Val d'Aosta and
From the French frontier at the top of the Little St Bernard Pass, the road winds
down in great loops until suddenly you are in the Val d'Aosta.
Almost immediately there is a jumble of roundabouts and an autostrada heads
north into the Mt Blanc Tunnel. A little further on is a turnoff to the south towards
the Gran Paradiso National Park. To the west is the city of Aosta where this
exploration of the mountain regions of Val d'Aosta and Piemonte begins.
Our visit to this area was in October 2007. We walked in the mountains that
encircle the Val d'Aosta, then moved down the valley to explore Piemonte, first
going north back into the mountains and then to the south where the land levels out
into the rolling hills of le Langhe. From here we completed a circuit back through
the Alps to France.
In the Val d'Aosta, it's all about mountains with the great peaks of Mte Bianco, Il
Cervino, Mte Rosa and Gran Paradiso standing above all the others which are
themselves impressive peaks. In the valley is the interesting history told by Roman
remains and the many castles that dominate the hillsides. In Piemonte there are
still mountains but also more agriculture and lots and lots of vineyards.
Throughout the two regions is an architecture of solid
stone buildings frequently plastered over and painted in
pastel tones which age to an attractive faded patina. On
the faces of these buildings there will often be a painting,
a coat of arms or other interesting inscription. Roofs are
of slate or terra cotta tiles. There are castles, abbeys
and Romanesque churches frequently containing the
most wonderful frescoes.
There is walking wherever you want to make it happen.
Val d'Aosta and the city of Aosta
Val d'Aosta is the smallest of Italy's regions. It is also the least populous and least
densely populated region. The valley takes its name from the city of Aosta whose
Roman name was Augusta Praetoria. The River Dora Baltea, which rises in the Alps
near Monte Bianco, runs through Aosta and then down the valley to join the Po.
The city of Aosta has been described as the Rome of the north and even today it
sits comfortably within a Roman wall and dotted with Roman ruins.
There are archaeological remains everywhere and they are delightfully accessible.
Aside from the main sites, we kept tripping over active excavation work in busy
piazzas throughout the city. Throw in some ancient churches, a huge piazza flanked
by grand palaces, some good restaurants and Aosta is a low key city well worthy of
And all around are the mountains, framing the city and inviting further exploration.
The history of Val d'Aosta and Piedmont, up till
relatively recently, has really been the history of the
House of Savoy.
Probably from Burgundian origins, the Savoy dynasty
held power in this part of Europe from the 11th century.
Over the centuries, there were expansions and
contractions until, with the declaration of a unified Italy
in 1861, the king of Sardinia-Piedmont, Victor Emanuel
II, became king of the united Italy. This monarchical
arrangement evolved into a largely figurehead position
till a plebiscite in 1946 formally established the
Republic of Italy and ended the rule of the House of
Similarly the border with France has shifted in line with
political and military strengths. It was largely settled in
1815 by the Treaty of Rome which sorted things out
after the Napoleonic Wars. For a time, however, some
small parts of the French Savoie and Tende Valley
remained in the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont to
maintain the Savoy's favourite hunting estates. This
was resolved following World War II. See also here.
With such a long period of power and privilege the
Savoys left a considerable legacy. There is the
beautiful city of Turin and magnificent palaces, many
of which are museums open to the public. The hunting
reserves became hugely valuable national parks.
Seen in Aosta
Left: Roman theatre archway
At top: chimney architecture
Above: fresco on wall of house
This national park, very close to Aosta is named for the great Gran Paradiso peak which, at
4061m is the highest mountain entirely within Italy. It is only just in Italy with France on its
Gran Paradiso was the first park to be established in Italy and though its origins are of
undoubted environmental value they were not made of entirely altruistic principals. Victor
Emanuel II, in 1856, decreed that the area be protected as a royal hunting reserve to avoid the
extinction of the ibex and to maintain a preserve for his own hunting.
Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso
There are several valleys offering excellent
access to a wide range of walking experiences.
Our choice was in the Cogne Valley where the
village of Cogne is a summer/winter resorty sort
of place. It is set in a sunny basin and offers
many walking trails heading off into the
mountains. These range from short circuits to
long distance trails. There is of course excellent
cross country skiing in winter.
To ease into the challenges of the high peaks we first did a walk up the river valley with Gran
Paradiso looming grandly in front of us. We passed little groups of stone grazing huts with slate
roofs, some partially dug into the earth for winter warmth. These all seem to be deserted but are
maintained for their heritage value.
After the easy valley walks the obvious choice had to be the climb up to Victor Emanuel's hunting
refuge. A path winds up in long loopy lacets, occasionally crossing a little creek, till it reaches
luscious meadows dotted with ruined pastoral huts. Up here you are looking Gran Paradiso right in
the face. The track becomes narrower and steeper as it goes up a narrow valley to the refuge and
it is real sense of achievement to reach these lofty heights. We saw no animals though we were
assured they were there.
The regional food is hearty, somewhat influenced by French cuisine. Many dishes use the local
cheese, Fontina, which is melted over everything. Local wines are produced in the lower reaches of
Valtournenche and Il Cervino
While still in a mood for mountains we drove north and up into the alps that form a
border with Switzerland as well as France. Here we came face to face with Il
Cervino, the Matterhorn as we know it in English.
This is real mountaineering country. Before road access was available in the second half of the
1800's, climbers and scholars would reach the area on foot or by donkey. Valtournenche is the
birthplace of many famous mountain guides who are commemorated in a stone plaque located
in the village square.
Very busy in the peak winter and summer seasons, in October Valtournenche was a ghost
town. With the help of the tourist office which stays open all the year, a hotel was found -
spanking new but with no other guests.
From the town of Breuil-Cervinia further up the valley, Mt Cervino is an awesome sight. The
little town, a smart ski resort, nestles at the base of the huge peaks and, all around, the
slopes are crisscrossed with ski lifts. You can catch the lifts up to the highest peaks and then
ski in Switzerland before returning to Italy.
Well signposted numbered walking trails are also a feature of the summer landscape and it
was easy to find one that climbed up to places where you felt you could put out your hand and
touch the mountains. Certainly, through binoculars all the features of the rocky crags were
clear and terrifying.
We picnicked up here in the alpine meadows in light mist, listening to the rumble of falling
rocks that hit the ground with a sound like gunfire. We call this the day we climbed the
In a small restaurant, open in spite of the low season gloominess in Valtournenche, they
served a hearty dish of cervo (deer) with polenta.
Castles of the Val d'Aosta
The narrow Val d'Aosta retains a picturesque and romantic legacy from its strategic and
defensive past. All along the length of the valley, perched on craggy precipices are castles and
fortifications, built by powerful families during the middle ages.
There are towers dating from the 10th century, primitive castles from the 12th and 13th
centuries, sturdy fortifications from the 13th and 14th centuries and refined decorated manor
houses dating from round 1500.
From the craggy peaks they could watch over the valley and signal from one castle to the next,
rapidly covering the distance from Torino to Martigny in France. Using signal flags and fires, a
message could be transmitted in three hours. They were also a good source of revenue for the
Savoys and other powerful families as no-one (perhaps except Napoleon) could pass till a toll
Today many of these fortresses have been restored but some still stand as ruins in their
strategic mountain top positions. Among those open for inspection we visited the two that are
arguably the best, Fenis and Issogne.
Fenis Castle is everyone's fairytale castle
with towers, turrets and strong defensive
walls. Inside there are huge dining halls
and kitchens and wonderful frescoes
particularly in a central courtyard that
leads to the main rooms of state. A
powerful family called Challant built and
extended this castle from the 12th
century but they fell upon bad times and
abandoned it. After 1716, the ensuing
string of proprietors let it run down into a
weed infested farmyard. Now state
owned, its restoration is splendid.
The Challant family also built Issogne Castle
which was lavishly furnished and decorated
by several generations of the family. Of
particular and spectacular note is a series of
frescoes depicting everyday life in the 15th
century. Among these are scenes from a
bakery, a butchery, the market place, a tailor
and an apothecary. They are simply
wonderful and perhaps the best depiction of
life during these times in existence. Like
Fenis, Isogne was semi abandoned at the
beginning of the 19th century until an
enlightened purchaser oversaw the
immaculate restoration which we can visit
At the entrance to the valley, in the most
strategic position, is Fort Bard. Built on
foundations from as early as the 5th
century Bard was constructed in its
current form in the mid 1800's by the
House of Savoy. Its historic highpoint
was in 1800 when it virtually halted
Napoleon Bonaparte's attack on the Po
valley. He did not take this well and
ordered its total destruction. Rebuilt
soon afterwards, in 1830, Bard is a
massive structure, now housing a
The Via Francigena passes down this
valley and we found one of the few
remaining pieces just outside the town of
Donnas. The Via Francigena pops up
everywhere - one day we will do a walk
Frescoes at Issogne Castle
top left: The market
low left: The milliner
top right: The apothecary
mid right: The armourer
low right: The cheese maker
The journey continues
on the next page
Little St Bernard pass
il Cervino or Matterhorn
Guardians of the castle
Roman road near Aosta
Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso
Views in the Cogne valley and
on the way to the refugio
See pictures of