If you enter the Aosta Valley from Piemonte to the south via the Autostrada E25, you'll quickly realize that you're in a different world. Town names seem to be in French. Green shutters give way to staunch brown ones. Your hotel looks German. Orange roof tiles have given way to gray slate.
The E25, autostrada della Valle d'Aosta, is likely to be the most scenic autostrada in Italy. As you head into the steep valley, look up. On steep hillsides, gardens, groves, and vineyards are planted in steep terraces. The road follows the Fiume Dora Baltea, a tributary of the Po.
Valle d'Aosta is small. It takes the honors for the smallest, least populous, and least densely populated region of Italy. Unless you ski in peak winter season, you're likely to have great swaths of incredibly beautiful land all to yourself.
Italian and French, as you have discovered, are both official languages.
Aosta is the largest city. It's an ancient Roman town, starting as the colony of Augusta Praetoria Salassorum where three thousand retired veterans were housed. Today there are many Roman ruins to see. The main piazza is quite attractive and hosts one of Italy's best historic caffes, the Caffe Nazionale, which has been around since 1886.
Use the button below to access detailed tourism information for Aosta.
Italy's first National Park, the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, is mostly in the Val d'Aosta, but spills into Piemonte.
Pont Saint Martin is the gateway to the Valle d'Aosta. It has a Roman bridge from the first century BC, after which it was named.
As a border land, there was need for many forts and castles. Before you get to Aosta from Piemonte, stop in at Fénis to take a tour of Fénis castle, one of the most famous of the Aosta Valley and first mentioned in 1242. You find the castle conveniently on a small knoll right in the center of town. Just down the winding path is MAV, the Museo dell’Artigianato Valdostano di tradizione. You'll find traditional local handicrafts of the folks of the valley, like the carved forest figures to the right of the castle. For the view of the castle like you see below, stay across the highway at Hotel Comtes De Challant which also serves very fine food of the region in its restaurant.
Just across the Autostrada you'll find the town of Nus, which has a castle, somewhat ruined, right in the center of town. Another sits uphill from the town near the village of Plane. Nus is in the heart of some fine wine country, mostly producing whites called "Petite Arvine", and "Blanc de Morgex".
Courmayeur (Cormaiore in Italian) is located at just over 4000 feet above sea level on the south side of Mont Blanc. It's the highest commune in Italy. It's considered Italy's best ski resort. Hikers flock there in summer, so don't think of it as just a winter wonderland; Italy's highest botanical garden is here: the Giardino Botanico Alpino Saussurea. In December you can attend Courmayeur noir in Festival, a film noir extravaganza:
Much of the festival’s charm comes from the fact that it doesn’t restrict itself to film and television. You can expect a wealth of conversations and exhibits outside of the films being screened, and in the past there have been work-in-progress films as well as stage productions. 2013 saw a photography competition entitled “Eyes on the City” and the festival also includes children’s screenings, showing the organizers’ understanding of the capacity children have to enjoy quality films and develop their own tastes. ~ Courmayeur’s Film Noir Festival
In the shadow of the Matterhorn is Breuil-Cervinia, one of the world's top ski resorts with access to Europe's highest lifts. It's a convenient 1 hour 40 minutes from Turin airport. If skiing isn't enough, you can take a few laps in a cart on the ice with one of Viator's more interesting tours: Ice kart experience in Cervinia.
Preserved pig and cow parts are very big in the Val d'Aosta, and the town of Arnad is home to lots of great places to taste them, especially the Lardo di Arnad DOP, which has its own festival in August.
The Salumificio Maison Bertolin is highly regarded and a venue for purchasing some of these cured meats.
The Gran Paradiso national park covers 70,000 hectares, altitudes of the park ranging from 800 meters at the bottom of the valley to 4,061 meters to the top of mount Gran Paradiso. The park was proclaimed to save the Steinbock, or Alpine ibex, from extinction. Chamois is common but shy in the park, and you might see marmots, golden eagles, and perhaps a lynx. There are three visitor centers in the villages of Cogne, Valsavarenche and Rhêmes-Notre-Dame.
Châtillon began as a Roman settlement and reached its peak in the middle ages. There are medieval houses and towers as well as three castles to see.
Fontana cheese is featured predominantly in Valdostana cuisine, showing up with a slice of prosciutto in the Veal Chop Valdostana shown in the picture below, and modified only slightly for Chicken Valdostana. Grilled polenta is a popular block upon which cooks build a typical meal.
Carbonada is a typical dish of beef stewed in white wine served with polenta. Seupa à la Vapelenentse (Valpelline Soup) is a savoy cabbage soup enhanced with Fontina and thickened with copious amounts of bread. Cinnamon is the unusual seasoning that links the two dishes.
Saveurs du Val d'Aoste is the new quality label for the Valle d'Aosta and the label indicates shops and restaurants where you're guaranteed of the origins and authenticity of the food, wine and traditions. The link takes to you to a list of the "Saveurs du Val d'Aoste" Restaurants.
Aosta is one eighth the size of Piemonte and has a challenging geography for wine grapes, so there is a small production and you don't often see Aosta wines outside of the region. What makes the Aosta valley interesting for wine lovers is that there are a huge number of both native and introduced grape varieties, the most important of which is Picotendro, the Aosta version of Piemonte's Nebbiolo.
The vineyards are planted mostly in terraces on the steep, south-facing slopes above the Dora Baltea river.
We tasted a delightful Fumin wine on our last trip to Aosta. Fumin is an indiginous grape that was rescued from extinction recently. We can't quibble with the Wine Searcher's description of it: "Savory and earthy tones underlie dark fruits such as blackberries on the palate."
There are designated wine roads in the Aosta valley, here's a map and guide with select itineraries.
A trip to neighboring Piemonte, then a short excursion into the Val d'Aosta would make a fine trip for wine enthusiasts.
Enjoy the little slice of rocky heaven that is the Aosta Valley.