Another very comfortable night at the Hotel Bon Sejour. A large room with balcony facing the evening sun helped dry our daily laundry quickly. At 1280m it was considerably warmer than at the Col. We spent a convivial evening with our Hungarian friend Rosita and our two friends from Zurich Beat and Martin. Rosita started the VF at the Col du Grand Saint Bernard. She is a regular visitor to Italy, and speaks good Italian. Beat and Martin started in Martigny and were finishing in Aosta. They are both retired engineers from Zurich and regularly enjoy the mountains together. Too much chatting meant we didn’t get our blog done!

View from our balcony – round to our left was a busy campsite

A late-ish start followed by a visit to the bakery adjacent to our hotel meant that the heat of the day was already building. Some confusion over our route also delayed us, but we were grateful to be off the main road when we eventually found the path. Traffic from the tunnel has by this stage joined that from the Col and the road is both busy and fast.

Hotel Beau Sejour at Etroubles
Our VF app directed us down the busy road which we didn’t like, feeling quite exposed to the fast traffic. Once we found it, the signposted route higher up the hillside was far preferable.

After regaining some height, which seemed counterintuitive, our path levelled out alongside the Ru Neuf irrigation channel which we were to follow for a good part of the day. The Ru Neuf was originally built in the 15th century after the people of Gignod obtained permission from the Bailiff of Aosta to build it to supply water for irrigation of their hillside meadows. It is something like 13 km long flowing at an altitude of around 1200m, in many places on quite steep ground. Today much of it is concrete lined, but extensive sections are still rock and soil. Alongside it is an excellent path, which makes for very pleasant walking. At times there was the illusion that the water was flowing uphill. We’d experienced this sensation before when walking the levadas in Madeira. Somehow the effort to move forward on an almost level path gives the sensation of being uphill!

The Ru Neuf – here a concrete lined section…….
…….and here the original (?) soil/ rock construction.

Every now and then we were blessed with quite magnificent views, up, down and across the valley. At one point, looking up the Roisan valley we could see the snow covered mountains just to the west of Cervinia and the Matterhorn. This reminded Tom of a wonderful skiing holiday there in 1986 organised by his sister, where he was introduced to skiing.

View up the Roisan valley towards the Cervinia ski grounds.

Along the path at intervals we found benches to rest on, constructions to do additional exercises we didn’t feel we needed, and installations related to the Via Francigena. We particularly liked the statue of a pilgrim who reminded us of Julie’s uncle with his flowing beard, and a small grotto that had been turned into a shrine by local people to give pilgrims encouragement on their journeys.

Tom with Julie’s Uncle Norman
We liked the umbrella over the Madonna!

All good things come to an end, and above Gignod we had to leave the comfort of contouring with the Ru Neuf water channel and slither down a very steep slope bringing us to the edge of the village.

Tom checking the route before we slither down the path to the laft

There had been ominous black clouds gathering behind us all morning but apart from a few large drops of rain we just had a brief period of respite from the full glare of the sun and sat on a wall in the village to eat our bread and cheese. We found out later that there were a couple of benches a hundred yards down the hill next to the church where we’d have avoided the ants which crawled over us and our rucksacks whilst we ate.

The Church of St Ilario at Gignod

Inside the church of Saint Ilario was a cool respite from the building heat and humidity outside. It was built in the fifteenth century and remains largely unaltered. Its condition, including a lovely wooden floor, suggests that it is well used and has an active congregation. Indeed a leaflet entitled Religious Tourism in the Aosta (also in French and Italian), suggests that the Diocese of Aosta is alive and welcoming, in stark contrast with much of what we have seen and experienced on our journey through France. Quoting from that leaflet:

“ If you are staying with us for some time, please do not hesitate to regard this as your church; you are warmly invited to the Sunday services, to our community prayers or even just for a moment of silence or prayer.”

It has been noticeable that most churches we have passed since we entered Italy have been open and well cared for. Is this a consequence of the divided responsibility between Church and State in France? Or are the Italians simply more engaged with their Church?

The church of St Ilario with its Murano (Venetian) glass chandelier

While we sat for a while on a bench (without ants) close to the church, we noticed people beginning to gather. It soon became apparent that something was about to happen. Despite the absence of formal clothing we concluded that it was probably a funeral, so we quietly departed.

By this time Rosita the Hungarian pilgrim had caught up with us and we walked together for a while chatting until she found a place to drink a coffee which she had so been looking forward to. We decided to press on, but were stopped by a British cyclist who rushed after us, explaining that whilst it had taken us two days to get down from the Col he had just done it in a couple of hours, travelling at 50 kilometres an hour. It must have been very exhilarating as he was still buzzing. However, he had also walked the VF a few years ago and, recalling how tough it had been, was very encouraging of our efforts and wished us well.

A child’s note of encouragement to passing pilgrims attached to a road sign below Gignod
View back up the valley from below Gignod

Once we had passed through the small communes linked to Gignod most of the remainder of the day’s walk was urban, some of it alongside the main road into Aosta. Just before we arrived into Aosta proper, the path diverted us up through a vineyard and orchards. Although reluctant to have to slog uphill this late in the day we decided to do it to avoid having to walk in the road around some tight bends where we would be very exposed to speeding drivers.

View over vineyards looking on down the Val d’Aosta

We were rewarded with good views on down the Val d’Aosta, before having a long stretch downhill into Aosta, giving the knees, calves and toes another hammering.

The last half an hour straight down the hill into Aosta at the bottom. The photo doesn’t really show how steep it was.
More pilgrim lamp posts in Aosta

At the bottom of the hill we were soon into the town centre, passing the regional hospital and then walking through busy pedestrianised streets to find our lodgings tucked away down an alley in a courtyard behind high metal gates.

Regional hospital in Aosta – much like any other European hospital with people sitting outside the grounds smoking

Our hostess later told us that Covid hit them very hard here as they were not allowed out for almost three months except to buy food, collect medicines, and in her case to take food to her parents who are in their nineties and live nearby. Fortunately her parents have survived their ordeal, but the mortality rate in this area was very high.

Just before turning into the alley where our lodgings were we were hailed by our Icelandic friends Oli and Inga, who were enjoying an afternoon coffee at a street cafe. Oli was reconsidering his plans to continue across the Po valley in view of the extreme heat. We told him we thought that would be wise and better to stop and return in September.

So, highlights of the day? Well, that has to be the lovely ‘levada’ walking and of course the stunning views. But all of that came at the cost of some steep descents and painful toes, calves and knees.

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  1. Ah yes the levadas of Madeira, I think I have almost dried out since falling in one! But yes it’s weird the way the water seems to flow uphill.
    Keep cool and well hydrated it’s very warm here and I suspect must be very hot in Italy, so keep safe and keep going.