I happened to casually ask Bert where we were heading for and he jokingly see that white house in the far distance, the one at the top of the hill, that's where we're heading. My reply was something akin to......if it is then you are carrying me up there!!

How little did we both know how true his remark was. We left the river and asked for directions the centre of Bex where we hoped to pick up directions for the convent. As we neared the centre a car pulled alongside us an the same couple we had asked directions offered us a lift to the convent. We proudly declined later to regret such generosity.

We continued on our March slowly slowly ascending hoping that at every corner we had reached our goal, only to find out that the road was just going up and up. Naturally my conclusion, much to Berts amusement, was that the white house he had pointed out was in fact to be where we were staying. After what seemed a lifetime we walked through the door of the convent to be met by a very joyful Sister Margaret. She was very enthusiastic to hear where we had come from and our intended end points and after explaining what time Vespers was and the meal times, we went to our respective rooms. O what joy to have some private space, a comfy bed and en-suite facilities.

After a wash and brush up and some quick washing I went to the church to attend the Vespers service. During my Pilgrim walk I have attended a few of these services but this one was to be different again. The service was very personable, with different nuns leading prayers which were sung and different sides of the nuns responding.  There were about thirty nuns of varying ages but significantly very few younger ones which probably indicates that as a vocation it is not attractive to current generations. There were two other Pilgrims attending and a special prayer was devoted to our safe travel....for me it was a moving experience.

After the service we all went for the evening meal which was simple but sufficient with local wine served too. It transpired that the two other Pilgrims were from Holland and Bert was pleased to here his mother tongue. I was quite happy to sit and hear the conversations but on occasions he three were keen to talk in English so I could join in the conversation. Our new Pilgrim friends were also heading in our direction but their guide book took them on a different route to the one I was using. Soon it was time to retire and get some well deserved sleep.