Journal from 22 November:

As I’ve mentioned, a major reason for my trip to Europe is to gather information and preliminary footage for a documentary project. In 2010, I’ll walk the Via Francigena pilgrimage trail from Canterbury England to Rome. I’ve not written much detail about the project because it’s still formulating, and well, I don’t want to give everything away!

When I first started researching the trail in the spring of this year, I came across the website of a man who has a great deal of knowledge of the Via Francigena. His name is Enea Fiorentini, and you can visit his website www.eneafiorentini.it yourself to learn the seemingly infinite information and zest for life he has to share. He’s an avid outdoorsman and student of ancient and medieval history, specifically that of Valle d’Aosta, the region in northwestern Italy he calls home. He’s a co-author of a guidebook for the Italian portion of the Via Francigena. And if you ever find yourself in Aosta and are in need of a tour guide, I can’t imagine a better one. On his site, he was kind enough to dedicate an entire page to my visit, and you can read about it here http://www.eneafiorentini.it/ifrancam/cara_hines.html  (It is mostly in Italian, but you can go to http://translate.google.com/ to translate this or any text or webpage.)

I contacted Enea months ago, knowing we’d be walking and creating a documentary, but not knowing exactly when or how it would develop. I simply reached out and asked for whatever guidance he might have to offer. We communicated 2 or 3 times between then and this trip. He introduced me to Immacolata Coraggio the woman who was kind enough to host me for a night earlier in the month and share her experiences on the Via Francigena, her own photography exhibition project that came out of it, as well as stories about her dedication to the way of walking with awareness. Enea and I arranged to meet during my visit to Aosta Valley. I wanted to hear from him his experiences with the trail and gather any advice his expertise had to offer. I had no idea the treat that awaited me!

Enea met me with his friend, Aldo, at Aosta train station on the morning of Sunday 22-Nov. I found him to be somewhat distinguished in appearance and demeanor, reminding me of some mix of Earnest Hemmingway and Sean Connery. Aldo, I’m fairly certain, could make a living as a comedian, and managed to make me laugh multiple times during the day despite our language barrier. Together the three of us set out in Enea’s car for what would prove to be an all-day tour of Valle d’Aosta. I had not expected such a generous and extensive reception.

Valle d’Aosta is a region in the northwest of Italy and located in the Alps. The stunning beauty and soaring, jagged peaks of this place reminded me a great deal of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, but peppered with a history of man and architecture that’s ancient and vast. We’d planned to hike a portion of the trail, but cold temperatures and cloudy skies prevented us from doing so. Instead, we drove to several of the villages the Via Francigena passes through. We started in Saint Rhemy, the first village on the Italian portion of the trail after descending from the famous Grand Saint Bernard Pass. It is famous for its Jambon de Bosses. Because of the slow time of year and the weather, we were unable to walk far along the trail toward the pass or to try the ham, both of which I’m told are wonderful experiences I have to look forward to next year. In nearby Saint-Oyen, we visited Chateau Verdun, a centuries-old monastery turned hostel that has played host to pilgrims passing through the area for many years.  Next we went to the nearby village of Etroubles. Despite its small population, the village has quite an impressive outdoor public art museum with an impressive number of sculptures and paintings scattered about town with a map to guide you to them all. They each depict some aspect of life in the Alpine region and many pay homage to the pilgrim. Even the house numbers are made from hand-blown art glass. Their stories about Roman times and Napolean’s conquests were fascinating, some I knew, most I didn’t. The trail I’ll walk next year winds through these enchanting villages, along the sides of the mountains with breathtaking views of the Gran San Bernardo valley and peaks that form it, through the very arches and over the roads built by the Romans.

We returned next to Aosta to pick up Aldo’s wife, Mina, who joined us for the rest of the day. We stopped in Arnad at Trattoria des Amis for a proper Sunday feast with what seemed like a dozen courses of traditional dishes from Valle d’Aosta. The food was delicious and more than plentiful. Aldo even convinced me to give grappa another try despite my insisting otherwise. Afterward, we visited the nearby historic Church of San Martino passed by the Via Francigena, with beautiful bits of centuries old frescos clinging to its walls and doorways.

As the sun was starting to set, we enjoyed a walk along the Roman road to Gaul carved from the side of a mountain with an arched opening left to show the impressive amount of stone they excavated for use in other roads and structures. Next to the deep ruts made for and by wagon wheels, there stands a tall column of stone with Roman numerals etched into its face. This indicated the distance from the Porta Romana, or Roman Arch that was the main entrance into Aosta, the village once known as the Roman capital of the Alps. At the edge of the ancient village of Bard, we visited an early Christian archaeological site with ancient markings etched into the stone, and a huge crater formed by the mortar and pestle like action of a glacier. We continued into the center of Bard where the Via Francigena is but one of many veins of history to pass on the main road through it. 

Finally, we ended with a night in Aosta, a town rich with layers of historical architecture and Roman ruins out of which medieval and modern structures have grown. We enjoyed an evening passegiata through the city with an impressive history lesson courtesy of Enea and Aldo. I thought my head might explode, it was so full of incredible stories and information. Our group of four meandered past what’s left of the Roman amphitheater and back to the main square, Piazza Emile Chanoux, and enjoyed an aperitif at the beautiful Caffe Nazionale. The waiter was kind enough to take our photo in a room that is the only thing remaining of one chapel of an ancient Franciscan monastery, its walls and dome ceiling elaborately painted as you can see in the photograph.

Enea needed to get home and bade us farewell. But not before he gave me a bag containing his Via Francigena guidebook, another pamphlet he’d authored, and a wonderful assortment of other information about the Valle d’Aosta. He’d obviously invested some time in putting together the package, and I was so delighted to receive it. We also discussed the possibility of my troupe arriving in Aosta around the time he leads a group along the Via Francigena next September. It’s a possibility we’ll be walking the same stretch at the same time. Regardless of when we arrive, I hope to see him again when we make our way down from St. Bernard Pass and begin our final stretch through Italy.

By this time it was late. If I was tired and my mind saturated before I arrived in Aosta, I was officially tapped out after this day. I had no idea it was almost 9:30pm, and I had not made a hotel arrangement. I hadn’t known if I’d stay the night there or catch a train back to Torino. I just assumed if it became apparent I’d stay in Aosta, I’d find something near the train station and collapse. Well, everything nearby was expensive, and none of the hostels in the guidebook were the least bit nearby. On top of my exhaustion, I now piled a sizeable portion of embarrassment at not having made proper preparations. But Aldo and Mina, patiently and generously collected my things and me into their van, and away we went. We stopped into Ristorante Sottosopra near their home, which also has several rooms upstairs for rent. The owner, Luciano, said he had a room but he couldn’t have it ready until 11pm after the restaurant closed. So, I spent that time waiting at the home of Mina, Aldo, and their friendly daughter, Chiara. Enea had given Aldo an historical photographic reenactment of Alpine life before modern conveniences. He and I sat on the sofa together as he explained to me their way of life back then, from how they celebrated festivals, gathered crops, cared for livestock, dressed, made cheese, and many other fascinating things. My limited understanding of the Italian language compounded by my utter fatigue proved this to be challenging yet thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Soon after we finished the book, it was time for my room to be ready. I said good-bye to Mina and Chiara, and Aldo kindly drove me to Sottosopra so I could get my much-needed sleep. Luciano greeted us excitedly and led me to my room. It was a nice room with a big shower and plenty of hot water! While I can certainly live contentedly without these things, I was exceptionally grateful to see them this night. It had been a full day on the heels of a very full few weeks prior, and I was ready to rest!

I would like to extend a considerable thank you to yet more gracious friends who gave of their time and energy to welcome me. I look forward to seeing Enea, Aldo, Mina, and perhaps even Chiara next year.

Visit the ENEA FIORENTINI: A FRIEND IN AOSTA photo gallery.