Into the Alps and Over Great Saint Bernard Pass

Clouds nestle in the valleys as we climb and climb and climb from Aosta to Etroubles

Clouds nestle in the valleys as we climb and climb and climb from Aosta to Etroubles

Day 43 – Aosta to Etroubles

Though my foot wasn’t totally back to normal, it was better and we were back to Plan A. I’ve had lots of apprehension and angst about these last two legs in Italy and they proved to be very challenging. The leg distances were short, but very steep and all up.

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It rained cats and dogs all night long, but by morning the storm had passed and though overcast to begin with, it was good walking weather. The climb out of Aosta was tiring enough, but the continuing route to Etroubles required an altitude gain of ~700m (2275’) over about 7 miles. What a relief it was when we reached the Ru Neuf, a canal system built in 1327 to irrigate the noble’s fields. It was flat for a couple of miles, beautiful and serene and allowed our aching leg muscles to recuperate a bit.

Walking along the canals of the Ru Neuf, a wonderful respite

Walking along the canals of the Ru Neuf, a wonderful respite

A selfie on a Ru Neuf bridge

A selfie on a Ru Neuf bridge

If the other day it was slugs galore on the trail, this day the pesky gastropods found their shells and it was snails that peppered our path. We’re not in France yet, so I suppose they felt safe.

If the other day it was slugs galore on the trail, this day the pesky gastropods found their shells and it was snails that peppered our path. We’re not in France yet, so I suppose they felt safe.

We passed through the little alpine villages of Gignod and Echevennoz and the views were sublime. We huffed and puffed and stopped frequently to catch our breaths.

Gignod view with 12th-13th century Gignod Tower on the left

Gignod view with 12th-13th century Gignod Tower on the left

Gignod view with St. Hilary’s bell tower in forefront

Gignod view with St. Hilary’s bell tower in forefront

We sighed in relief when the Hotel Beau Sejour popped into view. The hotel was lovely, despite the fact their Internet was not working. We enjoyed a romantic dinner at the hotel restaurant, noting the prices were as steep as the path. A saying we’ve heard several times on this trip: “Italy is noted from its food, France for its wine and Switzerland for its high prices.” I guess they’re trying to prepare us for Switzerland.

Hotel Beau Sejour … nice, but pricey

Hotel Beau Sejour … nice, but pricey

Day 42 – Aosta to Etroubles

11.53 miles walked / 26,810 steps – We met 7 pilgrims on the path today.

Leg distance: 9.8 miles / 665 miles to Canterbury


Day 44 – Etroubles to Grand Saint Bernard Pass

Leaving Etroubles … what lies ahead?

Leaving Etroubles … what lies ahead?

I barely slept anticipating the climb up to Grand Saint Bernard Pass, purportedly the toughest leg of the entire Via Francigena. We checked the weather before we left. It was 29F (-2C) at the Pass and snowing , but they expected the weather to clear. It was 45F (7C) in Etroubles when we checked out of our hotel. We figured we’d walk a few miles to the next town and get a hotel there if the weather was bad, but the sun peeked through around 10am and we continued on our way.

View from our path … WOW!

View from our path … WOW!

The vistas and the scenery were absolutely stunning. I broke out into song … ‘the hills are alive with the ...” on a couple of occasions. David did his best to distract me from any encores. Wildflowers were profuse in a rainbow of colors. Snow-capped mountains surrounded us. It was surreal and almost too much for the senses to take in. The tough part, of course, was the continuous up without a respite. We needed to gain 1200m (~4000’) in altitude in eight miles.

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We met a total of 11 pilgrims today, most coming down from the Pass. We had a pleasant chat with Moto Imanishi, a Japanese man celebrating his 70th birthday on the Via Francigena. He took a selfie and sent us a copy … thanks, Moto!

We met a total of 11 pilgrims today, most coming down from the Pass. We had a pleasant chat with Moto Imanishi, a Japanese man celebrating his 70th birthday on the Via Francigena. He took a selfie and sent us a copy … thanks, Moto!

Marmots whistled along the rocky path and we spotted a couple of ibex, endemic mountain goats,

‘Short of breath’ is an understatement for describing our ascent to the Pass. We’d walk a few hundred feet and rest. Walk ‘just a little further’ and rest again. As we climbed in altitude, we found it took a bit longer to recuperate and we stopped more frequently.

Along the path, we met up with Matthias, a solo walker from Dresden, Germany. Matthias was fine company, heading in our direction and, despite our slow pace, ended up walking with us the rest of the way to the top of the Pass.

Matthias heading across a snow field.

Matthias heading across a snow field.

As we neared the top, the wind increased and the temperature dropped significantly. We donned our snow caps and gloves and jackets. And now, we encountered snow fields to traverse. The higher we got, the deeper the snow, until at last, since we didn’t pack our snowshoes or x-country skis, we resorted to walking the switchbacked road for the last couple of kilometers.

Still lots of snow up here!

Still lots of snow up here!

The cross at the top of Great Saint Bernard Pass … the end is in sight.

The cross at the top of Great Saint Bernard Pass … the end is in sight.

The final push as we rounded the last switchback and we were there! Men were shoveling snow and a little souvenir shop displayed all things ‘Saint Bernard’. We had a beer with Matthias before parting ways. We retired to the Hotel Italia, a stone’s throw from the Swiss border. Time for a hot shower, a celebratory dinner and good night’s rest.

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Day 44 – Etroubles to Grand Saint Bernard

10.33 miles walked (all up!) / 24,022 steps

Leg distance: 8.3 miles / 656 miles to Canterbury