Making tracks in la Bella Italia
272kms – 13 days
La Bella Italia…the land of Roman amphitheatres and medieval castles, the Alps and the Dolomites, the Tuscan hills and the mighty Vesuvius. The home of the Ferrari and the Vespa, of Giorgio Armani and Prada. The country that brought us pasta, pizza, Parmesan, and Prosecco. And gelato, let’s not forget the gelato. The home of Venice, Milan, Florence, and of course, Rome, the eternal city. Being half Italian I’ve spent many a holiday in this wonderful country. But never have I been so excited to see the green, white, and red of il Tricolore.
I was woken from a deep sleep in the atmospheric Grand Saint Bernard Hospice by a sort of Gregorian chant, which was played into the bedrooms to summon pilgrims down to breakfast. I pulled back the curtain to reveal a cloudless sky. Perfect weather to cross the border to Italy.
Stepping over the border felt momentous. Like a homecoming, but also like the beginning of a journey of discovery. Italy is so familiar to me, it’s my second home and a huge part of my heritage. Yet my journey to Rome would take me through unfamiliar territory, and would test my shameful language skills. I was excited – for the history, the culture, the landscape, for it all. And the food. I was ridiculously excited about the food.
Leaving the rocky slopes of the Grand Saint Bernard Pass behind I descended into the Valle d’Aosta, an autonomous region where both Italian and French are official languages. I was soon snaking through forests and along the Ru Neuf. I kept turning around to check that the mountains were still there. I was torn – I didn’t want to leave them, but I was also eager to explore everything that waited for me on the road ahead.
Less than a few hours from the Swiss border, I felt like I was in a different world. The shiny Porches and 4x4s had been replaced with Fiat Pandas and Fiat Puntos, and occasionally an old school Fiat Cinquecento. Wooden chalets decked out with Swiss flags had been replaced by stone chalets with roofs made of slate tiles the size of tombstones.
Italy is an assault on the senses. The houses and their perfectly manicured gardens ooze colour. The ortos (vegetable gardens) are pungent with the smells of tomatoes, figs, peaches, and kiwis, and they send your taste buds into overdrive. Italians don’t talk, they sing. And when they don’t sing, they shout. Whether it’s a seemingly abrupt “Pronto” when answering the phone, or a conversation that looks and feels more like an argument, Italy is loud.
My alpine crossing felt like a distant memory as I walked into Aosta, a city with history that dates back to the Roman times, with ruins of towers, gates, theatres, and arches to prove it. But the mountains were never far away. Aosta is surrounded by peaks, ski slopes that descend into vineyards the closer they get to the valley floor. They provide the backdrop to every colourful, crumbling street no matter which direction you turn. And the streets are full of life. People shopping in the artisan boutiques, people queuing outside delis to buy the locally produced Fontina and Fromadzo cheeses, and people sitting in piazzas drinking Aperol Spritz.
The walk out of the Valle d’Aosta provided some of the most challenging days of my journey so far. Climbing and descending over 2,300 metres in two days, yet always staying between 400 and 700 metres above sea level. Days were spent going up to come down, going up again only to come come down again. And the blistering heat made things worse. But my efforts were rewarded with spectacular mountain views, and at the end of every climb there was always a photo to be taken and a chance to catch my breath.
Just as I was thinking that the only way to truly appreciate the valley’s beauty is from above, a hot air balloon effortlessly flew past. What I would’ve given to be floating down the valley in that balloon. But then I realised that while you may get amazing views, you don’t get to see how people in the valley live. You don’t get to see the one seater Piaggio pick up trucks weaving their way along the twists and turns of the valley’s roads. Or the vines growing on pergolas built on top of stone pillars called pilun, which absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it at night, creating a mild microclimate amongst the vines.
At times the steep, forest covered cliffs of the valley transported me to the jungles of Brazil and Vietnam. But then I’d spot one of the many medieval forts and castles perched on hilltops either side of the Dora Baltea River. They were the strongholds of Italy’s noble families, who tussled for control over this important alpine crossing and collected tolls from those traversing it. Some were in ruins, and the path would take me through the rubble of their remains. But others were as imposing as they would’ve been in their hay day. Such as the Forte di Bard, which completely dominates the valley floor. It has the feel of being both impassable and impenetrable. And it almost was – it took two weeks for Napoleon and his army of 40,000 to push past the fort when invading Italy in 1800, following which he ordered its destruction (the fort that stands today was rebuilt in the 1830s).
Following Roman roads and crossing Roman bridges dating back to the first century BC, I continued making my way south to the city of Ivrea, home of the chef Antonio Carluccio, Olivetti the manufacturers of typewriters and computers, and a world class canoe slalom course. The valley started to broaden, and its walls began to sink into the ground until they disappeared. The plains of the Po Valley stretched out in front of me. I gave a nostalgic look over my shoulder, and said goodbye to the mountains. I couldn’t quite believe that I had crossed the Alps.
Rice was to dominate the next week of my walk, as I made my way through the Vercelli rice fields. Italy is Europe’s largest producer of rice, an agricultural practice that dates back thousands of years. With rice comes stagnant water, and with stagnant water come mosquitos. The rice fields were full of them, and they had their fill of me.
Early starts made for beautiful sunrises, but the sun was soon scorching everything in sight and I raced from the shade of one tree or derelict farmhouse to the next. When the sun wasn’t shining thunderstorms filled the air, which gave some respite from the mosquitos until the skies cleared and they returned with a vengeance.
The bell towers of village churches were beacons in a sea of rice, drawing me in to a place of shelter from the sun and the storm. Some were tiny chapels, big enough for a congregation of twelve people. And others were unexpected masterpieces that wouldn’t be out of place in the Vatican. After visiting the village churches I would procrastinate in the bars, which were full of people from morning until night. I joined them watching Formula 1 and Serie A football, was questioned about my thoughts on Brexit and Boris Johnson, and refuelled on gelato.
The monotony of the landscape was starting to get to me. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe the fumes from my insect repellant, but a sort of delirium set in. My mind wandered and I imagined myself walking through the backwaters of Kerala, half expecting a houseboat to float by at any moment.
Despite the mosquitos, the heat, and the storms, there is a certain kind of beauty in the rice fields. They create a landscape of vivid gold and green, and are full of birdlife – great egrets, herons, and sacred ibis to name but a few. And every few days my journey was, mercifully, broken up with a momentary change of scene. Afternoons strolling along the shore of Lago di Viverone and exploring the churches and cloisters of Vercelli, and sampling the city’s traditional bicciolani biscuits in gelato form, helped to save my sanity.
Something else that helped me to keep going through the rice fields, together with a good luck message that I received from Stephen Fry, was the attitude of the local Italians. They embrace the Via Francigena like it’s a part of their family. Indeed it feels like Italy is the spiritual home of the Via Francigena – it means so much to the people here, and they are proud to be a part of it.
Children had tied “Buon viaggio” signs to lampposts, and there were tables outside houses with drinks and snacks for pilgrims. Cars stopped to ask me where I was going, and a man on a bicycle shook my hand as he pedalled alongside me. As I walked down the street I was met with shouts of “Brava!”, and as I passed some elderly people sat in rocking chairs they whooped and hollered “A Roma! A Roma!”. I’ve had requests to say a prayer for someone when I get to Rome, and to say hello to Papa Francesco, Pope Francis, from others.
As I walked through the small town of Tromello, I stopped in a bar to have a drink and a snack. Before I’d even had time to sit down, an elderly man on a bicycle painted green, white, and red approached me and asked if I was a pilgrim. He asked if I wanted my pilgrim’s passport stamped, and told me that he’d be back shortly. He returned together with a certificate and pin badge. We had a brief chat about where I’d been and where I was going, and after a “Mamma Mia!” and a throwing of hands in the air, he cycled off on his way.
Finally there was a light at the end of the rice fields. And that light was the university city of Pavia. Having walked for 18 days without a rest, I was exhausted and in need of a pit stop. But rest days are never zero step count days, as there’s always so much to explore.
Pavia’s is one of the oldest universities in Europe and I seemed to have timed my visit with students arriving for the start of a new term. I dodged the canoodling teenagers on the Ponte Coperto (covered bridge), and explored the city’s countless churches, marvelling at their melodious bell ringing. Once called the “City of 100 Towers” only five of Pavia’s medieval towers still rise up into the sky. The towers were a symbol of a family’s power, and the taller the tower the more powerful the family. A fresco in the Chiesa di San Teodoro helped me to imagine what the city looked like in the 1300s, a medieval Manhattan.
In an attempt to feel like everyone else in the city I shunned my hiking clothes, and instead of walking 30 odd kilometres I did as they did. I strolled the city’s cobbled streets and sat in a piazza watching the world go by. But as I watched the world go by, I realised there’s no way of hiding my pilgrim credentials. Everyone else was beautifully turned out, women in high heels and dresses and men in pressed shirts and blazers. I was in a scruffy dress that hadn’t been washed for weeks. Everyone else had flawless deep olive tans that they’d been working on all summer. I had tan lines that made it look like I was wearing socks and shorts even when I wasn’t.
It dawned on me that although you take a day of rest from your pilgrimage, you don’t stop being a pilgrim. The tell tale signs are all there, and your pilgrim mindset is too. You’re always wanting to say hello to everyone you pass in the street, until you remember that in cities that’s not what people do. You’re always noticing the little things that everyone else, rushing about in their daily lives, is too busy to observe. And you’re always looking out for the Via Francigena signs pointing in the direction of Rome.
I’m walking from London to Rome to raise awareness about mental health and money for the mental health charity, Mind. You can read more here, and if you would like to make a donation please visit my fundraising site. Thank you.