The Via Francigena

This is an excerpt from the book “Aosta Valley Itineraries”.

Via Francigena
Via Francigena tra Chambave e Chatillon, lungo il ru Chandianaz, a ovest di Farys.
Photo © Donato Arcaro, touristic and naturalistic guide of the Aosta Valley

The ancient route from England to Rome recorded by Sigeric, a Saxon archbishop of Canterbury of the late 10th century. This itinerary was known in Italy as “La Via Francigena” or “Via Romea Francigena” which means “The road to Rome that comes from France“.

Description of the “Via Francigena” and other peripheral itineraries

Itinerary – this ancient route enters the Valle d’Aosta and Italian territory at the Great St. Bernard Pass from where it descends to ‘Cantine de Fonteinte’ and on down to Saint-Rhemy . From there it crosses a stream and, along an unpaved road, it reaches Saint-Leonard where, near the parish church, it turns down the mule-track descending to Cerisey. It proceeds on to Barral and, after crossing the meadows, it follows the ‘Ru Neuf de Cerisey’ (irrigation channel) as far as the village of Saint-Oyen.

Continuing on the mule-track, it passes by the house of the Blessed Jean Antoine Pellissier, on through the village of Etroubles, and then crosses over onto the right bank of the Buthier stream to arrive at Echevennoz –dessus, from where, along the ‘ru Neuf’ (irrigation channel), it reaches Gignod.

The descent towards the village, on an excellent mule-track, passes by the tower and by the hamlets of Caravel, Chez Courtil, Chez Henry, to continue through the orchards as far as Chez Roncoz. Then, along the carriage road, it reaches Variney from where it continues down in the towards Aosta.

Itinerary of a linked circuit – This itinerary branches off the Via Francigena a few kilometers south of ‘Cantine de Fonteinte’ following the track called the ‘Chemin des Autrichiens’. It proceeds downwards by the wood known as the ‘Bois de Savegarde’ as far as the village of Saint-Rhemy. From here, it continues along the unpaved road going up to Plan Puitz and – before reaching the top – it descends again along the track to Eternod, Paillex, and Etroubles. After crossing the village of Etroubles, the route follows the path leading to Bruson in the district of Allein and on down to the village: Continuing across the mountainside, it reaches the village of Doues (a crossroads in Roman times), from where it continues to Frissoniore and then on to the village of Valpelline.

Orrido Betende Oyace
Orrido Betende Oyace – Photo © Donato Arcaro, touristic and naturalistic guide of the Aosta Valley

From there, along the ru Pompillard (irrigation channel), it reaches the principal village, Roisan. It starts bearing downwards again near the hamlet of Massinod and, along the ru Prevot, it reaches Closellinaz. The track then coasts the Buthier mountain stream and crosses it over the bridge called the ‘Ponte di Calvino’ (Calvin’s Bridge)bearing upwards then to Variney where it joins the Via Francigena route.

Aosta-Martigny – where the Via Francigena and Napoleon’s Route meet

In the Swiss Canton of the Valais, theVia Francigena begins its ascent of the Rhone and Drance valleys towards the great St. Bernard Pass. It follows the Gallic road built by the Romans, which was later to become one of the most important passages between the Northern Europe and Italy. Napoleon’s army also left several traces of its passage along this road.

This itinerary affords stunning views and the opportunity to experience the reality of an alpine environment, with its woods, mountain meadows and lively herding and agricultural activities. From the town of Martigny, the route takes you up the Drance valleys, through small villages where testimony of distant history is still manifest: traces of ancient roads, Roman settlements, monasteries and votive chapels. The walk is facilitated by the signposting put up by the “Federation Suisse Tourisme Pedestre” (FSTP).

By simply following the signs, you will have no difficulty in reaching the Great St. Bernard Pass. The hospice is worth visiting to see the famous St. Bernard dogs and visit the museum.

In the hospice entrance there’s an imposing marble tomb where the mortal remains of General Desaix – Napoleon’s right-hand man at the battle of Marengo – lay for some decades.

From the hospice downwards you enter Italian territory. The descent on the Valdaostan side is equally spectacular and inspiring. In many points, this track crosses the one used in the past by the smugglers. On the way down, you come to Saint-Oyen where the canons of the Great St. Bernard still own a “dependence”, now also run as a Hospice. It is definitely worth visiting, and a short stay here will help restore your physical and mental strength. In Etroubles, a little further down, there’s a tourist office where useful information can be obtained regarding the continuation of the itinerary that will take you down to Gignod and from there, on to Aosta.

Aosta Valley via Francigena

Description of the linked circuit and other peripheral itineraries

It is important to underline that the stretch of the “Via Francigena” itinerary going through the Great St. Bernard Valley is to be considered in a wider geographical, historical socio-economic context including the entire basin of the Buthier mountain stream and its tributaries, in other words, the whole territory of the Grand Combin Mountain Community.

The Valpelline valley and the Great St. Bernard valley have solid and ancient bonds: the name Valpelline comes from “vallis renina”, meaning the valley leading to the Great St. Bernard Pass (Summis Peninus); and the Buthier stream, the ancient “Balteus”, so-named because the stream descending from Bionaz and the Artanvaz stream (both called “Buthier” until recently) were perceived as a single catchment basin in the shape of a “balteo” (sward-belt).

Besides, the itinerary connecting the town of Aosta to Porosan, Roisan, Valpelline crossing the so called “Ponte di Calvino” (Calvin’s Bridge), bears traces of ancient settlements and was considered as an alternative to the Via Francigena, at least in the case of shorter journeys, and constituted the framework of the road system in the feudal estates of Quart, parallel and complementary to the Via Francigena.

In view of exploiting the valuable heritage of the “Pilgrimage Routes” and their relative historical-artistic and environmental characteristics, the whole territory of the Grand Combin Mountain Community has to be taken into consideration, keeping in mind, for example, that the Patron Saints of the parish churches of Roisan (Saint Vittore) and Valpelline (Saint Pantaleone) refer respectively, to the spreading of veneration of the Theban martyrs along the Via Francigena starting from St. Maurice d’Agaune and to the veneration of the oriental martyr-doctor who became popular in the West thanks to the crusaders and to the pilgrims in transit on the Via Francigena.

Starting from the upper Valpelline valley, there are routes leading to the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Cuney, which was the destination of one of the most important Marian pilgrimages in the Valle d’Aosta from the XVII century on; the chapel of Notre-Dame des Neige of Vessonaz, in the same valley, even if of recent foundation – also attracts numerous groups of pilgrims.

The itinerary of the circuit described here defines, together with the Via Francigena, a pedestrian round-trip circuit – by a route situated to the north (l’adret) and, in part, following the outlines of ancient “rus”(irrigation channels) or connected paths, with one characteristic in common: the presence of religious buildings of some artistic or historical interest (parish churches, chapels, oratories) – and creates, together with the other peripheral itineraries, a complete network of “pilgrimage roads” of various importance, but all strictly linked to the traditional religious destinations of local culture. In the case of the circuit described here, starting from Aosta, the route includes the districts of Roisan, Valpelline, Doues, Allein, Etroubles, Saint-Oyen and Saint-Rhemy-en-Bosses.

The stretch of the “round-trip circuit” that leads to the parish church of Valpelline allows one to also reach the district of Ollomont and the By basin as well as the districts of Oyace and Bionaz, both of which are characterized by an important network of paths.

Gran San Bernardo Pass - Photo © Donato Arcaro, touristic and naturalistic guide of the Aosta Valley
Gran San Bernardo Pass – Photo © Donato Arcaro, touristic and naturalistic guide of the Aosta Valley

Useful information

Departure/arrival points
Martigny. Situated in the Rhone Valley, Switzerland. Martigny can be reached by train from Brig-Sion or by car over the Pass or through the Great St. Bernard Tunnel, or also by taking the Domodossola-Brig road. By plane, from Geneva or Lausanne.

Aosta. The Great St. Bernard Pass can be reached by public bus service, but only during the summer (from mid-June to mid-September). During the rest of the year, the bus service is routed through the Great St. Bernard Tunnel. There’s a railway station and a small tourist airport in Aosta – otherwise, the nearest airport is in Turin.

The Via Francigena

This terrain of the route varies: unpaved roads, mountain paths and some stretches on paved road.

The best time to go
From mid-June to mid-September, though it is wonderful also in Springtime (May) or in winter (December ), perhaps with snowshoes on the more stunning stretch: Saint-Oyen/Great St. Bernard Pass.

Vestiges of historical interest and the natural alpine environment.

Clothing and equipment
During the summer period, suitable clothing for mountain walking. During the rest of the year, information can be had from the AIAT (Tourist Office).

No particular difficulty involved.

The entire route is well-signposted. In Swiss territory, by the FSTP with yellow diamond-shaped signs indicating the walking time and by brown signposts for the “Route Napoleon-Chemin Historique”. From the Great St. Bernard Pass to Aosta, follow the yellow TAM signs.

1:50.000 Kompass 95 Mont Blanc
1:50.000 Kompass 87 Breuil Cervinia
1:50.0000 Ente Svizzero pro-sentieri (272 and 282)
1:30.000 Istituto Cartografico Valdostano a cura dell’APT del Gran San Bernardo