St. Bernard’s Pass | Via Francigena

INTRODUCTION

The Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome was first traversed and documented by Bishop Sigeric in 990 AD to receive his Bishopric Cloak from Pope Paul XV. it was historically known as the Iter Francorum, the Lombard Way or Chemin des Anglois. In medieval times the Franks and the Normans re-established and expanded upon ancient Roman roads as they extended their influence across the continent. The name ‘Francigena’ is in fact derived from the Franks whose empire, with the blessing of the Pope, gave birth to the Holy Roman Empire as successors of Ancient Rome.

Besides the way from Canterbury, through France and Switzerland to Rome, other routes developed then that today are variants of the Via Francigena all directly or indirectly connecting to Rome. Among them are the Magna Via Francigena, Sicilia, and the Via Della Costa Salentina from or to Santa Maria Leuca. The latter was walked by pilgrims on their way to or from the Holy Land.

XirCammini interviewed Marie Louise Muscat Azzopardi, veteran hiker who walked part of the Magna Via Francigena in 2019. Marie Louise, a retired modern languages teacher and a grandmother is also a Camino aficionado. She walked several Caminos including the Camino Frances from Saint Jean Pied du Port to Santiago, the Camino del Norte, the Primitivo, part of the Camino Piemontese and the Aragonés route, in Spain. In France she also walked the full Via Podiensis from Le Puy-en-Velay to Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees, repeating the first 250 km of it 2 years ago from Le Puy to Conques.

Her latest Camino was from Lake Genève across the Grand St. Bernard’s Pass to Ivrea in Italy on the Magna Via Francigena.

INTERVIEW

  1. What motivate you to go on this particular Camino? What initial concerns did you have to overcome?

Having walked a quite a few Caminos in Spain an France I read about this other ancient European trail – the Via Francigena – starting from Canterbury, crossing the English channel and crossing both France and Switzerland into Italy across the Alps. While the historic pilgrimage of Sigeric ended at the Vatican some pilgrims even continued south to Santa Maria Leuca (Puglia) onward to Jerusalem by sea. The segment that caught my attention was the part where the Way crosses the Alps from Switzerland to Italy (St. Bernard’s Pass) because of my fascination with mountain passes and the sense of awe I experience when walking, day after day, enveloped by such magnificent scenery and vistas.

My motivation was probably the sense of challenge, first and foremost. I always go on these Caminos on my own. So, there are always some concerns invariably surround these trips. There is the element of loneliness, risk of accidents to a certain extent, being alone in a foreign country, wondering whether the trail would be well marked or not, risk of getting lost, not knowing whether I would be physically able to walk the mountainous terrain or not.

2. Did you experience any ‘road-bumps’ at the onset?

Right from the beginning there was a hitch. The flight from Malta was delayed by a couple of hours. As a result, I missed the train I had planned to take, arriving late at night at my first lodging in Aigle at 22:30 instead of the scheduled 17:00. But then my first Angel arrived; in a fireman’s red van. The host whom I had messaged about the delay, kindly came to meet me at the station himself!

During the first day’s walk I quickly picked up the “balises” (the yellow markings or the little pilgrim outlines) and I was off, one step at a time! I actually found the people ever so friendly and helpful. As I am fluent in French, language was not a problem.

3. What time did you start walking in the morning? What was (from where to where) was your longest walk? Which was your shortest? What was the average you covered per day?

I usually tried to have breakfast by 7:00 and hit the road by 7:30. I was walking during the first couple of weeks of July, so the weather was rather warm; however, being in the mountains helped. I had planned on covering some reasonable distances daily. At the same time, I was not in a hurry and wanted to savour the natural beauty of the landscape as much as possible. The longest I walked was about 28km, the shortest 13km. I split the climb up to the Col de Grand San Bernard in two; stopping at Bourg Saint Pierre, allowing me to enjoy every step.

4. How important was it to ‘share your experience with others as you walked’? i.e. Did you look forward to meeting others on the Camino; sharing your experience and hearing their story?

There were not many other pilgrims along the way, but in the evening, at the hostels where I stayed, I would meet others over supper. That is a particularly precious moment on the Camino. We share the common interest of walking, notwithstanding that we come from different countries, cultures and professional backgrounds. Usually language is not a barrier as people immediately warm up to each other and some common medium of communication – be it English, French, Italian or a mixture of all the above – is established.

5.    From your perspective, what do you think makes this Camino different from other Caminos in, for example, Spain or France?

First of all, the most captivating difference is the natural landscape; being surrounded by soaring snow-capped mountains, and listening to the constant gurgling of flowing streams.

Next attraction for me is the isolation. You are basically walking on your own, through forests, up rough trails, down trails where you have to watch your step all the time. That, for me, heightened my sense of appreciation of my limits. Yet, I felt safe at every moment. The sense of satisfaction I felt at the end of each day for having risen to the challenge that the trail had presented and having arrived safely at my day’s planned destination, kept me going.

6.    Is there any accommodation that stands out in terms of service? Are there others that you would not recommend?

Most of them were fine. The first one in Aigle (fireman host) was so welcoming. Then at Bourg St Pierre, I was in a hostel where a group of seminaries were holding a week’s summer camp for some 50 boys (aged 10 to 18). Upon my arrival at around 14:00 they immediately asked me to join them at table sharing lunch and in their conversations. This made me feel so welcomed!

The highlight in terms of accommodation was the Hospice at the St Bernard Pass with the communal meal, the visit to the San Bernard dogs’ kennels. We ended the day with Mass and vespers in the crypt! A truly memorable experience!

7.    Along the route which were the towns or villages worth spending some extra time in and why?

St Maurice and its lovely abbey and its museum; Orsieres in the Valais region at the foot of the Mont Blanc Massif; the medieval villages of St Remy and Etroubles; Aosta in Italy, with its museums; Pont St Martin with its magnificent bridge and terraces of vineyards and finally, Ivrea with its castle ruins, Cathedral and fast-flowing river (with the hostel right next to the section where international kayaking competitions are held).

8.    If you had to sum up the Camino in a few words how would you explain it / sell it others?

Prepare yourselves well, physically. Read about the route and be aware of the of the terrain and expected ground conditions.  When on the Way, don’t rush it; enjoy every moment. Other than that, my may advice is, “Just go and do it!” The route is well marked (route 70 in Switzerland).

You will enjoy it!