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Published: November 6th 2015
Roman ruins in Aosta
Remaining wall of Roman theatre with mountains in the background and moon rising
After three nights in Turin we headed north to the Aosta Valley. There was a big Sunday morning market being set up on our street as we were driving out. We were tempted to linger but we wanted to get on the road, our trips are never straight forward, they involve stops and unplanned detours. We didn’t have a hotel booking and wanted to get to Aosta while there was still light. The hotels in Aosta that I checked on the internet were all very expensive, not very attractive and also full up so we decided to take our chances. We had a similar experience in Cesky Krumlov -- we walked into the old town, found a room at the first hotel we liked and liked it so much that we spent another two nights there on the return trip.
And so it was in Aosta. I had seen the Domus Antica and was about to book it but then I read a review that said it was essentially a building site. So that was out. We parked the car in the big parking lot at the end of the walking street in the old town and the
first hotel we got to was the Domus Antica and it wasn’t a building site – at least not on the outside. The inside courtyard had scaffolding and they were renovating but it really didn’t disturb us and we loved the hotel and stayed four nights.
Aosta is a pretty town, surrounded by snow capped mountains. The Aosta Valley is the smallest region in Italy, located between France and Switzerland. Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Gran Paradiso and Monte Rosa are all in the vicinity. Needless to say, there is plenty of choice for sightseeing and four days is not enough to see everything. There are a lot of tourists in the summer and the winter skiing season but very few when we visited in late September. The weather was lovely, blue skies, fluffy clouds. Aosta is full of Roman ruins. There are the remains of the town walls, a bridge, a triumphal arch and a very impressive Roman theatre. One wall of the theatre is still standing.
The main street is full of bars, restaurants and shops. We ate most of our evening meals at Trattoria Aldente. It has inside and outside seating, also a big cellar. The
food is mostly homemade, interesting dishes, very tasty, good wine list. Reasonable prices too. It was near our hotel in the old part of Aosta. Our hotel also had a good restaurant and we ate there one night and enjoyed chatting with the very nice owners. We spent our days visiting parks and in the late afternoon would wonder around the old streets, pass some ruins, do a bit of window shopping, before going to dinner.
We even bought a few things this time – after all, we were in Italy. Micha got shoes and a nice bag. I got some mauve sport shoes – Scarpa – Italian for shoe. The shoes were in a dazzling range of colors. I nearly bought turquoise. I was surprised to see some of the colors the Italians were wearing. I saw macho looking guys, hugging their girlfriends, wearing neon pink or tomato red sport shoes and jackets. Maybe it’s good for the ski season, if you get lost in a snow storm, you can probably be seen from space. Also saw some blonde rasta guys with lots of piercings, tattoos and extremely unexpected black, leather skirts, sort of like kilts.
View of Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley
our first afternoon in Aosta we drove into the mountains nearby to a small village, Valpelline where they were having an agricultural show. There were stands selling cheese, honey and wood carvings but the main attraction was the goat head butting contest. The goats were led into the enclosure, one after the other, but there was very little head butting. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the mountain scenery was gorgeous. We drove on into the mountains to a glacier. It was a bit late in the afternoon to do the hike but we sat at a little cafe and had a drink, enjoying the last of the sun before returning to Aosta for the night.
Our hotel didn’t have breakfast but they had a complimentary coffee bar with expresso machine, cookies, muffins, juice, even a half bottle of sparkling wine. So we took our time in the mornings, enjoying the cozy room and drinking tea and coffee on the balcony. The weather was still good, so on our first morning we drove to Courmeyer to take the Monte Bianco skyway. We stopped and had a toast at a small café in the sun. Courmayeur is at the
base of Mont Blanc, on the other side, in France, is Chamonix, a place we have visited quite a lot but we had never been on this side and we had never been up in the cable car. Courmayer was between seasons and there weren’t many people around. Some of the local people were out walking their big friendly looking mountain dogs. There was a statue of Romulus and Remus with the wolf in the center. We saw that in a few other places as well as memorials to resistance fighters who hid in the mountains during the Second World War.
Italy opened the Skyway in May 2015. It is heated and revolves. The short journey to Pointe Helbronner
is really thrilling. There is one stop on the way at the Alpine gardens. When we were there it was the end of the season so not much growing. The viewing platforms at Pointe Helbronner look onto the biggest mountains in Europe, you are surrounded by snow covered giants for as far as the eye can see. At 3,500 metres the air was crisp and cool but the day was perfect and we had uninterrupted views. The contrast of the blue
sky and white mountains is dazzling. The café sells great sandwiches and fruit pies with lashings of cream, very generous portions and everything priced at about 5 euro.
Driving back through the beautiful Aosta Valley we stopped in at St. Didier thermal spa. We didn’t go into the spa. We just wanted to see it. It is in a fantastic setting, everything is so green and there are views of the mountains and Mont Blanc. Guests were bathing in the pools and sunning themselves in white bathrobes on the lawns. In the summer, the spa opens in the evenings and lights the pool area with burning torches. The hot water comes from a ravine in the mountains. We went for a walk by a river and on an old bridge there was a pipe with hot running water.
The next day we visited the Gran Paradiso National Park. You can really spend quite a few days there, hiking and enjoying the magnificent scenery but we only had one day there and we spent it in Cogne, situated at the edge of a large meadow surrounded by mountains. There is an easy hiking path along the river to the
waterfalls in Lillaz. We drove there and walked up the stairs by the waterfalls. On the way back, we walked through lovely meadows, still full of flowers at the end of the summer. We passed lone farmhouses and enormous rocks the size of four story buildings that had rolled down the mountain. We made a stop at a farm in Valnontey and then it was time to return to Aosta. Another day gone in the blink of an eye.
On our last day in Aosta, the weather wasn’t the best. It was cloudy and quite cold. Not raining but looking like it might. Seemed like a good day to visit a castle or two. In the Aosta valley there is a castle on nearly every hill. Some are ruins but others have been restored and still have their original furnishings. The castles were built by medieval self appointed local lords that set up tolls through the Alpine passes. We wanted to visit Sarre but it was closed so we drove to Fenis instead. Unfortunately, you could only go in with a tour and the next tour was in an hour and in Italian, so we didn’t hang around.
As the weather was still holding, we decided that we would drive up to the base of the Matterhorn in Breuil-Cervinia. We knew the weather wouldn’t be good enough to take the cable car up to the viewing platform but we thought we might get some nice views from the town. Also we had read about a very good restaurant that was sure to get a Michelin star soon so was worth visiting as it still wasn’t well known. The scenery driving up was beautiful, we passed rivers and mountains, farms and small villages, we had fleeting views of the mountains behind the clouds and the sun made brief appearances. It was getting a bit cold and by the time we got up to Breuil-Cervinia at 2,000 meters, there was thick cloud cover and visibility was almost zero. Then it started snowing. We weren’t really dressed for it, we couldn’t see anything, we found the restaurant and it was closed until November, so we took the hint and beat a hasty retreat. 200 meters down the mountain it was a bit warmer, so we stopped at a picnic area and had a bit of a walk around but we were
still freezing and we didn’t have a picnic. Suddenly very hungry we found a café and were served an enormous panini heaped with a ton of melted cheese and prosciutto. Would have been perfect except that the three other patrons were engrossed in an episode of the Simpsons, dubbed into Italian, and turned up to what must have been near maximum volume.
Not our best day in the Aosta Valley. The day before and the day after was perfect and the views would have been amazing but we were out of time and after another night in Aosta it was time to drive back to Milan where we are planning to visit the Expo.
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