Wednesday May 23 to Tuesday May 30


Arriving in Lucca, Lois spent the next couple of days with an intermittent fever which was subsiding by the evening of the 24th. Earlier that day, Paul decided to get a haircut and beard trim at a barber’s shop he had noticed. He wasn’t quite prepared for the 2-hour personal service that involved scissors, straight razors (chosen from a large assortment and sharpened with a strop), and hot and cold towels. A first (and probably last)!

We had time (and energy) to take a short walk along part of the city wall, the entirety of which remains intact, at least from the 16th and 17thC rebuild, and is a great recreational path for walkers and cyclists. We viewed the outside of the Church of San Michele in Foro, with its unique 13thC facade, walked past the 14thC Torre Guinigi with its seven Holm Oak trees planted on the roof, and through the Piazza dell’Amfiteatro. This is in the shape of an oval, built on the remains of a 10,000 seat Roman amphitheater, the walls of which form part of one of the inner rings of houses.

A highlight of Lucca was a concert in the Church of San Giovanni, part of the Puccini Lucca festival, which goes on throughout the year with different themes every night. Saturday night’s theme was a Night at the Opera, a wonderful and spirited performance of arias, duets, and intermezzos from the opera repertoire from Handel to Puccini, given by a mezzo-soprano and tenor, with piano accompaniment. Afterwards, we ate in the Osteria Del Neni, a small rustic place known for classic Tuscan fare. Dessert was Tiramisu, made with Bucelatto, a local cake made with sultanas and flavoured with aniseed. We can also recommend a local roastery, Caffé Ninci, whose brew Paul rates 9/10.

Church of San Michele in Foro
Torre Guinigi

The next morning we headed by train to Cortona, an ancient Tuscan hill town which happens to feature in Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. We were a little worried that it may be overrun with tourists, which it sort of was. However, our hotel was located on a quiet side street and when we went exploring it was less busy away from the main thoroughfare. Just after being served lunch at an outdoor table, a sudden hailstorm caused a mad rush of patrons and waiters grabbing plates and drinks and diving for the nearest table inside!

A long walk up from the town to the Fortezza dell Girifalco provided great views of the town and valley below. The present building dates from the 16thC when it was incorporated into the city walls, but there were fortifications there in the time of the Etruscans. It is being renovated and was hosting art students, so we were not able to see a great deal. Later on in our wanderings, we found a row of medieval houses tucked away under the city wall, clearly still occupied as residences. The main squares were bustling and appeared to be hosting various events, including a wedding. A 9-day Cortona Comics festival was starting just as we were leaving on Saturday. Gastronomically, the highlight was a meal at Sartu, an intimate restaurant down a side street (capacity 18), which included chestnut pasta. On the second evening, we dined on a patio overlooking the plains which stretch towards Lago Transimeno to the south and the Tuscan Hills to the west.


From Cortona, we took a train and funicular to Orvieto for a night. We had last been in Orvieto in November 1997, when we had rented a car in Rome and stopped there on the way to Florence. It was our first experience of an Italian hill town, and remains one of our favourites. At that time, it was quiet in contrast to the throngs of people we now encountered, partly here for « Flowering Orvieto », an annual festival of flowers, in anticipation of the celebration of Pentecost, the Festa della Palombella on May 28. Sketches made of flowers by students of the Art School of Orvieto are displayed in the churches and palaces of the city. This year’s theme is “Current news of Luca Signorelli in the frescoes of the Cathedral of Orvieto: true or false prophets” to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of the painter Luca Signorelli, author of the masterpieces that fresco the Chapel of San Brizio in the Cathedral.

Unfortunately, we missed the Festa della Palombella itself. In a celebration dating back to 1404, on the 51st day after Easter, a white dove « takes flight », descending into the Cathedral square. In 1997, we had stayed in a hotel overlooking the remarkable cathedral. It was no less impressive this time.

On the advice of friends, Sharon and Charles, Paul ventured to the bottom of the Well of St. Patrick. This was built in the 1500’s on the orders of the Pope in case the town came under siege. The bore hole is surrounded by a double helix of 248 stone steps descending (and ascending) 53m. Mules were able to carry empty and full water vessels down and up to the top.


Sunday, we took the funicular, train and bus to Viterbo. On Sigeric’s return from Rome, his sixth overnight stop was at the hot springs of Bullicame, just outside the city. Lured by the prospect of restorative waters and the connection with Sigeric, we booked 2 nights at the Hotel Niccolò V, near the Terme dei Papi. The thermal baths include a large, two thousand square metre outdoor swimming pool which is filled with hyperthermal water from the Bullicame spring, at a temperature of 58oC, and an underground natural grotto heated to 48°C by hyperthermal water. Everyone going into the grotto is closely watched and advised to stay a maximum of 10 minutes (we lasted about 3 minutes!), following which you are led to a room with individually screened-off beds where you are wrapped mummy-like in a cotton sheet and plastic and asked to rest for another 10 minutes. In addition to wellness treatments – mud facials, massage, etc. – the spa also offers a range of therapeutic treatments for rheumatic, respiratory, dermatological, ENT, vascular and gynaecological conditions.

While we did not partake of the additional services, we made good use of the monumental thermal pool, the reclining deck chairs and the espresso/apéritive bar. It was a lovely and relaxing way to end our trip. We are in Viterbo tonight and will fly home from Rome airport tomorrow.

Terme dei Papi

Sunday & Monday, May 21&22, 2023

Berceto to Pontremoli

On Saturday evening, we had dinner at Restaurant Pasquinelli, close to our B&B. The menu featured flavorful prugnoli mushrooms, just in season and unique to Berceto. Apparently the mushrooms need rain and sun, alternately. Although a kilo or more had been picked a few days before, we were told that the incessant rain has resulted in a much smaller harvest.

The weather forecast was better for Sunday but we knew the steep trails would be slippery. The fact that some of our clothes, our backpacks and Lois’ shoes were still wet this morning, confirmed our disinclination to walk what would be another challenging route. We caught a lift with our bags to Pontremoli with the husband of the proprietor of our BnB, La Casa dei Nonni. We understood enough of what he said to know that he would be taking the mountain route, which crossed with the VF, rather than the autostrada, for which we were grateful and excited. While low clouds and mist continued to hang in the valleys, the views were incredible. We stopped at the top of the Passo Dello Cisa (1041m elevation), to look at where we would have walked. This mountain pass is located on the border between northern Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, and marks the division between the Ligurian and Tuscan Apennines.

Back in Pontremoli, where we had stayed earlier, the sun was shining and it seemed that summer might be returning. We checked into the B&B Ai Chiosi, an old stone building converted to smart loft apartments, situated in the midst of gardens very close to the old town. After reading Mag’s comment about her boots smelling after wading through the river, Lois had a closer inspection of her Lowa’s, which had sat damp overnight. She immediately set about washing them in the bidet!

We headed first to the Chiesa di San Pietro, only open on Sundays, to view the fascinating medieval finger labyrinth preserved on the church wall. While we were having lunch afterwards in the piazza, Lois realized she wasn’t feeling well. She later developed a fever, which has continued into Monday. As this is the third time this has happened on this trip, we have decided to end our walk. We will take the train to Lucca tomorrow, with the hopes of spending a few days in Tuscany before heading home.

12thC finger labyrinth
Pinnochio statue in Pontremoli

Saturday May 20, 2023

Sivizzano to Villa di Casola/ Berceto, 13.23km walking

Perhaps we should have listened to the weather. We knew we were in for a hard day, already, with a relentless climb for the first 10 kms. In better weather, it would have been tough, but beautiful.
But the mist, low cloud and constant drizzle deprived us of the views, giving us muddy paths and wet feet instead.

From Sivizzano, we followed the road, climbing steadily to Bardone and on to Terenzo. Where the VF route veered off on a path, a sign advised walkers to keep to the road in bad weather, which we did. However, after Terenzo there was no alternative, as the path and road diverged. We were now in a low cloud on a very steep gravel path that seemed to go on forever. Paul helped keep Lois’ spirits up by describing the book he is reading, The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling). By the time we descended to the hamlet of Castello di Casola, we were pretty wet and getting cold as a wind had whipped up. There was nowhere to get a coffee or even to find shelter. We sat on the edge of a stone wall and had some cheese and crackers and tea from our thermos. The trail plunged steeply downwards from here, water streaming down the path. For a couple of stretches, the path was just a narrow muddy stream, requiring us to walk sideways downhill digging our poles into the mud to stop from sliding. Eventually, we reached a road again, but as we could see on the map that it was a dead end and we would soon have to climb again along a muddy trail to Cassio, we decided to call it quits and sent a message to the taxi driver who rescued us yesterday. He arrived 30 minutes later and took us to our BnB in Berceto.

Outside pizza/ bread oven
In the clouds

Friday May 19, 2023

Felegara to Fornovo di Taro/ Sivizzano, 10.28km

If yesterday was one of our best walks on this trip, today’s gets the prize for the worst!

The tour company had booked us a room in a hotel in Saint’Andrea Bagni last night, near
Medesano, the end of yesterday’s route. The town is described as a hilltop spa resort, known for its therapeutic thermal waters. What we found was an original art deco baths building in huge disrepair and a hotel which had seen better days. (And btw, Lois had Paul remove the black velvet painting from above the bed. ;))

The pizzeria nearby was good, however, and we had an enjoyable meal with Angus and Kathryn. The dining room was plastered with pictures of 60’s singers and movie stars and a large Elvis cardboard cutout stood in the corner!

We woke to rain again and 12C. The news reported that flooding in this region in the past few days has caused at least 14 deaths and left thousands more homeless. After not having rained for seven months, some areas of Emilia-Romagna received nearly 20 inches in 36 hours, about half the annual average.

While waiting for our ride to take us back to the trail, Angus noted that someone had posted on the VF Fb page that the trail was partially flooded near Felegara, which was where we had decided to begin our walk today, to shorten it. We avoided that section, taking a parallel track across a field, plodding through mud, puddles and wet grass. We rejoined the VF path further on, only to find the trail effectively blocked by deep mud and flowing water. We backtracked to the track and followed it to an underpass that went below the motorway, but found that access to the other side was blocked by a wire fence. While Lois contemplated climbing the fence, Paul consulted the map which showed that we would still not be able to get across a ditch on the other side of the field. We therefore made our way all the way back to an underpass we had walked through earlier, only to find it now flooded. We had no choice but to wade through about 30cms of dirty water to get to stepping stones along the edge. By that time, Angus and Kathryn had arrived at the other end and we were able to warn them about going any further. We wrang out our socks and met up for coffee back in Felegara, 1 1/2 hours after we had started out. Now, the only alternative was to walk 5 kms to Fornovo along the busy main road, with no hard shoulders. It was not a pleasant experience.

Just before Fornovo, we stopped at a supermarket to get supplies for dinner as there are no restaurants in Sivizzano, where we are staying tonight. Across the bridge over the river, Taro, we looked for somewhere to stop for lunch. Walking into the first restaurant we came to, La Maison, we realised it was a Michelin restaurant! When Lois looked inquiringly at the Maître D , pointing to her wet clothing and dripping backpacks to see if we would be welcome, he graciously ushered us in, with “prego, prego!” (We didn’t tell him we had wet feet!)

Feeling as though we had suddenly been spirited away to another world, we thoroughly enjoyed a meal of poached egg on asparagus with shaved truffles, fresh pasta and local mushrooms, a glass of Sangiovese for Lois, semifreddo (antica recetta de la casa) and espressos. We contacted our BnB to arrange to be picked up at the restaurant.

Our accommodation is a bit rustic (our “private” bathroom is actually downstairs and outside through another door!), but we were able to convince the proprietor to turn on the heat (apparently against the law in May) so that we could dry out. More rain is forecast for tomorrow.

Thursday May 18, 2023

Fidenza to Cella/ Sant’Andrea Bagni, 18.31km walking

Near the main square in Fidenza we had our pre-walk coffee (9/10) and ordered another “asporto” (to take away) in Lois’ coffee thermos. Cafés are everywhere, but we have never seen anyone with a “take out” cup, or indeed any cafe offering them. Espresso is consumed sitting down or standing up at a counter, and seemingly often “on the run”, but never walking down the street.

We were encouraged by the clearing skies and, in fact, the weather was perfect for the whole walk – sun and scattered cloud, the temperature in the high teens. It was also one of our most enjoyable walks.

The trail was flat at first, following a bicycle/pedestrian path, and then climbed gradually away from the city. We passed the Church of St Thomas Becket, originally the chapel of a manor belonging to the Knights Templar. The guidebook mentioned a series of frescoes, but, unfortunately we should have arranged in advance to see inside.

While having a break sitting on a stone wall, a couple of walkers from Australia stopped to chat. Before beginning the VF in Aosta, Angus and Catherine had spent a month travelling around Eastern Europe.

By the time we got to Costamezzana, we had left the plains behind and were in the foothills of the Appenines. The rolling countryside was verdant with fields of wheat and hay, with masses of red poppies, the scent of roses, honeysuckle and other shrubs heavy after the rains.

We stopped at a trattoria, ordered a bottle of sparkling water and ate our bread and cheese on the patio. The landlord brought us out a pilgrim’s register to sign and a stamp for our credentials and shook our hands when we left. Later, we climbed up past the 14thC Castello di Costamezzana and carried on to the peak of a ridge at the Via Gabbiano. The views were spectacular. We called ahead to arrange to be picked up outside the church at Cella, a few kilometers further on and down in a valley.

Church of Sir Thomas Becket
Coffee break
Castillo di Costamezzano

Wednesday May 17, 2023


We stayed last night in an apartment close to the centre. It was clean and well-provisioned, but a bit over the top in terms of velvet draperies, sheers, masses of silk flowers, knickknacks and generic prints with inspirational quotes. But, it had a washing machine. We have clean clothes for the week.

The cool wet weather continues. We came to Italy to escape the rain in France, but it seems to have now caught up with us again. We are wearing all of our layers most days. This morning, it was raining heavily.

We moved over to our hotel, where a package of information from The Natural Adventure Company was waiting for us. The self-guided tour will follow the VF route through the Apennines, but take it over more days and our bags will be transported for us. We are looking forward to this section, just wishing the weather would improve!

The primary sight we wanted to visit in Fidenza was the Cathédrale di San Donnino. A plaque outside the cathedral describes the church as a “fine example of Romanesque art”. Dating from the 12thC, it was built on the site of the martyrdom of Saint Domninus, whose relics are housed in the Cathedral’s crypt. The interior is peaceful, simple and well-proportioned, and has not been spoilt by restoration. An organist was playing as we wandered through.

The high point of the construction of the Cathedral is represented by the work of Benedetto Antelami, an Italian architect and sculptor of the Romanesque school, around the entrance to the church and the vaults, which we spent some time gazing at.

The Cicerone guide gives a description of Antelami’s incredibly detailed and remarkably well-preserved work:

“Episodes from the Old and New Testaments are depicted along the side walls. In a sculpture between the left and center portal the apostle Simon holds a parchment showing Via Francigena pilgrims the way to Rome. Another scene, above a griffin and a capricorn, shows an angel leading a rich family of pilgrims while across from it a centaur hits a deer under a family of poor pilgrims. On the right tower a bas-relief seems to show pilgrims on the road to Rome, an image that has become iconic for the Via Francigena, though scholars generally interpret it as depicting Charlemagne returning to France”.

Palazzo Comunale
Porta di San Donnino

Monday and Tuesday May 15 & 16, 2023

Sarzana to Massa to Fidenza, 24.6km

We decided to take the short train ride to Massa and walk to the sea rather than along the route, which would have entailed a steep climb at the beginning and a steep climb at the end, the archeological museum at Luni (closed on Monday) and the industry around the marble quarries high up in the mountains.

Leaving our bags at the hotel, we walked 5kms along the Viale Roma road straight to the Mediterranean! Beyond a wonderful sculpture of giant blocks of marble, there was access to a stretch of “free beach”, bounded on either side with fenced areas of beach huts and deck chairs for rent. We sat for a long while out on a breakwater (also constructed of Carrara marble!), enjoying the sun, sound of the waves and sea air. Just north is the Ligurian stretch of coast, Cinque Terra, where we walked in 2017.

Later, back in town, we located a shop where Paul bought new insoles for his boots, having discovered the cause of a new blister! Dinner was standard but very good: ricotta spinach ravioli and penne arrabiata.

The following morning, with a few hours before our journey by train and bus to Fidenza, we decided to hike up to the Castello Malaspina di Massa. It was a very steep trek up narrow cobbled roads to the gates of the impressive castle, unfortunately only open at weekends. But, we were rewarded with great, though cloudy views out to the Mediterranean and behind to the Apuan Alps.

The castle, which has a long history of ownership and structural changes, was the finest residence of the Malaspina family between the 15th and 17thCs.

In 1944, the castle was a prison. After the Allies destroyed the remand centre in the town, the occupying German forces transferred more prisoners to the castle. In September 1944, during a brutal massacre of clerics and civilians suspected of collaborating with the partisans, the SS evacuated the castle and executed the prisoners on the banks of a nearby river.

In 2006 the Comune di Massa was awarded the Medalia d’Oro al Merito Civile (the Gold Medal for Civil Merit) which recognized the Partisans’ fight against Fascism, those killed in combat, the civilian opposition to the harsh German orders, the courage of Massa’s women in their search for food and the support for the Partisans’ fight.

Sunday May 14, 2023

Aulla to Sarzana, 22.28km (Paul)

Paul walked alone today as Lois decided to rest her hip, going instead by taxi with the bags to Sarzana.

The Cicerone Guide says that todays route is short, but not easy. In Paul’s view, it was neither short, nor easy. At times, the terrain brought to mind a certain volcano in Nicaragua which Lois and Maritia will remember very well! The initial steep, rocky and wet climb was through evergreen forests in the Apuan Alps, eventually emerging just below the hilltop village of Bibola, with its 7thC castle. By that time, the rain had begun and it continued into the afternoon. After the next village, the path took another steep incline to the top of the next hill. Paul was passed by mountain bikers a couple of times on the way down to the village of Ponzano Superiore. This village was apparently well known as a centre for Italian partisans (anti-fascists) in WWII. Further on, after olive groves and more rocky paths, the ruins of the Castle of Brina come into view. These fortifications date from the 5th to 4thC BC, but were intentionally destroyed in the Peace of Castelnuovo in 1306. This was a settlement between the Malaspina family and the Count-Bishops of Luni, negotiated with the assistance of the poet, Dante. One of the towers remains on its side.

Eventually, the trail dropped down through vineyards to the valley floor and continued to Sarzana alongside a canal.

Ponzano Superiore
Into Sarzana

Saturday May 13, 2023

Pontremoli to Aulla, 13.52km walking, train

The early morning rain ended as we left the apartment, backtracking into the centre of the town for coffee and croissants. Here, we found the Saturday market setting up, where we bought bread, fruit, and potato and onion flan for lunch.

On the outskirts of Pontremoli, we noticed sculptures of Disney figures. We later read that
there are two popular Italian cartoon booklets, Topolina (Mickey Mouse) and Paperion (Donald Duck), often in serial form, about the adventures of these Walt Disney characters.

The route today stayed mostly in the valley, meandering through forest and amongst vineyards and orchards. In the small medieval village of Ponticello, we were interested to find tower-houses. Locally called caminà, this type of housing was created as fortified buildings.

A placard details: “These were stone structures that served simultaneously, as the name suggests, as both residences and fortresses. The access door was on the upper floor and was served by a retractable staircase. On the ground floor there was a cistern for access to drinking water in the event of a siege. These structures date back to the 11th and 13th centuries.” We couldn’t find any remaining retractable staircases.

Further on in Filattiera, we passed the 12thC Romanesque Santo Stefano Church, which houses two of seven Stele Statues found locally. We assumed the stele behind the church must be replicas.

Aware that thunderstorms were forecast, we watched the sky grow progressively darker and decided to hop the next train to Aulla from Filattiera as lightening began to flash.

It was raining hard when we arrived the delightful B&B Bed and Bike. It is run by a couple of cycling enthusiasts, who own a bike store below. The host was gracious and the apartment wonderful. We shared some cycling experiences with the help of Google Translate.

Our host recommended a pizza restaurant nearby and urged us to try the farinata as an appetizer, which we did and it was delicious. It is a shallow savory pie made out of water and chickpea flour, baked in a wood-fired oven to form a golden crust.

Pontcello, tower houses
Santo Stefano Church, Filattiera
Stele Statue
More weather…

Thursday and Friday May 11 & 12, 2023

Pavia to Pontremoli via Piacenza

We booked with The Natural Adventure company to support us through the Apennines. As the first date available with them is May 17, we will walk ahead on the route, ie, between Pontremoli and Lucca, and return to do the stages between Fidenza and Pontremoli.

We stopped in Piacenza, only because we had booked accommodation before we had changed our plans. But, it was also an interesting city. The Cicerone guide succinctly describes its history:

“Though captured and destroyed many times in its first centuries, Piacenza always recovered and its rich agricultural roots helped it become one of the most prosperous cities in Europe in the Middle Ages. In the 17th c. one-third of its residents died from famine and plague and in 1802 Napoleon annexed Piacenza and carried many of its artworks away to French museums. Piacenza was heavily bombed by the Allies in WWII to slow the German retreat. Rail lines, industrial areas and bridges were targets, but the center suffered collateral damage.”

Our apartment in the Centro Historico was old, richly decorated and voluminous. On a closer look, the electrical wiring was also very dated! There was also no sign of heating, despite the 12C temperature.

On our way to the train station Friday morning, we stopped for breakfast (coffee and croissants) at a great bar/cafe, Pisarei e Fa… Blues. The walls were covered with written notes from customers and artists, including Canadian blues singer, Layla Zoe. Great music played in the background.

Palazzo Malaspina

During a brief wait between trains in Parma, we went across the road to the Cafe Stazione and had an especially good coffee, 9/10 on the Gully scale. (We can get a good espresso anywhere in Italy and we would rate them all above 8/10.)

Changing to a bus in Berceto, it started to tip down with rain. As the bus sped along the autostrada, we looked out at the Appenines, shrouded in mist, and (Lois) wondered how those walks will go. At Pontremoli, we quickly headed to our AirBnB.

It had cleared up when we went out exploring later. First stop would have been the Church of San Pietro, where, in the modern building, there is a small sandstone labyrinth from the 12thC on a piece of wall remaining after the original church was damaged in 1944. Unfortunately, we discovered that the church is only open on Sundays.

The medieval village of Pontremoli,  believed to have been first settled around 1000 BC., lies in the heart of  Lunigiana, a mountainous area stretching from the Tosco-Emiliano Appenines to the Mediterranean Sea following the Magra River. While a part of Northern Tuscany, the village of dark stone and narrow alleys appears to be relatively untouched by tourism. 

The town may get its name from the phrase “Ponte tremulus”, because of a bridge with a shaky constitution that spanned the river Magra, a bridge that already existed when Henry VI reigned around the year 1165. There are several bridges across the Magra and Verde Rivers which join at the south end of the city. One bridge, the Ponte della Cresa, spans the river Verde with four stone arches. Originally built of wood, this bridge dates back to the 1300’s, although rebuilt many times due to continuous damage by floods and sieges.

We wandered through the town, stopped for gelato, and then took an elevator up to the Castello del Piagnaro, a medieval castle designed to guard the main roads leading through the Apennine Mountains to Rome. While the castle itself was interesting, we were intrigued to find that it now houses the Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianese. This is a fascinating collection of stele statues dating back to the European Neolithic era. The sandstone figures representing stylized male and female human figures have been discovered all over Lunigiania, this part of Tuscany, but primarily in the area south of Pontremolli.

Berceto to Pontremoli
River Magra
Stele Statues

Tuesday and Wednesday May 9 and 10, 2023

Vercelli to Pavia by train. Pavia walk, 19.09km

By way of a 1.5 hr train trip to Pavia, we avoided four days of walking alongside the flat Vercelli rice fields, now levelled and flooded again with water for planting during May. The rice seeds will be sown in the water, using specially-equipped amphibious tractors.

After locating our apartment, we spent some time over gelatos planning the days ahead. We realize now that our original plan to primarily walk the VF route is not always practical (stages are long and often challenging) or desirable (ie, flat farmland), and often conflict with our equal desire to experience the culture of the cities. We needed a plan to allow for both. Lois downloaded the Cicerone guide for another viewpoint and, as it turned out, better maps. We agreed that, if possible, we would both like to walk the stages of the route in the Apennines and also in Tuscany. After that, we would see. For the Apennine Mountains, we decided to book a tour that would look after luggage transfer and also provide backup, if a stage is found to be too long or strenuous.

In the meantime, we set off to explore Pavia. We walked to the Ponte Coperto, a reconstruction of an ancient bridge across the river Ticino. The Ticino originates in the Alps, flows through the Swiss canton of Ticino and into the Po river near Pavua. The stone and brick arch bridge , including a chapel, was modelled on its medieval predecessor (itself a replacement for a Roman construction, parts of which are still visible on the river floor) which had partially collapsed following Allied bombing in 1945. While the bridge looked old, the knowledge that it dated from 1951 was a bit disappointing, although the desire to replace a beloved bridge in the same style after the devastation of WWII is understandable.

On Wednesday morning, the temperature had dropped to 12C and it was pouring, making Lois question her decision (when it was 26C) to send back her long hiking pants, warm jacket and rain pants! She also second-guessed her decision to wash out her capris (only remaining hiking wear), as they had not dried overnight. Fortunately, Paul came to the rescue, suggesting she use the hair dryer, which worked a treat! Wanting to walk today, we were debating between walking ahead on the route and returning by train to Pavia or walking around the city and beyond to view the sights. We chose the latter.

After a visit to the very helpful tourist office, we headed first to view the Cathedral (Duomo di Pavia). From the outside, the unusual building principally made of red brick almost looks ruined, but inside reveals a massive , somewhat overwhelmingly opulent Renaissance-style church, one of the largest buildings in central northern Italy. Built in the 15thC to replace two existing “twin” Romanesque cathedrals, the Duomo is made in the form of a Greek Cross, with three naves flanked by semi-circular chapels. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have worked on its foundations.

Next, we walked over to the University of Pavia, passing by three medieval brick towers, the only ones still standing of a hundred or more of these structures built to reflect the stature and power of prominent families. The University, opened in 1361, is one of the oldest in Europe. On our wander through, we went into the lecture theatre where Alessandro Volta presented the newly invented electrical battery to Napoleon. Our visit to the lovely Romanesque Church of San Michele nearby was memorable for the delightful man who showed us the important sights inside: a partially preserved floor mosaic from the 1100’s in the form of a labyrinth, with panels above representing the months of the year and the activities in the community associated with each month, and an unusual gold laminated silver crucifix from the 10thC, depicting a peaceful Jesus, with no wounds, his arms outstretched in welcome.

After lunch in a small, smart Vietnamese restaurant, we went to visit the 14thC Visconti Castle, but, as it didn’t reopen until 2:00, we carried on walking north out of the city towards Certosa, an 8 km walk along the Naviglio Pavese Canal. The canal and its locks, two of which we passed (non-working), were part of a plan of Leonardo Da Vinci to link Switzerland, Milan, Venice and the Adriatic.

The canal led us close to the 15thC Certosa di Pavia, a monastery and complex built in 1396-1495, by the Visconti family of Milan. The church was to serve as a mausoleum for the family. The location was strategically chosen midway between Milan and Pavia, the second city of the Duchy, where the Duke held his court, at the end of a large hunting park, which connected the Certosa to the castle of Pavia.

According to Wikipedia, “Certosa is the Italian equivalent of Charterhouse: a monastery of the cloistered monastic order of Carthusians founded by St. Bruno in 1044 at Grande Chartreuse. Though the Carthusians in their early centuries were known for their seclusion and asceticism and the plainness of their architecture, the Certosa is renowned for the exuberance of its architecture, in both the Gothic and Renaissance styles, and for its collection of artworks which are particularly representative of the region”.

As parts of the complex could only be seen on a guided tour by one of the monks in Italian, we had a look in the church and peeked into the cloisters, then walked around the high walls of the perimeter to the train station in Certosa to get a train back to the city. Finally, we visited the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. As we had become acquainted with the life of Saint Augustine in Canterbury, we thought that we might see his tomb here. Dating from 1402, it is described as a “splendid monumental marble ark”. A plaque outside bears a passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy, recognizing the Church as the burial place also of the philosopher Severinus Boethius.

Rice fields
Ponte Coperto
Medieval Towers
Visconti Castle

Monday May 7, 2023

Santhia to Vercelli, by train

We decided that we would prefer to look at the rice paddies from a train, rather than walk through them for hours on end, possibly while being bitten by mosquitoes! Additionally, Paul was nursing a couple of painful blisters. So, we hopped on the 9:17 train, arriving in the town of Vercelli 10 minutes later.

One of the oldest urban sites in northern Italy, Vercelli was founded, according to most historians, around 600 BC. It is the largest European rice-growing region and rice is the main factor in the economy. The ancient system of irrigation, described below,  has been found to be a double-edged sword, however.  While saving water, the system increases greenhouse gases by releasing carbon. 

The large plains located between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea allow for an effective system of irrigation by submersion. When the summer period starts, water melts from the Alps’ glaciers, reaching the Pianura Padana. The water is stocked there for a few months, from April to September, thanks to artificially constructed embankments. Once the rice fields have been flooded and rice has grown, the water is then released and returns to the sea.

We dropped our bags at the flat we had booked and headed for espressos and the tourist information centre. The staff person there was very helpful and guided us to the most interesting sights, most of which are churches. Unfortunately, a sculpture exhibition that looked interesting featuring a major retrospective dedicated to the work of Italian sculpture Giacomo Manzù was not open today.

We headed first to the Basilica di Saint’Andrea, built from 1219 to 1227 with funds that a cardinal obtained from being granted, by Henry III, “perpetual rights to the income of St Andrew’s Church, Chesterton, near Cambridge”! The cardinal also supported the construction of a hospital for pilgrims on the VF. The bell tower was built in the 15thC and is unusually positioned at an angle to the main body of the building. The inside features colourful and decorative vaults. In 1511, the Cremonese cabinet maker Paolo Sacca created exquisite inlaid wood depictions of the town places which are in the quire.

After lunch, we continued our tour, which included a huge synagogue, built in Arab-Moresque style between 1875-1877, the first Jewish temple to be built in Italy after the emancipation of the Jews in 1848 (Carlo Alberto, King of Piedmont and Sardinia, granted the Jews civil and political equality which was extended to the whole of Italy as it became unified, concluding in 1870.)

Our accommodation is on the Piazza Cavour, the arcades of which date from the 13th and 14thC. Two towers overlook the square, the Torre dell’Angelo, which is the remains of a fortified house, and a 16thC bell tower. We spent the late afternoon at a cafe/ bar in the Piazza where Lois enjoyed her first ever Aperol spritz.

Tomorrow, we will go by train to Pavia.

Basilica di Saint’ Andrea


Sunday May 7, 2023

Viverone to Santhia, 20.16km

A thunder storm during the night was dramatic and had cleared the air. Hoping for an early start, we arrived at the pasticerria soon after 8:00, but it was already hopping on a Sunday morning in the touristy town of Viverone. They provided great espresso, pastries, yoghurt and fresh fruit. We even stayed for a second capucinno when Paul realized his Apple watch had not charged during the night!

Rejoining the VF, we gradually climbed out of Viverone and along the moraine. It was pleasant countryside of woods, vineyards, orchards and meadows. Descending to Cavaglia, we had yet another coffee (ie, bathroom break!) The terrain became flatter and we found ourselves walking along unshaded tracks on completely flat farmland, with fields planted with corn, wheat and barley. We ate our lunch sitting on our groundsheet at the edge of a field. As the day got warmer, the walk across fields became more tedious, especially when the route went over and then alongside the motorway. By Santhia, we were rethinking the next few days’ walk.

Our spirits were revived when we found a cute restaurant which served antipasto like Mrs. Gobbi used to make, and lemon risotto.

Typical chimney

Saturday May 6, 2023

Ivrea to Viverone, 21.45km

Walking away from Ivrea, we could identify the long completely flat moraine that encloses the plain of Ivrea in a horseshoe shape. The Moraine Amphitheater of Ivrea, which spreads over an area of approximately 530 sq. km, is one of the world’s most important geological formations of glacial origin. It was generated by the actions of the Balteo Glacier a “river” of ice 100km in length and 800m tall which came down from the Valle d’Aosta. The glacier also left numerous lakes, nested in different morainic hollows, one of the larger being Lago Viverone, today’s destination.

Continuing to follow the Dora Baltea River, the route took us first along a path beside tiny Lago Di Campagna, along generally flat tracks, through forest and alongside vineyards and orchards. At Buroli, we found one of two “susta”- places offering a bench and source of water for pilgrims/walkers. We stopped at a cafe there to use the facilities (no public washrooms on the VF!) and to enjoy a glass of thick and delicious local pear juice. Later, at the next “susta”, a group of four Italian hikers were just leaving and motioned for us to use the space. Coming from the Lago Garda area, they were doing the VF in stages – this year from Chatillon to Pavia. While we rested, four other younger walkers passed by. At Canavese, we sat in the shade of the 14thC bell tower and gate, Paul trying to photograph the barn swallows nesting in the ceiling.

The weather was warm and increasingly humid. After a long climb up to Piverone, we passed through another bell tower and gate, this time from the 13thC. Soon after, we came upon the ruins of the small Romanesque church of San Pietro di Livione at Gesiùn, dating from between the 10th and 11thC. The name Gesiùn means big church, despite its miniscule size! We chatted with a couple of young cyclists who wanted their picture taken to show they had cycled all the way up there!

By now, we could see Lago di Viverone down in the valley, looking very inviting in the afternoon heat. Unfortunately, when we checked the location of the apartment we had reserved, we discovered it was not in the valley, but at the very top of a very long hill overlooking the lake. Great views, but not at the end of a long day with temperatures up to 26oC!

For dinner, we were not going anywhere that required any walking so reserved at the restaurant attached to the apartment. This turned out to be a perfect choice as the restaurant was amazing (as well as being extremely popular for those arriving by 4 wheels!). We had fresh ravioli with a braised onion relish, followed by whitefish from Lake Viverone and ended with a desert of fresh berries and cream, flowing out of a chocolate pot. The local white wine was Erbaluce (?)

As we left the restaurant, we were told apologetically that breakfast would not be served before 09:00 as the restaurant would not be closing until 01:00! We were directed to their sister pasticerria down on the village, with a voucher.

Topography of the area
View from Viverone apartment

Friday May 5, 2023


Now that we are out of the mountains, it is harder to justify having our bags transported, so we spent a day in Ivrea to organize a parcel to send extra weight back to Canada. With the help of Google Translate, we bought a box at the post office which we duly filled with 5.25kg of stuff that we do not now or did not ever need! (Lois, who had less to send back, is a bit resistant to the idea of carrying her 30L pack again, after the luxury of hiking with a daypack – we shall see!)

In a couple of sports shops we found rubber tips for our poles (to stop the clacking on cobblestone!) and new, lighter socks for Lois

Later in the day after gelato: strawberry for Lois and lemon in a brioche(!) for Paul, we climbed up to the castle. It was built in 1358 as a symbol of the dominance of the House of Savoy in the region. Undergoing needed renovations, it is impressive from the outside, although strangely has only 3 towers. We discovered that, in 1657, one of the towers that served as a powder magazine was struck by lightning causing deaths and extensive damage. That tower was never totally rebuilt.

Cityscape and tribute to founder of Olivetti typewriters which were made in Ivrea.

Thursday May 4, 2023

Pont-Saint-Martin 21.51km (17.84km walking)

Arranging for our bags to be taken by taxi again on this final stage of the Aosta valley, we walked a short distance through the old town to view the Roman bridge of Pont-Saint-Martin. Built in the 1stC BC, the bridge carried the Via delle Gallie across the River Lys. While most of the surrounding buildings were destroyed by the Allied bombing of Pont Saint-Martin on August 23, 1944, this bridge remained standing.

It was quite a challenging walk today, the route returning to the lower hillsides, the path often narrow, steep (both up and down) and rocky. Taking a break at the Capella di San Rocco, we got a wonderful view south along the valley. The flags of both Piedmont and Italy marked our crossing over from the province of Aosta.

The area around Carema, a small village on the border between Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta, is covered with terraced vineyards of Nebbiolo grapes, used to make Carema DOC wine. Described as a natural amphitheatre protected from the cold north winds and with plenty of sunshine, but on a steep slope, the mountain has been terraced with dry stone walls with pergolas.

Each chestnut wood pergola, called a topia, is supported on one side by a dry-stone wall and on the other by a system of stone columns called pilun. The stone supports not only have the task of supporting the vines: they store the sun’s heat during the day and maintain an ideal microclimate at night. In addition, the suspended “wolf’s mouth” pergola also allowed the space underneath to be used for growing vegetables. When occasionally the path passed under a pergola, we appreciated the shade from the grape vines above!

The Fountain in the Via Basilia in Carema was noteworthy for the inscriptions and coats of arms on the top of the stele: a cross-shaped coat of arms, French coat of arms, coat of arms with monogram of Saint Bernardino and Savoy Knot coat of arms with the probable date of construction of 1571. Put together all the phrases translate as “If someone is thirsty let him come to me and drink”.

The valley of Aosta was under the House of Savoy from the 11thC until the creation of Italy in 1870.

Walking past a campsite in Torredaniele, we were stopped by Claudia, a volunteer with the Ivrea chapter of La Via Francigena de Sigerico, a group dedicated to supporting the VF, including marking of the route with temporary signs until definitive signs are in place. Claudia and another volunteer were repainting the white pilgrim image along the route.

In Settimo Vittone, we passed by the “old” castle from at least the 9thC which was built on the route of the Via Francigena. Later we saw, from a distance, the castle of Montestrutto, from the same period.

At Borgofranco, we bought some fresh strawberries from a stand and waited for the local train to take us the rest of the way to Ivrea.


Wednesday May 3, 2023

Verrés to Pont-Saint-Martin, 16.84km

Al Drit, our B&B in Verrés was the kind of place you want to stay for a few days. A delightful property with a garden and private terrace, it sits just below the Castillo de Verrés, with a view out over the Valley. What’s more, the family also operates the excellent Ristorate La Tour next door. Although the restaurant is closed on Tuesday, we were served a lovely meal from their normal menu, including vegetable and saffron tart, vegetarian polpettes, tagliatelle with Aosta Bleu cheese, panna cotta and crostata (jam tart). Breakfast this morning included orange cake, croissants alla marmellata, cheese, yoghurt and good espresso.

After seeing our bags off by taxi to Pont-Saint-Martin, we walked up to the castle to have a look at this impressive 14thC fortress which dominates the town of Verrés and the Val d’Ayas. By the beginning of the 19thC, the building was falling into disrepair. Through the efforts of the “Director of the Crown Delegation for the preservation of Piedmontese and Ligurian Monuments” restoration began in 1894 and was completed in 1920.

A cobbled path took us back down to the town centre, where we rejoined the VF which took us across the Dora Bâltea River and then along the western side of the valley floor. (We chose an alternative route avoiding a wide loop to visit the church of San Martino in Arnad.) The route was easy walking and interesting. Of note: the 18thC Bridge of Echallod (where Paul got caught up in thick underbrush and vines trying to get a photo), the ancient town of Hône, where in 1867, flooding from the river resulted in 93 people succumbing to cholera; the medieval village of Bard,
dominated by a fortress originating from the 11thC. The streets are lined with historic houses too numerous to detail! And, lastly, in Donnas we were privileged (and slightly awed) to be able to walk along a section of the Via delle Gallie, the Roman consular road that crossed the lower Aosta Valley into Gaul. The stretch of road was carved into the bare rock for a distance of 221 metres, opening in a 4-metre-high archway.

Cholera cemetery, Hône
Forte di Bard
Main rail line
Hône-Bard bridge from 1272
Unidentified butterfly

Tuesday May 2, 2023 (Lois)

Some thoughts from Lois on a reluctant day off.

The guide book indicated that the 19km route to Verrez would be “another strenuous stage returning to the terraced hill-sides on the north and east flanks of the Aosta valley before descending to the broadening valley floor.” Unfortunately, this is where our interrupted training becomes relevant. While we have been walking 15 kms or more on relatively flat terrain in England and France, that same distance in the mountains requires a level of endurance I am still developing. (Paul, with his daily planks and push-ups, is fine!) I feel quite fit and strong for fifteen kilometres and then I suddenly crash. As today’s route is slightly longer, I did not want that to happen mid-hike. So, it was with reluctance that I saw Paul off on a brilliantly sunny morning, the snowy peaks revealed in all their majestic splendour. My job would be to transport myself and our bags to Verrés by taxi.

The frustration of not being able to hike this stage of the Via Francigena on such an exquisite day has me considering why I so want to do this walk, in whatever version I can. Herein are my musings.

Because this is an ancient pilgrimage route, there is much discussion among fellow “pilgrims” about purpose. For some, the notion of pilgrimage in a religious sense is appealing. Even for the non-religious, like me, as we walk the route, it is hard not to feel a connection with the many who have preceded us over centuries, perhaps in search of spiritual meaning. (The thought that anyone might assume a religious purpose on our part, however, prompted us to put a link on our blog to “Every child matters: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation”.)

A pilgrim, of course, does not have to have a spiritual purpose. As a York University site states,

‘Pilgrim’ and ‘pilgrimage’ are words that have carried a range of meanings over the centuries.
The English term ‘pilgrim’ originally comes from the Latin word peregrinus (per, through + ager, field, country, land), which means a foreigner, a stranger, someone on a journey, or a temporary resident. It can describe a traveller making a brief journey to a particular place or someone settling for a short or long period in a foreign land. Peregrinatio was the state of being or living abroad.

(The term “peregrinus” was used in the Bible to refer to one’s journey through life. From the 4th century, peregrinus took on a further sense within Christian thought, describing a traveller with a particular religious goal.)

For me, the earliest meaning resonates. The notion of being on a journey, ie, rather than being a tourist, captures for me something of the experience I am seeking. There is always the hope that travel in a foreign land might expand the mind and broaden the heart. A slow journey, on bicycle, or in this case, by foot, assists this goal, through the gradual accumulation of information and new perspectives.

The physical aspect of hiking this journey is critical. Having previously toured by bicycle, we are both keen to experience again the satisfaction of pushing our bodies, the delight of being outside for a good part of each day, the sense of accomplishment and feeling of well-being. And, of course, we have the pleasure of seeing new places, meeting new people, eating great food and finding some basic connection in awkward efforts to communicate in another language.

Yet, I am also aware of another, more personal, reason for wanting to be here just now. Since a diagnosis of Stage 3C ovarian cancer in 2020, I live daily with the knowledge that I may have a recurrence. While this knowledge does not make me feel morbid, it certainly underlines for me the need to live my life fully. And that, ultimately, is why I’m here. I want the feeling of being truly alive that this whole experience offers.

Tuesday May 2, 2023 (Paul)

Chatillon to Verrés, 21km

It was a good day to walk but not as enjoyable as I was by myself. The description in the guide book referred to in Lois’ blog was accurate. I met Ad again a couple of times and passed the time of day with a couple of other walkers.

Via delle Gallie – Roman road along the valley, here with furrows left by countless wagons
Green marble from local quarries
Alpine scenery, architecture and cows

Monday May 1, 2023

Nus to Châtillon, 16.4km

Our solution to the bag transportation issue was to take the 7-minute train journey to Châtillon, drop our bags at the hotel and return to Nus, all for 8€. The only problem was the hike up from the train station to the hotel, carrying 4 packs between us. Paul, being Paul, left Lois at a coffee bar enjoying a coffee and croissant while he lugged our 2 bags up the hill.

Seeing that the coffee shop sold panna cotta in small takeout quantities, we bought 2 of these to add to our lunch of cheese and ciabatta. It is May 1, a national holiday, but we found one bakery in the town open.

With light rain falling, we again took up the Chemin des Vignobles, with its frequent informative signs. We learned that the “adret” or south facing side of the valley, being warmer and more arid than the “envers”, was much more developed agriculturally, with the cultivation of wheat and oats at higher levels (now abandoned), and abundant vineyards and orchards lower down, as we have seen. Thus, the major settlements in early times were located in this part of the valley and became a preferred route of communication for trade over the Alps.

We could see the castle of Fenis (12th-14thC) across the valley, which is apparently the finest example of a non-single unit gothic castle in the Alpine region. We read that the castles in the valley were not self-contained entities in constant war with other fortresses, but that medieval lords, sharing the same needs and external threats, banded together, communicating among themselves by means of homing pigeons and visual systems employing mirrors, flags and smoke during the day and fires at night.

Walking through Chambave, we found an open bar where we stopped for hot chocolate and a cannoli. Later on the trail, as we were sheltering beside an overhang drinking tea, a fellow walker appeared. Ad, who is Dutch, had walked from Bristol (via Canterbury) to Reims last year and is trying to complete the walk this year. He was complaining that the weather was “bad, bad”!

Along with vineyards and fruit orchards, including figs beginning to ripen, the path took us through deciduous forests of oak, chestnut and birch (among those species we identified). We had a few more very steep declines on narrow, rocky paths, which were slippery in the rain, but manageable with our new poles.

The Costello di Ussel overlooks the town of Chatillon as is “the first single body castle in Val d’Aosta, which was the last evolutionary phase of medieval castles, and marked the passage between the contemporary castle in Fénis and the rigid forms in Verrès

Castle of Fenis
Castillo di Ussel
Masses of wild thyme
? From the 2006 Olympics
Ad, a fellow walker