So alright I take it all back, there is more to Hône than just the fortress. This morning we decided to try out Pisoni’s route, which seemed to go round the back and so avoid the tunnel and a reasonable section of the SS26. In fact, road works prevented us from getting right through (though we are fairly sure this is only a temporary state of affairs and will contact the appropriate authorities to confirm this), but we did at least see the best part – a single street that leads between frescoed houses cut directly into the cliff edge, literally dripping with well documented history (signs giving the detailed past of noteworthy houses appear virtually every 50 metres) and managing to squeeze in a couple of interesting B&B’s too. I am not sure I could live in a place that can only see the sun for about an hour a day, but the way people have adapted and created their homes in these restricted circumstances is fascinating and inspiring to see.
From here we are forced to revert to the road route that was so unpleasant for Lubie and the rest of us last year, but with so little space in the narrow valley bed one simply has to accept the inevitable. Still, we make good progress, passing through Pont St Martin and then negotiating a new route from that of last year, which does not involve the horrendous climbs and (we feel) extraneous effort with little gain. Basically we travel along the base of the valley, picking up smaller roads where we can and avoiding the dreaded SS26, except for a few brief occasions where there is no other alternative.
From here we hit Ivrea and I have to admit spend less time than we should – a symptom of traffic fatigue and memories of last year that involved meandering through endless streets with a horse and a dog. Nevertheless, we pat ourselves on the back because we find a clear route through and emerge on the other side approximately where we expect to. Now it's easy riding, flat and well away from the busy main roads. The bikes eat up the km’s on gravel tracks and better still we find out where we went wrong last year and so don’t get lost near Lake Viverone – perhaps we are getting good at this.
Next Santhia, where last year our saviour, Roberto, picked us up off the high street and offered Lubie and the rest of us free board and lodging for the night. We would like to see him again, but unfortunately his establishment is somewhere at the end of a sandy lane and without him we will never find it. Still, not all is lost, we discover parts of Santhia we didn’t even know existed and decided that far from being a dusty flea pit (our opinion last year) it is in fact a place worth visiting with a history worth discovering.
Before we set off today we consulted 3 different map sets all recommending substantially different routes. The signs and stickers mercifully did not offer even more alternatives, there were few of either on display, but we are well pleased with our own contrived amalgam of the 3 maps plus a few good bits of guesswork of our own.
Inevitably we are forced to use main roads in the immediate vicinity of the large towns, but outside this we are able to find pleasant ways that do not require scaling the rocky slopes of the valley sides and some time-warp villages, where the tractor has not yet taken over all the tasks of the small farmer. Leaving the Aosta Valley is another milestone on our route and so I guess I am happy to see it pass. There are parts where its 2 main products of water and rock and their industrial derivatives begin to get you down, but when the sun is out the valley is beautiful, the houses with those green stone slated roofs and wooden frameworks are charming as are the tiny chapels. The people seem endlessly helpful and their patois of hybrid French and Italian allows us a reasonable amount of communication.
The vineyards have given way to acres or maize and kiwi fruit (frustratingly unripe just like last year) fed by more of the water from the valley. Tonight we get to relax in the Hotel Vittoria close by the railway station in Santhia. I am hoping that the vino rosso prices are also low here or it might be a long night listening to the passing trains.
We wake to car door slamming at 5.30 as the commuters set off for Turino or Milano and finally give up the effort to get back to sleep before 7.00. The hotel is as quiet as the grave and we spend time packing in the hope that someone will eventually show up soon to make the coffee. Vasco has kept his legs crossed for the whole night and by 8.00 we feel it is essential that we find him a quiet patch of grass. So off we go, only to discover that the door has shut behind us with no way back into the hotel. After 30 minutes sitting on the pavement, we finally get coffee and a sumptuous breakfast. This, however, turns out to be the sweetener for an 80 euro bill. It seems the Vittoria is the only open hotel in town and is making the most of it.