Italy’s smallest region is packed full of incredible mountain vistas, rewarding hikes and historic castles, and it is definitely worth the visit.
OK, so you’ve heard all about Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Possibly, you’ve even had the pleasure of seeing why these are the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. When you’re ready for a whole different take on la vita bella, however, I suggest the small, mountainous region of Valle d’Aosta. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Italy, with France and Switzerland (geographically and culturally) hugging close by, clusters of castles lining the valley floor, sweeping Alpine vistas everywhere and enough hiking or skiing to keep anyone busy outside, Valle d’Aosta is a rejuvenating divergence from city life.
You can still get view of the Roman Empire in the regions capital city: Aosta, Parco Gran Paradiso – the first national park in Italy – is filled with unique wildlife, and blocking the end of the valley is the monstrous Monte Bianco: the tallest mountain in western Europe.
Whether you want to wander historic cities, take a week-long trek or sample the hearty mountain food of the region, this off the beaten path destination will keep you busy. Here’s a run down of the must-see stops and attractions in the area from our four day weekend in October.
Forte Di Bard
As you enter Aosta from Piemonte, highway E25 makes a 90-degree, westward turn into the main valley. As the road twists through the mountains, suddenly the impressive stone Forte Di Bard rises before you, guarding the entrance to the strategic valley. Napoleon’s encroaching armies were held up by the castle’s defenders for more than two weeks, a resistance which frustrated him so much, he destroyed the entire structure after finally winning it.
Luckily, it has been rebuilt to it’s former glory, and it’s possible to climb the road through the charming Medieval town of Bard, then up the winding side of the cliff the fort perches atop. Alternatively, there is a modern, glass elevator you can ride up to visit the various artistic and historical exhibits throughout the many halls of the fort.
Castle in Fenis
As you continue your drive through the valley, castle spotting becomes almost too easy. There were times when up to four castles could be seen at once along the road side! It’s hard to know which to take the time and stop for.
If you are looking for an easy answer it’s the castle in Fenis village. With turrets, guard wall and surrounded by cattle pens, there’s something quintessentially Medieval about this structure that made my heart sing. We missed the timing for a tour, but it’s possible to go inside and explore for 7 Euros.
The largest city in the center of the valley is full of easily accessible Roman ruins, colorful houses and good food. When we walked into the central piazza of Aosta, I turned to The Fiance and said “I feel like I’m in Torino .” Beyond the fact that we happened to be visited durring the annual chocolate festival, Aosta has a similar sense of refinement and elegance, the mountains just happen to be a lot closer. There’s plenty of shopping here, and the historic center is easy to wander in a few hours.
For dinner, stop into the Osteria dell’Oca for traditional Aostian fare which is rich, hearty and perfect for a winter’s evening in the mountains.
After leaving Aosta, I recommend staying off the highway because though you’ll be traveling a little slower, the main road leads you through long, dark tunnels and you’ll start missing many of the incredible vistas.
We stayed near the village of Aymavilles, which allowed us to easily reach all of the following valleys easily and head back to Aosta for dinner every night, while still enjoying the mountain serenity we were looking for.
Valnontey, Gran Paradiso & Rhemes Notre Dame
With thick larch forests, dramatic glaciers, lots of wildlife and picturesque villages, Parco Gran Paradiso should be high on the bucket list for anyone who loves mountains. We took two drives into the park from the main valley of Aosta: towards the village of Valnontey at the more popular entrance of the park then towards Rhemes Notre Dame on the western side of the park, which we slightly preferred, perhaps because it was a little less touristy.
Both drives took under an hour, were filled with beautiful vistas that made me increasingly happy I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car and could just look around me and were filled with hiking trails to branch out onto. From Valnontey, we climbed a few kilometers up the side of the mountain, spotting Alpine Chamois, past a waterfall and towards incredible vistas at the mountain summit.
Just past Rhemes Notre Dame, we walked on a more even-graded path along a river bed, through the brilliant fall colors of the larches.
No matter what, in solid European fashion, you are certain to find cute cafes to enjoy an espresso as you savor the views while considering your next move.
No matter the language you’re discussing this impressive mountain in, the color descriptor is on point. Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco is the tallest mountain of the Alps, is situated in both France and Italy, and features some unique choices for traversing its imposing position. There is a 7.2-mile tunnel running directly through the mountain if you’re in a rush, as well as an incredible cable car which you can ride up and over the glacier that spreads across the wide summit, eventually touching down again in France (get in line early! Wait times can be tedious.)
Alternatively, the Tour do Mont Blanc (TMB) is an 170-kilometer, 11 day trek, passing through villages and mountain refuges across France, Switzerland and Italy, circling the entire mountain. It’s officially on the Bucket List for a future summer.
The city of Courmayeur is a little pricey – being a haven of ski resorts – but there are more valleys to the north and south along the imposing line of peaks along the range before you that offer plenty more hikes where you can spot glaciers and stop for a hot chocolate at a mountain refuge. We had hoped to go south to Val Veny to see what are some apparently amazing glaciers and lakes but the road was closed for the season. In the end, we were not disappointed by turning north and the hike to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, which took a little more than a hour to reach from the valley floor.
Even if you only have the time to drive through the spectacular Valle d’Aosta on your way to France or Switzerland, this tiny Italian region provides a unique divergence from the more traditional Italian tour, and you will certainly be rewarded for your divergence from the beaten path.