A few days ago I realised that this account of my journey risked turning into a prolonged whine about the weather and my various ailments. Being British, I cannot promise not to mention the weather, specially since it has such a bearing on walking. The physical afflictions I will leave till the end, for they too play their part in this story.
The Aosta valley is wonderful. It is lush, green, Alpine. It’s hard not to resort to the cliché of “towering peaks”, for they do tower, and magnificently. “Snow-capped” is another one to steer clear of ….but they are. The walk down from Etroubles to Aosta was in the main gentle and pleasant, but the lower I got the hotter it became: from 0 to 30C in little more than a day.
I noticed in Switzerland that I heard no nightingales. Perhaps they, like pilgrims on the Via Francigena, hurry to get out of Switzerland because it is so expensive. But in Italy they were in full voice: those swooning descending notes followed by a melodic warble, occasionally accompanied by the bassoon-like poop-poop-poop-poop of a hoopoe.
In Aosta (where St Anselm was born) I lodged in the parish centre of San Martin de Corléans. There was the most beautiful little apartment, with a bathroom which would not disgrace an expensive hotel, a kitchen area, and two beds. Everything done to the highest standard, and for a pilgrim donation. I asked if anyone were to share it with me, and was told they never make two strangers share. To anyone who has slept in the vast mixed dormitories on any of the Santiago caminos, this comes as a pleasant surprise. There was a second equivalent flat the other side of the landing.
The next day was strenuous and hot: up and down, up and down, up and down, through little Alpine hillside villages, some long abandoned with the slate roofs falling through and the stones crumbling. In inhabited villages there are many dogs, most – mercifully – behind fences. As one enters a village there is an abrupt shock as the first dog hurls itself at the gate in a paroxysm of barking. The dog in the next property takes its cue and joins in, jumping at gates and racing the length of the property. Then the next dog, and the next, down the line, in a mad crescendo until the entire canine population is at it.
Day by day down the valley. The heat gave rise to storms, and some days were spent under now-familiar downpours. Chambave, Borgo di Montjovet, Pont St Martin,
where the impressive Roman bridge was built in the reign of Augustus. How many millions of footsteps have made its stones ring? On the way into Pont St Martin I walked on Roman road, over the deep ridges made by cart and chariot wheels.
And from there the valley widens, the Alps are behind, and I entered Piedmont, where French is no longer spoken.
The next night was at Ivrea, where the pilgrim ostello is in a building on the river Dora Baltea, at a point where there is a great weir. At least the roar of water all night drowned out the sound of pilgrim snores.
Flat ground now, and into the rice fields, for Vercelli is the rice capital of Europe. What lies ahead, if I continue, are days of shadeless paddy fields, infested by mosquitoes, and temperatures in the mid 30s.
“If I continue”….for now tonight I must make a decision. For some days now the stomach pains which dogged my first week have returned, with sporadic nausea (this may just be the poor diet of nearly two months); my left foot is very swollen (memories of tendinitis in Spain); my knee is becoming increasingly painful. Add to that some rucksack problems (repair unlikely to hold), boots so worn down they affect my gait, and the increasingly ferocious midsummer heat (I simply cannot carry more water)….and you have my dilemma.
The sensible option is to take a pause – go home, sort out foot, knee, stomach insofar as I can, and resume the 840+km to Rome when it is cooler in October. I could still be there before the end of the Year of Mercy. But do I ever do sensible? I find it hard to bear the shame and ignominy of not having completed what I set out to do (especially given all the trumpeting and publicity of granny marching to Rome). I know that those of you who have been so supportive will say it is no failure, but to me it is. So many have prayed for me that I feel I’d be letting you all down.
And what of those guardian angels which have helped me on my way? What of the sermon I heard when immobilised in Châlons? “Il faut continuer sur le chemin que vous avez choisi “, said the priest.