We felt very much in need of our day’s rest today. Are we getting too old for this caper?! In part it is the searing heat which makes the physical effort of walking feel that much harder. Anyway, we didn’t have to walk anywhere today, though we chose to do some sightseeing after a late breakfast and getting our laundry done in the morning.

Our room is in the far corner of the courtyard

The cathedral in Aosta was a surprise, quite unlike any we’ve seen so far. It is much smaller. It is much plainer, with the exception of the elaborate west door, than many of the Catholic churches we’ve visited, and in the heat of the late afternoon it was beautifully cool. A perfect place to stop, rest and reflect.

Inside the Aosta Cathedral
The elaborate west door of the Aosta Cathedral dates from 1846

It originates from the 11th century, was consecrated in 1025 and modified in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the 19th century addition of the west facade and ornate doorway. The oldest surviving parts of the building are the two towers and the crypt.

Outside on the south side of the cathedral is an altar-sepulchre commemorating the 9th centenary of the death of Saint Anselm in 1109 in Canterbury.

Altar-sepulchre dedicated to St Anselm – made by a Bristolian sculptor and replicated at Canterbury Cathedral

In St Anselm lies an important link with Canterbury, and of course the Via Francigena pilgrimage. St Anselm was born just south of Aosta to an established noble family. Arguably, his parents’ marriage was for the convenience of agglomerating property. After some time pondering and arguing with his father, at the age of 23 Anselm left home, crossed the Alps and wandered through Burgundy and France for three years. Aosta was of course then part of the Kingdom of Burgundy. He reached Normandy in 1059 and the following year, his father having died, he took the decision to renounce his family property and became a novice at Bec Abbey. Over the next decade the Rule of Benedict reshaped his thought. In 1078 he was elected as Abbot of Bec, where he became known for his loving and kindly approach to monastic discipline, especially with younger monks. Following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 the Abbey was granted lands in England and Anselm’s sponsor Lanfranc was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. However, when he died in 1089, the Abbey’s property was expropriated by the new King William Rufus. Despite Anselm being favoured to succeed as Archbishop there followed a turbulent relationship between him and the king, principally over the king’s wish to hold control of the Church in England over the Pope. How interesting it is that this same issue should persist for several hundred years, through Becket and on to the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII! Might one argue that Brexit was simply a 21st century manifestation of the same in the context of our more secular environment?

In the event Anselm was eventually appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, despite the fact that William Rufus refused him permission to travel to Rome to collect his Pallium from the Pope.

Anselm’s disagreements with the monarchy lasted through the death of William Rufus to Henry I over the same fundamental issues. Henry finally renounced the right of English kings to invest bishops of the church in 1107.

Anselm died in 1109 and was buried in what is now the St Thomas chapel of Canterbury Cathedral but his remains were lost in the fire of 1170. A memorial statue to St Anselm survives above the south west door to Canterbury Cathedral. This can be seen in the photograph of us at the door on Day 16 of our pilgrimage.

St Anselm is the second statue from the right above Tom’s head

In addition to its relevant Christian past, Aosta was an important Roman settlement and, despite centuries of plundering stone for other buildings, there are still several impressive remnants of Roman buildings to be seen, including part of the colosseum, the city walls and guard towers, and the four entrance gates.

Aosta’s Roman colosseum
Aosta city walls and guard towers
Praetorian gate – eastern gate – into Roman Aosta

On the recommendation of our Australian friend Jude, we also sought out one of the other churches in Aosta for its frescoes, and were able to join a very informative guided tour. We were delighted to find another link with St Anselm because Saint Orso collegiate church was built at the behest of Bishop Anselm in the 11th century. Most of what you can see inside the church now dates from its 15th century rebuilding, except for a Roman mosaic recently found underneath the floor of the choir.

Roman mosaique uncovered beneath the modern floor

The older parts of the church which were retained during the later 15th century rebuilding are the crypt, the frescoes in the roof space, and the adjacent cloister.

The simple romanesque crypt
One of the frescoes in the roof space, partly obscured by the newer vaulted ceiling over the nave
Biblical story-telling on the carved pillars of the romanesque cloister

Having done more sight-seeing than we had intended, our day of rest would not have been complete without an Italian ice cream, which was delicious and pleasurably cold for a sweltering afternoon. We also eventually tracked down an adapter to allow us to use a standard European plug in non-standard Italian electrical sockets. We found it in “the Chinese shop” recommended by the several phone shops we tried and by the tourist office. It stocks everything!

Aosta street life – and note the ornate metal balconies

Aosta has turned out to be more interesting and important to our pilgrimage than we had anticipated, particularly with its strong historical link to Canterbury, the starting point of the Via Francigena.

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