DAY 81 – LE COL DU GRAND SAINT BERNARD TO ETROUBLES

The Auberge wing of the Hospice was very comfortable and the demi-pension supper more than adequate. Although our room overlooked the main road over the pass, the traffic quietened right down overnight, so we got a good night’s sleep and gave ourselves an extra hour’s lie-in as well. It was surprisingly cold overnight, necessitating full duvets which we’ve not needed for several weeks in the current heatwave.

View west from our bedroom window – looking into Italy.
That’s the border post on the road on the right.

We got off to a slow start today, leaving the Auberge just before 10am to walk around the west side of the lake and into Italy. The border post was not manned, and apart from a notice to incoming drivers to ensure they have paid their Swiss road tax there was no formality in either direction.

Most of the day was spent making a very steep descent down the valley towards Aosta, giving knees, calves and toes a bit of a hammering, but the views were stupendous. The Alps this side of the Col are even more dramatic, with lots of jagged peaks.

A last look back at the Col du Grand St Bernard Hospice

From the end of the lake our route dropped steeply downwards, crossing and recrossing the road. The peaks on both sides were impressive, and we watched a helicopter at work delivering what looked like supplies to a mountain hut to the west. Part way down we met one of the two Swiss people from Zurich we’d made friends with yesterday. He’d been up to a peak above the valley where there is a good view of Mont Blanc. The photos on his phone looked impressive.

Finding our way off the col

Several sections of our path were paved with large rocks, some of which had been grooved over the years, such as we’d seen on the other side of the Col yesterday.

Paved path below the viaduct road up to the Col
Looking down the valley to La Cantine, formerly also a hospice

As we had found on the way up to the col, again today there was a profusion of beautiful wildflowers and butterflies. We also saw another marmot just above La Cantine but, like his Swiss cousins, this one also was too quick for the photographer.

The bikers were clearly enjoying all those switchbacks coming down off the col

At one point we passed a mule coming up, laden with the luggage of a large party of Italians on their way up to the Col. We chatted to a pair of them who asked about our venture.

After a fair amount of descent we arrived at the tree line again with occasional conifers soon becoming stands of trees, as we contoured initially and then descended more steeply. The tunnel under the Col then emerged from the mountain side, doing a sharp left turn before continuing on downhill under a protective covered balcony.

The tunnel emerging mid left – it’s almost 6kms long

At one point, while resting, our attention was drawn to an ant carrying a piece of leaf much larger than itself uphill, until the leaf got wedged between a couple of stones. Two other ants suddenly appeared, we thought to help, but in fact there was a bit of a struggle as if they were fighting over who should have the leaf, and then the other two ants went away again. Fascinating behaviour – almost human!

By lunchtime we had reached the village of St Rhemy. It has a delightful narrow cobbled street down its centre, with tiny alleys leading off each side to closely packed houses. One of those houses was a tiny hotel (L’Hotel Suisse), with a menu board outside, so in we went for the most delicious pasta with goats cheese, tomatoes and pesto – no contest with the stale bread and ripe cheese alternative we were carrying for lunch. That went in the bin at our destination!

St Rhemy looking up the valley

A little further down the hill and we came to the village of St Rhemy-en-Bosses with its delightful pilgrim lamp posts and another church which was open. So far Italian churches seem to be open, with visitor books, and pride at being on the Via Francigena. We have a sense that Italian rural churches may be better supported than those in rural France.

Pilgrim lamp posts along the Via Francigena at St Rhemy-en-Bosse
Stained glass of a Via Francigena pilgrim beside
the church at St Rhemy -en – Bosses

There was another very steep downhill path from St Rhemy-en-Bosses to the hamlet of Cerisey at the bottom of the valley where we followed the small river as it turned eastwards through fields. This southern side of the mountains seems very much drier than the northern side, with permanent irrigation equipment in most fields, many of them in active use. Indeed, some we have had to dodge to avoid a soaking. We assume that farmers are hoping for a second hay crop as the first has already been taken off.

Descending to Cerisey – this is the less steep section

Soon after Cerisey we found a large tree to sit under for a rest, and were caught up by another pair of pilgrims who completely ignored our “buon giorno”. Perhaps our Italian accent isn’t up to scratch yet. Suddenly, this side of the Col, there are many more walkers, and we’re hearing a lot more Italian in place of the French and some German spoken in Switzerland. Here, Italian is being spoken for preference, although locals seem to be bilingual in French as, of course, Piedmont was historically part of France until relatively recently and the modern border isn’t far away.

Walking alongside one of the irrigation leats

As we followed the river valley we joined a path alongside a water irrigation channel which took us all the way to the next village. We later learned that this is the Ru Neuf which was created in 1400 to provide water to the villages and farms in the valley. It runs along the hillside at 1200-1250 metres above sea level for about 14 kilometres, and is a very impressive engineering feat. As it gently contours along the hillside the path alongside the water channel makes for very good walking, mostly in shade with a waft of coolness off the mountain water gushing along the channel. It reminded us of the levadas in Madeira.

The last stretch of the walk into Etroubles was along the road, so not very pleasant with traffic whizzing by, but once at Etroubles we were able to walk down pedestrianised cobbled streets bypassed by the main road. One of the first shops, a pharmacy, had a pilgrim sign outside indicating that they have a stamp, so in we went to get our passports stamped. We think the pharmacist was being encouraging about our walk but the truth is we hardly understood a word she said! We’re going to have to learn some basic Italian before the next stage of our walk.

Getting our pilgrim passports out for stamping at the pharmacy

From the pharmacy it was a short walk to our hotel across the other side of the river via a pretty wooden covered pedestrian bridge. By this time we had caught up with another pilgrim who was walking alone, Rosita, a teacher, from Hungary, who we invited to join us for supper as we were all staying at the same hotel. Our two Swiss friends were also there so it was a jolly evening of interesting conversations.

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