Via Francigena - Canterbury to Rome
Aosta (Nus) to Pavia
5 August 2019 to 13 August 2019
Tuesday 8 Oct 2019 We flew from Gatwick to Turin. Then we caught a train towards Aosta to the town of Pont Saint Martin where we had booked an apartment for four nights while we walked several sections of the Via Francigena along the Aosta Valley. The valley runs for about 70km from the city of Aosta to the town of Ivrea. Over this distance we would be leaving the Alps and descending, first east and then south, to the flat plains of Lombardy.
Wednesday 9 Oct 2019
Nus to St Vincent (18km) Rain was forecast but it was still dry when we caught the 08.15 "Aosta" bus to Nus from the nearest stop to our apartment. Nus was just a few kilometers from Aosta and was the point where we had finished the previous section of the VF in August. The bus dropped us on the main road near the station and we started off immediately uphill on a small side road. It stayed dry for an hour or so as we contoured along the side of the valley on minor roads. But then it began to rain and it continued pretty much for the rest of the walk. At the end of the minor roads there were some difficult ups and downs along a narrow path. Then we joined an easier track. We ate our sandwiches under some trees near a ruined house and a found a yellow and black salamander sheltering like us neneath a rocky wall. When we got to the town of Chatillion we went into a small bar for a hot drink. The map said it was only 3km to St Vincent but as we left Chatillion it started to rain more heavily. The sort of rain which bounces off the pavements and makes your legs as wet as the rest of you. Gillian had chosen a route near the motorway which she thought would be industrial but it proved surprisingly scenic. However we were in the lowest part of the valley and there was a very long hill at the end before we got to the town centre of St Vincent which sat on the hillside above us. We had a 20 minute wait before the bus back to Pont Saint Martin arrived.
Thursday 10 October 2019
St Vincent to Arnad (18km) A nice sunny day. We got the 08.15 bus to St Vincent. Then we climbed into some forested hillsides on footpath 103. The Autumn sun appeared over the mountains and shone directly in our eyes. We walked through woods where the leaves were changing to brown and red. We found ourselves stepping over piles of chestnuts which had accumulated on the pathway. There were a lot of ups and downs also some good views. We seemed far away from the roads, railway and towns in the valley bottom. Then, inevitably we went down along an old Roman road to Montjovet, back on the main road. We bought some drinks and I purchased a slice of potato flan. We sat in a children's playground in the local park and had our lunch. From that point we were in the flat bottom of the Aosta valley again and it was a low level walk alongside the Dora Baltea river until we got to Arnad where we picked up a bus back to our apartment.
Friday 11 October 2019
Arnad to Settimo Vittone(17km) We got the 08.45 bus back to Arnad and followed the river again south eastwards. Ahead of us was the massive Fortess of Bard built in the 19thC. It dominated the narrowest part valley cutting the route for any invading army. While the road deviated to the right through a narrow gorge, Footpath 103 took us to the left, through a rocky, hidden strip of village set immediately beneath walls of the citadel. This was the highlight of the day’s walk. Then there was a very steep descent to rejoin the main valley and we were soon walking again parallel to the busy SS26. A Roman pavement led us into the next village of Donnas. I thought fancifully that you could almost see the imprint of the legionnaires’ sandals. After that it was a roadside walk back to our apartment at Pont Saint Martin. After a break for lunch we set out to complete the day's walking to a place called Settimo Vittone. Unfortunately this included walking along part of the busy S26. Anyway, we did it, and completed the walk just after 16.00. A bus was due at 16.51. We sat outside a small bar on the main road and had a drink while traffic raced by. The bus (coming from Torino) was a worrying 20 minutes late but then it was only a few minutes ride back to Pont Saint Martin where we had another drink in the bar near the Roman Bridge before going home for our last evening meal in our apartment.
Saturday 12 October 2019
Settimo Vittone To Ivrea(12 km) The bus back to Settimo Vitone was meant to leave from the town square in Pont Saint Martin but, in the morning, the square was full of market stalls which left no room, for a bus stop. We had to hurry down to the railway station to the next bus stop. We made it with a couple of minutes to spare. The first four kilometres of the walk out of Settimo Vitone were surprisingly difficult. There were many ups and downs on steep stony paths with tricky descents down rough rocky steps. We had to tread slowly to avoid sprained ankles or other injuries. We also walked through a couple of vineyards where people were picking red grapes in the Autumn sunshine. After a particularly long downhill path through some woods we arrived at a small village where we had a break beside a communal drinking trough - with goldfish in it. Then walking became easier – in fact, flat. At Borgofranco D'Ivrea we had a drink and an ice cream and at the uninteresting suburb of Montalto Doro, we crossed the SS26 and walked on towards Ivrea beside the river on a raised flood barrier. I waved to a passing train and got a hoot in return. On both sides, the mountains had diminished to low hills. We were leaving the Alps and now we faced the flat expanses of the northern Italian plains . In Ivrea our accommodation was in the old part of town and was owned by a restaurant. They apologised "no breakfast tomorrow (Sunday) but we will give you an evening meal at reduced price” Our room was nicely fitted out and was in the cave-like ground floor of an apartment house. When we went out and about he town was full of nice shops and bars. It was also full of visitors. We, became tourists, visited the cathedral, had a drink in a park and, for the last time, we enjoyed the view over the Dora Baltea river which we had followed since Aosta. At Ivrea it looked very different with a large navigable channel and a white-water kayak centre.
Sunday 13 October 2019
Ivrea To Roppolo We walked out of Ivrea with the foothills of the Alps on our left and the flat landscape of Piedmont on our right. After a few miles, at the small town of Bollengo, we stopped for a soft drink and the lady cafe owner volunteered to stamp our credentials. Then we walked on towards the next town, a place called Piverone. Along the way, we met a young pilgrim, Fabrizzio from Liguria, who accompanied us for a while. The VF then climbed into the hills but Gillian and I opted for a lower route shown on Pocket Earth. This caused a setback when, after four or five kilometers we were suddenly confronted by a "private property " barrier across the track. We went back to the previous junction and walked out to a busy main road. Then, a little further on, we made our way back between cornfields. We had a lunch-break on a grassy track at the margin of the field near a dry ditch and then there was a sharp uphill climb to Piverone where the only bar was closed. Over the next few kilometers we contoured along hillsides clad in vine fields. To our right there were views of a large lake, Lago di Viverone in the valley to our right. We descended between farms, vines and fields to the town of Viverone (but not the lakeside) where we were delighted to discover that the bar was open. We were the only customers. The elderly owners were watching a TV set in the corner, We had a coke each and, on impulse, as a "reserve", I purchased a slice of pizza. We walked on a couple of kilometers to Roppolo and our B&B “Le Lune”. The owners gave us a warm welcome. That night we had an excellent meal at a nearby Trattoria – one of the reasons we had chosen Roppolo for an overnight stay.
Monday 14 October 2019
Roppolo to St Germano Vercellese it was a dull morning but no rain. After a good breakfast at our B&B we started out along a woodland track. Then, after the first village of Canovese there were several kilometers of minor road walking through flat farmland. Next, there was a section along the side of a major road with lots of traffic. There was a big junction visible ahead where our road climbed over a motorway - definitely not safe walking for pilgrims. At the last moment before the junction, the Via Francigena turned right towards a large farm building called La Madria which was formerly a tourist attraction but was now deserted. We stopped for a break to eat our sandwiches and then crossed the motorway on a quiet bridge used mostly by farm traffic. Next there was a long plod along a featureless road through some dead flat countryside into the working town of Santhia. We had a coffee in the centre before setting out on the final 6 kilometers of the day to St Germano Vercellese. The landscape was meseta-like, with empty fields of dry stubble or brown earth stretching away in every direction. VF signs kept us on track with a series of left and right turns. We met a French pilgrim who, unusually, was smartly attired with a coat over her shoulder and a brief case as well as a rucksack. We had a clear view of St Germano but it approached very slowly and I was tired by the time we reached the railway station. There was no working ticket machine. So, Gillian set off to find a signposted tabac where tickets could be obtained. However, she returned empty handed because it was too far and our train was due. Not for the last time, we had a free Italian rail journey. (Because there was no accommodation at St Germano we were going on to the city of Vercelli and returning the next day to walk the stretch between the two.) At Vercelli we were too early for booking-in and I had a glass of white wine in an ice cream parlour while Gillian sat in the square outside. Our accommodation (for three nights) was called Cassa Eduardo as if the owner lived there but in fact we had to call him by phone and he soon appeared coming from elsewhere. The rooms were nice enough. There was a shared kitchen but our own room and private bathroom. Vercelli was a lovely city with many beautiful buildings as well as lots of shops, bars and restaurants. It is the rissotto-rice capital of Europe. That night we explored the city and had pizzas in a popular restaurant.
Tuesday 15 October 2019
St Germano Vercellese to Vercelli (the wettest walk of my life) (18km) We knew that rain was forecast but we chose to ignore this and press ahead with our planned walk. With light packs, in a drizzle of rain, we got the train back to St Germanoand set out across the fields towards Vercelli. The rain soon increased in volume, mostly blowing straight in our faces. Another pilgrim passed us, his rain cape dripping with water. We knew that the VF was going to meander either side of the main road but Gillian had worked out a “more straightforward” minor road route back to Vercelli. We reached a bridge over the railway with a long rising roadway at each end - a geometrical shape which was visible for miles around as the only feature in the grey landscape. We diverted over it with the rain now beating down on our right hand side. Acriss the railway, we followed a road covered with surface water, several inches deep in many places . Cars swished past. At a junction we turned towards the village of Olcenengo. Thankfully, there was a warm bar. We tried to make ourselves presentable but we still dripped all over the floor while having a coffee. I put my iphone in a plastic bag in a zipped up pocket for extra waterproofing. After a short debate about possible buses and taxis (both non existent) we decided to press on and began a 7km stretch of dead straight road. By now, everything was wet and I could feel my feet squelching in my shoes. My rain trousers were cold against my legs, water was going up my sleeves and my glasses were constantly fogged up. Visibilty was bad anyway with grey mist everywhere across the landscape. Gillian was in the lead with her trusty umbrella held over her head. I had to work hard to keep up with her. Cars whizzed by in both directions throwing up clouds of spray. 0n our left was a large drainage canal guarded by a low metal crash barrier. I cautioned myself not to slip into it. Kilometer signs passed with agonising slowness. The road seemed to go on for ever. Gillian raised my sprits slightly by pointing out some lovely white birds which had alighted in a nearby field. I looked ahead intently for any signs of Vercelli. Finally the Vercelli ring-road came into sight in the distance and 20 minutes later we reached it. We crossed carefully across the centre of a large roundabout and then we were on the final stretch into the city. There was even a pavement to walk on. Still the rain pounded down. Drainpipes and gutters gushed into the road but we were so wet that it no longer mattered. Even my underclothes were saturated. When we finally reached the city centre there was water everywhere with traffic backed up and huge puddles. Gillian took my photo looking cheerful next to a life size pilgrim figure. We made our way to our accommodation and began the awkward job of drying our clothes. Thank goodness we had a hair dryer in the room. We had walked 18 km in 4.5 hours including a long break. That evening (when the rain finally stopped) we had an good meal in a nice restaurant serving local dishes.
Wednesday 16 October 2019
Vercelli to Robbio In contrast to the heavy rain of yesterday, it was a beautiful clear day with blue skies and pin sharp views back to the Alps. We walked out of Vercelli across the long bridge over the broad River Sesia and then turned right across the open fields. We saw a herd of animals feeding in the distance. They turned out to be domestic goats from a farm rather than the deer we imagined but, all the same, they ran away at our approach. The empty rice paddies stretched to the flat horizon in front of us but looking back we could still see the outline of the Alps along the northern skyline covered at the highest points in new snow : possibly as a result of yesterday’s precipitation, a reminder that winter was coming. Most of the way to Palestro we were on an elevated track along the top of a local flood barrier. Easy walking. At Palestro the only bar was situated at a busy traffic light junction. So we watched lorries and farm tractors come and go as we drank our coca colas. The next 6 km to Robbio was shown as being along the same busy road taken by the lorries and tractors. We tried to find some off-road tracks but ended up simply walking along beside the carriageway. The railway station was on the far side of town. So although we entered it with plenty of time for the next scheduled service we made it to the station with only 5 minutes to spare. We were soon back in Vercelli and had a drink in the piazza to say farewell to a lovely city. We had enjoyed our three days there.
Thursday 17 October
Robbio to Redondo (21km) We got the 09.00 train back to Robbio this time with full rucksacks. The weather was good but the scenery continued flat and featureless with endless rice paddies, drainage ditches and ploughed earth. Frogs croaked at us from the ditches and tractors chugged by. Farms, mostly lifeless, came and went. By the time we got to Mortara at about 13.30, after 14 Km, my right foot was starting to ache around the big toe. We were staying at a hotel opposite the station and Gillian's idea was to book in and then shorten the next day by taking a train to the next village and walking back .So, without rucksacks we got the 14.56 rail replacement bus to Redondo and walked back into Mortara. The distance was 7km.
Friday 18 October
Redondo Gropello Cairolli We got the train back to Redondo. The next two nights we would be staying in Pavia. After a short stretch along the main road, we were back on field tracks amongst the rice paddies. I was getting slower and slower because my right foot was very painful. When we got to the village of Tromello after 7.5 Km I said that I could go no further. Gillian left me at the station and walked on towards the day’s end-point which was a place called Gropello Cairoli which also had a railway station. I got a train to Pavia and hung around for a couple of hours at a café until Gillian arrived by train. We soon found our accommodation (guesthouse Minerva) which was close to the station Unfortunately my foot was worse and when we went out later to locate the tomb of St Augustine, I was limping heavily. It was a wet evening in Pavia and I was glad when we stopped our search for the tomb. We got some food at a supermarket and ate in the shared kitchen of the apartment. When I went to bed my right foot was badly swollen.
Saturday 19 October
Gropello Cairolli to Pavia (16km) Gillian went off by train back to Gropello Cairoli to walk the last 16km into the city and I did a slow limp into the centre of the town which was busy with Saturday market stalls. It was a nice city but it was grey and wet throughout our time there. I met up with Gillian at 13.15 back at the railway station and we visited the cathedral and walked down to the River Ticino. We had a glass of Prosecco in one of the city squares. We ate again in the apartment.
Travelling home. The next day we got a train to Milan and changed onto the S-bahn to get to Malpensa airport. We thought that we would have loads of time to spare at the airport but things like bag-drop and security moved so slowly that we were glad that we had got there early. We were home in London by 16.45.