© Meg Chiavaras
I prescribe a trip on the Via Romea
Two MDs and their kids follow an ancient route from Paris to Rome
The stern faces of the four police officers directing traffic away from the French mountain town of Modane preempted discussion, as one of them vigorously waved our vehicle out of the traffic circle serving as an impromptu checkpoint for that day’s leg of the Tour de France. I reluctantly steered our rented Peugeot up the steep roadway to the right, away from Modane and towards the 13-kilometre Frejus Tunnel into Italy.
Modane was not supposed to be closed until noon! A quick glance at the digital clock on the dashboard confirmed that it w as still only 11:10AM. My wife Meg and I had spent months planning our trip from Paris to Rome across the Alps, and after a moment’s reflection, were not about to be denied by a quartet of overzealous traffic cops. Swinging the vehicle around in a tight arc, we shot back down the alpine road.
There was dead silence in the diesel-fueled minivan as we realized that all four officers were still facing the other direction. Our three normally rambunctious children — son Ioannes, aged 6 at the time, and twin daughters Eleni and Sophia aged 4 — held their collective breath as I silently steered the rapidly descending vehicle back into the traffic circle and then counter-clockwise, stealthily exiting as I picked up speed towards Modane and our original destination, the Mont Cenis Pass.
The idea for a trip along the medieval pilgrimage route from Paris to Rome had been sparked years ago by a long-time interest in the crusades. Called the Via Francigena (viafrancigena.eu) by the Romans, the same path was referred to as the Via Romea by travellers on their way to the Eternal City. With family in Paris, we were already frequent visitors to France, but my wife and I had never been to Italy together.
To get our three children into a medieval frame of mind, our first stop was the Musée de Cluny (6 Place Paul-Painlevé, Paris; www.musee-moyenage.fr) — the National Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. Housed within the vaulted chambers of the ancient Roman baths of Lutetia and the adjoining Gothic residence of the Cluniac abbots, the highlight of the museum’s collection is the famed series of tapestries depicting the Lady and the Unicorn.
Departing from Paris' Gare du Nord rail station with a car we booked through US-based Auto Europe (tel: 888-223-5555; autoeurope.com), our first destination was the impressively preserved medieval town of Provins. Just over an hour from Paris, this former capital of the Counts of Champagne was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. While seldom mentioned in English-language guidebooks, the charming town hosts a summer-long medieval festival and is well worth a visit.
Our stay in the Hostellerie aux Vieux Remparts (3 Rue Couverte, Provins; auxvieuxremparts.com) was pleasant and relaxing. The kids loved exploring the medieval town centre, the highlight of which was the ascent within the impressive Caesar’s Tower, a 12th-century keep offering panoramic views of the town and surrounding countryside.
The unfinished Gothic church of Saint-Quiriace, offered a beautiful and timely escape from the rain, but couldn’t compete with a small wooden carousel in the main square near the centre of the old town.
Continuing our journey south along the road through Lyon, we came at last to Chambery — sister city to Turin and historical capital of the medieval Savoy region. There, we spent an unforgettable stay at the nearby Hôtel les Saint Pères (Village de Maistre, Montagnole; hotelsaintperes.com) a lovingly converted 19th-century residence with a delightful and attentive staff, as well as a top-notch French restaurant specializing in Savoyard cuisine. Trail of the crusades
The next leg of our trip would take us across the French Alps and into Italy at the Mont Cenis Pass — the route taken by countless armies since ancient Roman times, through the Crusades and into the Napoleonic era. The only problem was that Modane, the gateway to the pass, was also scheduled to be the stage town for the Tour de France on the very day we were passing through it! Fortunately, we were able to weave through the brightly festooned town and, leaving the panoply of the Tour de France behind us, headed upwards through the breezy, alpine villages of the Haute-Maurienne Valley. With over a hundred mountain peaks greater than 3000 metres in altitude, the nearby Vanoise National Park is an alpine hiker’s paradise.
Passing through the pretty village resort of Lanslebourg, we began our final ascent towards the Mont Cenis Pass. We were soon rewarded with breathtaking views of an impossibly blue alpine lake, across which rolled the sharply etched silhouettes of low-hanging cumulus clouds. We enjoyed a picnic lunch and let the kids run around a bit before getting back into our vehicle and descending through a steep series of switchbacks into Italy.
Our first stop was Piacenza, where the old Roman road struck south across the Apennines. That evening, we dined on genuine Italian pizza in the traditional fashion — al fresco in the Piazza Duomo, as the warm colours of the setting sun illuminated the pink marble facade of the Romanesque cathedral fronting the square.
Entering Tuscany, our next destination was Alla Corte degli Angeli (23 Via Degli Angeli, Lucca; allacortedegliangeli.it) in lovely Lucca, a delightful town with many narrow winding streets to explore. It must nevertheless be said that strolling atop the broad city walls with energetic youngsters was a nerve-wracking experience, given the sheer drops on either side. A horse-drawn carriage ride turned out to be a much better way to see the sights.
Our favourite discovery was nearby Bagni di Lucca — a sleepy, hilltop town containing a modern spa and outdoor bathing complex, fed by thermal springs renowned since Roman times for their healing and restorative properties. We capped off our last night in Lucca with dinner at the impressive yet child-friendly Antica Locanda di Sesto (1660 Via Lodovica, Lucca; anticalocandadisesto.it).
We continued our travels through the rolling, cypress-clad hills of Tuscany, spending a night in Sienna before arriving in Rome, an overland trip of over 1500 kilometres. While staying on the move is definitely not for everyone, our children loved the constant change of scenery and made new friends everywhere we went. As the saying goes, the journey was the destination.
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