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 a visit.

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 Savoy.

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.
Historical Savoy
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 western boundary.

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 the valley.
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 Matterhorn.

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 was paid.

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 today.
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 museum.

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 following it.
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
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The journey continues into PIEMONTE
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Little St Bernard pass
il Cervino or Matterhorn
Fenis Castle
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
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