Once more, if WordPress plays tricks, please go to the main site: http://quovadis-walkingtorome.uk, where a correct version with photos will eventually be available.
Etroubles in the Val d’Aosta, Italy, 13 June – I didn’t think I’d get this far.
I left Lausanne on 8 June. When I visited the cathedral the previous afternoon I was astounded as I entered by the most glorious sound: a chamber orchestra and a soprano were rehearsing part of the Mozart Mass. As I came in they had arrived at the “Et incarnatus est”. Her young voice soared up and filled the building with such beauty I had to hide behind a pillar and fight my tears. Tears are never far away at the moment – possibly something to do with vulnerability.
Emulating Archbishop Sigeric, I took a boat round the lake to the Château de Chillon (think Byron…”My hair is grey, but not with years/nor turned it white in a single night”), and then walked on the short distance to Villeneuve, where the rain obligingly held off till I was under cover.
The next day was to be an easy and flat 25km walk up the Rhône valley to St Maurice, but idiot here had left the clip fastening of her water bladder in Lausanne. Thus I deviated into the town of Aigle to find a sports shop. By now the usual torrential downpour had started, relentless and drenching. I found the sports shop and bought a 3-litre bladder, mindful that Italy will be hot. CHF55! That will teach me to be more careful.
Trying to get back to the path proved tricky, necessitating wading through waist-high soaking grass and scrambling through dense woods. Eventually I got there, having done quite a few supplementary km, and walked through the constant rain, the Rhône flowing full and fast by me. Then to the little town of St Maurice, where there has been an abbey almost since Christianity came there, and a place of worship even to the Romans.
I was lodged with the Franciscans, and chanced on a convention of the entire Swiss Franciscan order. I assumed supper might be frugal. How wrong I was – local wine flowed free, local charcuterie, raclette, and pudding (though by then I was not in a state to remember what it was). I slept well in my little polished wood cell.
The next day had a surprise in store – blue sky, hot sun; just a little tease to show what it could, what it should, be like. What joy, walking up the ever-narrowing valley, with sun glinting off the snowy peaks.
Just a tease, though, for as I set off the next morning for the two most challenging days so far the deluge started once more, drenching and discouraging. Clouds clung to the mountains, the rain bounced from the ground such was its force, and I shouted ineffectually for it to go away. From Martigny there is a narrow path high above the valley, which the guides tell you not to take if it is wet, if you have no head for heights, and if you are not very agile. All those boxes ticked, I took a train a couple of stops to Orsières.
Here the climb up to the Great St Bernard pass really starts. The rain fell in cascades. I should love to show you photos of alpine meadows with shining spring flowers, but it was just too darned wet. Dear reader, if you wear spectacles (as I must to minimise my chances of missing way marks) you will know that the heat of intense physical effort causes the glasses to steam up in the inside, and the raindrops similarly reduce visibility on the outside. I may be forgiven, perhaps, for the frequency of my getting lost. But Swiss signing is good, and I managed to get all the way up to Bourg St Pierre without much error. There it was chilly, very chilly, and I was glad that both my dormitory and the little church where I heard Mass were heated.
And then the big challenge. Despite a poor weather forecast (nothing changes), the sky was clear and icy cold as I left Bourg St Pierre to climb to the Col, which is well above 8000 feet. It was a magnificent climb: towering peaks, snow, alpine flowers, marmots, chamois, thundering cascades. But…taking off my pack to squeeze under an electric fence on the first part of the climb, I inadvertently dislodged the cap of my new water bladder. Disaster! Dare I refill from streams where there might be cattle pastures above? The guardian angel appeared with the answer- a herdsman mending a gate, who showed me where water flowed from the rock, and was safe.
Up and up and up. By this time I was joyful and relieved to have a companion, a Québécois. Without the reassurance of his presence I doubt I’d have risked the passages over the soft deep snow, but on we went, only taking to the road for the last two km. what a relief to arrive, and see the hospice – as travellers for more than a millennium have felt, for in all that time it has never closed.
We were welcomed by one of the monks with hot sweet tea. Once again, I fought my tears, for I had not imagined reaching this point, psychologically halfway, though geographically just past. We got there just in time: visibility reduced to zero, and it started to sleet.
I went to see the famous St Bernard dogs. They are no longer used for rescue, being too heavy for helicopter transport (German Shepherds are used instead), but a few are kept, descendants of the great Barry, who saved at least 40 people (WordPress is now refusing to upload a picture of the dogs. I give up…)
And so, steeply steeply down into Italy, where the sun shone. Steeply is not good for the knee, but it survived today with an epic doubling of distance through a wrong turning, this time not my fault (always blame others – a Swiss couple and the Québécois ). After six weeks in francophonie, I have forgotten every word of Italian (save for a few choice swear words), and feel utterly de-skilled and helpless.
But the adventure goes on….