Mormons and priests on the way to Chatillon

(This post is from the evening of Thursday, September 1)

Today I walked from Nus to Chatillon, the next “major” city in the Valle d’Aosta after Aosta itself.  Chatillon isn’t huge by any means, but the only other places between here and Aosta are towns, villages, and hamlets.

Today’s journey was tough, to say the least.  There was a lot of uphill walking on tarmac roads and then everything that was downhill seemed to be these steep, narrow, rocky trails in wooded areas.  From my hotel in Nus, on the valley floor, I had to climb probably 100 meters to the North end of town where the church I asked to stay at the night before was located.  From there, I passed a strange monument dedicated to the region’s wines before heading down a path in a field that I had just climbed across to get to the church.  The path led onto a quiet and shaded road that changed back and forth into a gravel pathway and tarmac.  The air was still humid from the thunderstorm of the night before and low clouds hung in the valley below the mountaintops while I passed a field of cows who all stared at me as I walked by.  Suddenly I heard a loud explosion that I could only identify as gunfire.  It sounded close and I hoped that I would not be the target of some hunter’s misguided intentions.  Upon turning a corner where the path became road again I saw a pair of men, neatly dressed, standing outside a solitary house on the hill. They seemed to be looking around for the residents and did not appear to know the surroundings at all.  All of a sudden, it hit me—these were Mormon missionaries making a house call.  It was something so odd and unexpected to see that it took me a while to understand.  They were dressed exactly as their counterparts in the US and were proceeding in exactly the same manner.  The three of us smiled and said a “buongiorno” as I passed, and I laughed to myself as I headed off on my way.  With the Church of Scientology in Aosta and the Jehovah’s Witness woman I met the day before, I guess I should not have been surprised, but even so, I found the sight amusing.  A few minutes down the road, I heard two more explosions happen in quick succession behind me.  I hoped that the Mormons hadn’t met a less than receptive potential convert.

The route led meandered by many vineyards and orchards of all kinds.  There were apple, pear, and chestnut trees everywhere.  The northern side of the valley receives a great deal of sunlight and as a result has been used to grow grapes and other fruits for centuries.  Looking across at the mountains on the south, one can see forests and not much else.  There are hamlets all over the northern face of the mountains, even as high as 1000 meters.  This would explain why the Via Francigena is built on this more difficult and treacherous terrain than on the valley floor below where the river Dora runs.  The route was built to head through the settlements and these only used to exist in abundance on the north side.

By 1 o’clock, I had finally reached the destination indicated by the yellow signs I was following—the Chiesa di Diemoz.  Diemoz is a small hamlet that—according to an informational sign near the church—lay along the Roman road to their garrison town of Aosta.  Its name is derived from ad decimum indicating that it lay by the 10th mile marker out of the larger town.  Although most of the church has been rebuilt since, the north wall of its parish house holds a 15th century fresco by Giacamoino di Ivrea, depicting Saints Martin and Maurice.  While faded, it is remarkable in what good condition the fresco remains considering the battering it must take during unsheltered winters and summers.  I stopped at the church because it had two benches in the shade by its north wall and I wanted to wait out some of the afternoon heat while eating my lunch.  My shirt was soaking with sweat, so I took it off and placed it in the sun to dry while I ate.  There seemed to be no one around and no cars had passed me on the road, so I figured the coast was clear.  About ten minutes later, a car appeared from around the corner I had just passed to get to the church.  I prayed fervently that it would drive on by as I had no desire to deal with an inquisitive Italian while shirtless.  To my horror, it pulled up right in front of my bench and parked.  The door opened, and there appeared a man, wearing a black shirt and white collar.  Not only had I been spotted resting in front of this church shirtless, I had been caught by its very own priest!

He was very nice about it and said not to worry when I apologized for my state of undress.  “The road is long and it is hot today,” he said.  He asked me if I needed anything and I replied that I was alright, but inquired as to whether he stamped pilgrimage credentials that verify a pilgrim’s progress on the way to Rome.  He said that he did and took my tiny booklet inside the church with him.  He came out a few minutes later carrying it and a container of fruit juice.  “I found this juice for you,” he said.  “You can make good use of it; the road is long.”  I thanked him again and he went back inside.  When I was leaving I looked at his car and noticed that it had Polish license plates.  I wondered about the priest and where he was from.  He spoke Italian perfectly, without an accent, but he certainly didn’t look like he was from around the area.  His hair was blond and he was taller and heavier-set than the people I had seen.  As I walked away, I pondered the priest’s origins, but was grateful to have met him in any case.

I soon had something else to ponder as the signs changed indicating their next destination—Chatillon.  They informed me that it was three hours to get there without stopping, but what I didn’t understand was what they were telling me about how strenuous the route would be.  Until now, all the signs I’d passed, indicating the way to Chiesa di Diemoz had read “difficoltà T.”  I had never really worried about what this meant, because the path had generally taken smooth terrain with ascents and descents that were not too steep.  The new signs I was now looking at instead had “difficoltà E” written on them.  All the Italian words beginning with ‘E’ and ‘T’ that might refer to a trail’s difficulty went through my head, but nothing seemed to make sense.  The letters were nowhere near each other on the alphabet, so it clearly wasn’t a grading scale sort of system, either.

Upon finding the next sign, I quickly realized that ‘E’ meant really, really hard.  The next part of the trail was a steep and rocky path that went past a small shrine set underneath some trees.  After that was a switchback tarmac road that rose steeply up the mountain.  Overall, the path must have climbed 75 meters from where the church was, already fairly high above the valley floor below.  Soon, the path turned off the road onto a gravel way that was so overgrown that I thought I must have gone the wrong way.  There was a bit of a path, but it was evident that people seldom walk this way, indicating the relative unpopularity of the Via Francigena.  After negotiating this treacherous stretch, I turned down along the side of a vineyard that led me to a sheep pen underneath.  When I approached, the sheep, who had all been sitting together in the shade of a tree, stood and came up to me, baaing expectantly.  I had no food to give them and all I could offer was to immortalize their images in the form of photographs, so I did.

The next dubious direction my guidebook gave was to turn off the road, down some “rough steps” in front of some small chapel.  The only set of steps I could find seemed to go to someone’s house and quickly ended by a balcony.  They were wide enough that one could extrapolate their direction down to the field below but the book didn’t indicate that there would be anything but steps for the next few hundred meters.  I couldn’t find any other steps nearby, so I tried my luck with this set.  As I walked along a wall marking the edge of the field I really doubted I was going the right way and was dreading having to climb back up to find my way again.  Beneath the underbrush, however, I spied a small piece of wood with a yellow arrow painted on it, similar in style to the other directional signs I had seen.  This was good enough for me and I headed off down the steep pathway with confidence that I was going the right way.

After the steep descent, I had reached the valley floor and was now walking along the river Dora and the railroad tracks to which it ran parallel.  I spent a while going along this way, sometimes crossing over or under the tracks, until my guidebook directed that I walk on the main highway for a little while.  This, I didn’t like at all. Even though there were not too many cars travelling on the road, there was very little shoulder on either side and no room to move on the left in case a car came too close.  Furthermore, the road twisted enough at times so that  if you found yourself on the wrong side of the motorway, incoming cars would be unable to see you until they rounded the turn.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to spend long in this manner, but I think I will try my best to avoid this situationwhen the guidebook calls for it in the future.

Eventually, I turned off the main road and was on a secondary one to Chatillon.  This road overlooked the river and I started recognizing some of the things that I had seen on the train heading into Aosta.  Most notably, I got a good view of a karting track that lies just on the south side of the river.  It rests on a fairly small plot of land and has plastic barriers that can be used to modify the course.  This is the sort of place I have always imagined that Michael and Ralf Schumacher’s parents owned.  Perhaps nothing is similar between the two of them except that they are both kart tracks and in Europe, but the thought made me smile to myself.

This road led right into Chatillon itself which was a veritable hive of activity after all the people-less but barking-dog-full villages I had walked through on the way here.  The Monastero Francescani Cappuncini is located right in the middle of the town, along a busy pedestrian street.  When I arrived, an old man found me and after asking if I was a pilgrim, went to go get a key.  He returned a bit later and opened the door to a small building located just in front of the chapel.  The room is not too small and holds two small beds, a table and a couch.  There is also a bathroom attached, with a toilet/shower.  The old man asked me if I had my pilgrim credential and I said yes, pulling it out of by bag.  He said he would go stamp it and bring it back in a little while.  A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door and a different man came in and handed me the credential.  He asked where I was from and seemed surprised to learn that I was an American.  He claimed that it was a very long way to Rome from America on foot and I agreed.  He told me that to eat, there were many restaurants around and that I could take the key with me.  I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t been invited to eat with the monks, as I had read that often these religious hostels would feed their guests.  I was also sad not to see anyone walking around in light brown tunics, the color of which resembles that of a cappuccino, the coffee drink named after this very order of monks.  I shouldn’t complain too much, though.  I am grateful to have this room to myself for only the “small contribution that you will leave” as suggested by the sign posted in the room.

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~ by pminnig on September 3, 2011.

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