The Via Francigena is not for the easily distracted or for those who desire instant gratification; it’s a 2000 kilometre path that starts in Canterbury, England, traverses northern France then wends its way through Switzerland and crosses into Italy over the Great Saint Bernard Pass. That’s the halfway point; it ends in Rome after another 1000 kilometres of walking.
The Great Saint Bernard Pass demands attention. Well known, the Romans used it as a gateway to Europe before the birth of Christ. Napoleon took his invading army over the pass to attack the Italian city states in 1800. At 2473 metres (8114 feet), it is formidable; snow has been known to fall in any month, travel by foot is recommended only in July and August, the only road is closed some 8 months of the year.
John and I had been walking for two weeks across France when we parted in Besancon, less than 70 kilometres from the border. After a few days of R&R, I start walking alone towards Switzerland.
The Jura range near the border of France and Switzerland requires crossing; 1300 metres of elevation that I have not exactly planned for, a preview of things to come.
It’s beautiful walking and I’m on my own; the weather has cracked a bit and I’ve lots of time to walk and look with abandon. I come across some farm art, the French farmers’ baleful-looking equivalent to our Vancouver west-end Inukshuk.
The border to Switzerland is a small building, I walk across; no checks, just a wave from the guards. The Swiss trail signpost system is clear and comprehensive; it is almost impossible to get lost and their route TP 70, charts the Via Francigena from the French border to the Italian border. All I have to do is walk; I arrive in Lausanne a few days later.
Along the way, I pause to visit a Roman ruin; some of the most incredible mosaics I have ever seen, preserved and now exhibited in this remote location; again proving that walking offers enrichment unavailable to those in cars whizzing past on the autoroute.
I have some R&R in Lausanne, an emotional visit to the Olympic museum, complete with artifacts from both Calgary 1988 and Vancouver 2010. I must admit wiping a bit of something that got caught in my eyes there, occasioned by fond memories of both. Again, taking my time pays off.
Blair joins me in Lausanne and we are off. We haven’t done any walking together since his teenage years; it’s good to have him with me.
We face five days of walking to the top of the pass, it doesn’t seem right to call it a summit when it is the lowest point around.
The last two days are each 13 kilometres long with an elevation gain of about 800 metres – yes friends that is almost one kilometre of up.
He manages my slower pace by stopping to take photos while I trudge on; more importantly, vitally, he offers to carry all our water for the last two days, several extra kilograms of weight all day, all the way to the top.
I’m struggling and grateful for his presence, his support and his encouragement.
There’s little use dwelling on my suffering, we all pay for french fries in our own way; as compensation, the views we are blessed with are magnificent.
The elevation brings cool weather and a few challenging hours of rain; my enthusiasm drips off me with the rain.
The last day is a struggle of will over wish; I wish I was somewhere else or at least done this uphill trudge.
Finally, in late afternoon, within sight of the summit, Blair announces that he has a surprise for me; we can stop anywhere. The sun comes out, we find a flat rock and he pulls two Astronaut-ready freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches from his pack.
He found them at MEC in Ottawa before he left; knowing of my legendary and boundless enthusiasm for ice cream (I have always held the belief that ice cream is definitive proof that there is a god), he couldn’t resist buying them.
So. we sit on our rock, basking in the sun and our success at climbing to the summit of the pass and eat our ice cream bars.
The extra joy of his unexpected thoughtfulness is another tender mercy for which I will always be grateful.
We finish our treat and are off to the summit when, straight from central casting, a young woman appears with three Great Saint Bernard dogs to welcome us. She says she always takes them for a walk about this time of day; I’m convinced that it’s all planned – the gods have sent those wonderful beast to personally welcome us to the Great Saint Bernard Pass.
Tender mercies indeed!
It doesn’t get better than this you say?
Well, it does. It’s called Italy.
To be honest, we are expecting little; the Pass was the prize.
To further be honest, we hitchhike down the other side, I’m not interested in further punishment to prove a point. Our driver drops us at the front door to La Cluzas, a hotel restaurant built on the site of a 13th century hospital. We celebrate, belatedly, Blair’s birthday with one of the best meals we have ever experienced. We celebrate his birthday, our success, our camaraderie, our gratitude for this moment.
Walking in the north of Italy is a perfect end to my Via Francigena summer. Fruit trees are loaded, the villages are picturesque, the people are kind and helpful, the food is glorious. We slow down and walk with a keen eye for photos and a reluctance to see our shared adventure end.
I have expressed doubt about my willingness to commit to the long trek to Rome; Blair voices an interest in returning; his new idea is enough to keep the door open. Walking in this part of Italy offers a compelling logic of its own.
The future cannot be predicted. For now, we enjoy each and every day.
We board the train in Ivrea, to fly to Prague for our next adventure. Life is good.