Monday, 10 September 2007

Day 33 – Grand St Bernard – Gignod - 22km

A short day, in terms of kilometres at least, but a trip down memory lane. Last year we took more or less the same route with our horses through the Italian border (no checks just a hearty bon giorgno – making me love the Italians all over again) and then straight down until we arrived in St Rhemy, some 850 metres below. This year the experience is no better and no worse than last – a scramble on sometimes very narrow tracks taking us the best part of two hours, but an unforgettable view of the Alps nonetheless. Real bikers, as opposed to pseudo walker-bikers like us, can enjoy possibly the longest and fastest downhill free-wheel they have had in their lives, though they will probably need to replace their brake blocks (and maybe their trousers) at the bottom.

St Rhemy is worth slowing down for. A pretty alpine village, Italian-style, with what looks like the beginnings of a pilgrim hostel. Last year we stayed in the hotel, but it is a tricky place for horses. This year we pass through and opt to take a different route, travelling down the left of the river (as opposed to the right), basically following Pisoni’s recommended route and finding it preferable and easier to find. I should add here that overall the route markings are vastly improved on last year, though even then they were much better and more consistent than anything we encountered in France or Switzerland.

From St Rhemy our memories of last year (when we led our poor horses along the edge of a treacherous aqueduct and were mislead by signs that had been turned round) loom large and we proceed very cautiously to ensure we log the route precisely, while also highlighting the dangers for cyclists and horse riders – an effort that reaps its rewards. We do not get lost, we identify the routes and the alternatives and we arrive in Gignod in one piece, just before the rain starts.

In Gignod, in spite of the weather, we have to camp. Why? Because this is where the wonderful Franco and Franca run the Europa campsite where we stayed last year and our horses were given a lush field and shelter and hay for the night. After some initial confusion, because Paul has shaved his beard off, we are welcomed like heroes and shown off to anyone who comes into the bar that we have taken over to do our technology stuff.

While Franco and Franca offer typical Italian warmth Camping Europa struggles to earn its 3 stars. It seems to double as the summer home for snow moving and road mending equipment as well as stop over for tented and “becaravaned” tourists, but the plumbing works (just) and across the street is a pleasant café and OK restaurant. The budget didn’t do badly today – just 13 euros for the tent, people, bike and dog! I am sure that Franco, would give future horse riders the same warm and helpful welcome we had last year with ample grazing in an adjacent field.

I go along with Babette’s view that anyone on two wheels would be silly to take the pedestrian tracks. They should free-wheel all the way to Aosta and reap the reward of their climb on the Swiss side. In the Aosta valley the pedestrian routes are marked in yellow and have both from and to information, such as from Martigny to Aosta, but also a number or letter coding e.g. route 1, or 13B. At the top of the Col I noticed a rather crudely stencilled route F. Now having followed our various maps we are being lulled into the belief that F stands for Francigena. The signing has been frequent and well positioned although varying from the detail of our maps- generally to take walkers away from traffic. We wait to see when and if it peters out.

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