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Down from the heights

Vercelli, Monday 20 Juneimage

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.image 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.

A rare flat section
A rare flat section

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.

Romantic vistas
Romantic vistas

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.image

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,

Built in the reign of Augustus - the bridge at Pont St Martin
Built in the reign of Augustus – the bridge at 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.

Two old ruins: pilgrim on Roman road (still raining!)
Two old ruins: pilgrim on Roman road (still raining!)

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.

The view from the dormitory, Ivrea
The view from the dormitory, Ivrea

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.

I must decide by the end of tonight. Does the way go on? And if it does,   does it go on now or later? Only I can decide. A sign would be good.image

12 thoughts on “Down from the heights

  1. A pause for rest, nourishment and healing is NOT quitting. In fact it is quite sensible.
    Similar to the saying- “There is no such thing as being lost-sometimes we just go the long way round”. Hope I remember this the next time I get LOST again.

  2. Mary,
    Trust the body and spirit are in healing mode and you have the time to calmly plan just when and how you will make your way to the Eternal City. You are in my pilgrim prayers as I have a rest day at the Hospice at the Col.
    My wonderful daughters in Australia have set up a blog site for me and a ‘funding’ site for the Missionaries of the Poor which I didn’t get round to setting up before I left home. God bless you as you prepare for the next part of your journey.

  3. Mary, I have been following you silently up to now. As another granny who walked only a small portion of the VF I have been following you along the way. I have followed others sporadically through the VF Facebook page, some of their blogs, and the Yahoo email for VF.
    Sometimes I prefer not to read the details of what others post as I feel like I want to experience the whole route one day through my eyes not too much from the eyes of another.

    However, your journey has pulled me in and I feel a bond in your words and with your experiences. I truly get a sense of deep conviction and connection in your pilgrimage. I pray for your discernment as you search your heart and soul for the right thing to do. I pray for your physical strength and ability to rest and heal whether the decision is to walk on or return in the fall. I hear through your words that it is a much deeper goal than just the physical travel. You will make the right decision and either way you will fulfill your goal (now or later, it all is a journey). Through those of us following you, you already fulfilled what you have set out to do. Buon cammino.

  4. Mary, we are all reading your blog. Let me comment !

    Last week I undertook a very hard cycle ride in the Pyrenees. There were 30 of us, all fit cyclists and many arrived by air with their bikes in very expensive hard shell cases.
    We were to attempt to bike up and over 4 high cols each about as high as Ben Nevis, all in a day and all non-stop.
    The night before departure our host, a cousin, had laied on a great supper at his house, and each of us was given a printed cloth map about the size of 5 tea towels. In the bottom right hand corner it said:

    ‘Pain is Temporary, Quitting lasts forever’

    That spurred me on, and I came 4th out of 30 semi-pro cyclists. So Mary I agree with you you MUST NOT STOP – keep going and remeber the saying above.

    What you are doing is amazing !

    Andrew x

    • Andrew, thank you for your encouragement. But I think (at my great age!) that it is the other way round: quitting is temporary in order to finish what I have set out to do. Not quitting would possibly have ensured the permanence of pain. “Reculer pour mieux sauter”. You are seeing only the triumph of walking into Rome. It is just possible that real pilgrimage is more about learning to know oneself and accept handicaps. However, it is my firm intention to go back in the autumn and continue the journey. The way is the pilgrimage, not the achievement.

  5. Carry on, but have a rest for a couple of days.. (My advice from the comfort of an armchair!)
    They prayed for you at church in Bungay last week.

  6. Do not apologize for going on about the weather-or aches and pains! I find your account fascinating and inspiring and whatever you decide it will be for the best.I said earlier come home and get your knee fixed but you did not-great resilience and determination so if your body tells you to go on do-if not come back and resume later.
    What ever you decide you are on for the F&G!
    So pleased you are encountering kindness and reasonable accommodation
    All good wishes
    Michael x

  7. Mary
    I read you blog understanding where you are at. The days ahead will be very flat, possibly hot or very hot and the mosquitos will be present for the next few days. Only you know if you are fit to continue. Whatever you decide you have managed a significant achievement so far. Many people do this walk in two halves so if you need to recover, do so without guilt!
    All the best,
    Chris Jackson

  8. Mary well done you ! We walked from Lucca to south of Siena and loved every minute … Take note of the sign and look after yourself

  9. Dear Mary, You have achieved so much already! You are right in saying that none of us will be thinking or saying that to take sensible action is a failure! Please take care of yourself…. Gill

  10. Mary, you have done so well. A pause- what is a pause in eternity- to enable you to carry on to the end rather than have to give up completely, would seem not unreasonable. The weather might even be better then!
    Good cheer. Anne x

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