Friday, February 25, 2011

crossing the alps from switzerland to the val d'aosta (via francigena part i)

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I spent some time last year exploring the Via Francigena by bus and train. This meant not getting the full-on pilgrim experience (that will come this year, I hope) but it freed me up to find out more about the places I visited than one usually does when in pilgrim mode, arriving late and hungry and curious mostly to know where one will be sleeping.
The Via Francigena passes through some remarkable places and for the next few weeks I'll be sharing some of what I learned about them on this blog - starting today with the Val d'Aosta.

It's drizzling in Martigny.
It’s drizzling and it’s miserable and the bus is not where it’s supposed to be. The train got me here with five minutes to spare, as promised, but the bus that is to convey me over the Alps to Italy is nowhere to be seen. The ticket booth is unstaffed. Who can I ask? I spot the conductor from my train. Yes, yes, he assures me. The bus should be here now. It isn’t. Well it should be. He frowns. This is all very un-Swiss.
A stocky, elderly woman with a walker accosts me. She’s asking me something in a species of French I've never encountered. I’m sorry, could you repeat that? She does - in German. I tell her in French that I don’t speak German. Could she ask me in Italian?
“Allora, Lei è Italiano?
No, I’m not Italian. I’m Canadian,
“Alors, vous parlez français.”
We determine - in three or four languages - that she too is looking for the bus to Italy. That's a relief. If I’m stuck here tonight, maybe we can split a hotel room.
The lady laments some more. She has decided that I speak German, whether I do or not. Or maybe German is just the language she prefers to lament in. A different language for every purpose, like the Emperor who spoke to men in French, God in Spanish, and… I forget the rest.
A railway worker joins our little party. He wonders where the bus is too. He jollies the elderly woman in French. It feels like they’ve done this before. The bus rolls in fifteen minutes late. “Neve!” shouts the driver by way of explanation. There’s a sack of snow falling on the pass. Let’s go while we can.
He cranks the pop music and accelerates into the climbing hairpin turns with grim abandon. There is a digital clock at the front of the bus. It reads 10:37. I check my watch. It’s 5:19. I feel like I’m in Italy already.

Travel brochures of Switzerland are full of spectacular mountain shots. We go to see the mountains, and climb and ski and take choo-choo trains over them. We love the mountains. Medieval travel brochures, if there had been such a thing, would not have made such a selling point of mountains. Mountains were where you got lost and froze to death.
Here we are, mid-October on the Grand St Bernard Pass, and the first blizzard of the season is up and wailing. Can’t see a thing out the window. Typically, the pass is only snowless from mid-June, which doesn’t leave much of a window for a comfortable crossing on foot. Of course, on foot is how I would prefer to cross the Alps, like a pilgrim of old. But there are  many things I would prefer: to look like Marcello Mastroianni, to write like Garcia Marquez, to have been born in a country where you can sit outside in a light jacket on a November evening drinking wine from the vineyard across the way... Over time I have grown practiced at discerning what’s going to happen and what ain’t, and a foot crossing of the Alps this year ain’t.
The bus climbs and climbs, and one by one the other passengers disembark, trotting into the teeth of the storm to their half-visible vertical villages, till the only ones left are the signora with the walker and I. We enter a tunnel (there is a sign showing a smiling Saint Bernard dog below the title: “Saint Bernard: le Tunnel,” as if it were some sort of attraction), sweep through la Dogana - Italian customs - with a smile and a wave, and we are officially, legally, formally in Italia.
But where we really are is in a tunnel, thundering into the heart of the mountain, like descending in a plane at night through clouds, waiting to see the lights on the ground.
I move up to occupy the seat behind the signora. “Dove va?”
She is going to Aosta to stay with her sister, her soeur, her sorella. She’s still not sure what language to use with me. Now she lives in Basel, but she comes down to visit when she can. Is Aosta her hometown? Not the city itself, she tells me, but the Val d’Aoste, the region, the Valley of Aosta. And what language, may I ask, does she speak to her sister?
“Français!” She sounds shocked that I need to ask.
We emerge on the south side of the Alps. But if I was expecting sunshine, vino, cucina, amore, I’m going to have to wait. The blizzard is blowing over here too. In fact, if I was expecting Italy I’m going to have to wait. The first town we hit is Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses. The building where the bus pauses is a centre multifonctionnel, which counts brasserie and épicerie among its fonctions. Along the way we pass the Hôtel des Alpes, La Vieille Cloche...
Is this really Italy?
Yes and no. This is the autonomous region of Valle d’Aosta / Vallée d’Aoste, the only part of Italy that is bilingual in Italian and French.

to be continued...


Sil said...

In June 2006 it took us three days to walk from Martigny to Aosta, mostly in beautiful sunshine but, at times, over shifting ice sheets and small glaciers. The snow was piled high on either side of the road which had been cleared on 14th June. It was a good time to walk the VF even though we sometimes had 40oC in Toscana.
I'm looking forward to reading mre about your journey Peregrino Rob!

Robert Ward said...

Ooooh. I like the "shifting ice sheets". Sounds like fun. The 40C in Toscana sounds delicious too.