The Aosta Valley is the smallest region in Italy, but is remarkably picturesque. It is also the only province of the region is Aosta. Located in the northwest of the country, it is situated between France and Switzerland. The region is mostly mountainous and at its core are majestic peaks. Here you can find the highest points in the Alps: Cervino, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso and the king of them all, Mont Blanc, which at 15,781 feet is the highest mountain in Europe. The once forbidding peak of Monte Bianco can now be conquered in good weather by an unforgettable cable car ride from the magnificent ski-town of Courmayeur, a reminder that this region also helped give birth to downhill skiing and the modern ski resort. However, the history of this region goes back much further than winter sports and is linked to the two mountain passes through the Alps that connect Italy to the rest of Europe.
From the Stone Age until the creation of the modern tunnel system, the St. Bernard passes – Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo, at an elevation of 7,200 feet and Colle del Gran San Bernardo, at an altitude of 8,100 feet, have allowed travel in good weather. Straddling the highest point of the latter is the Great St. Bernard Hospice, founded in 1049. The hospice later became famous for its use of St. Bernard dogs in rescue operations.
The passes had been used by the ancient Salassi people and later by Hannibal and his Carthaginian army for his surprise invasion of the Roman Republic, one of the major events of the Second Punic War. It is one of the most celebrated achievements of any military force in ancient warfare. However, by the time the Alps were crossed, both Hannibal’s men and war elephants were famished and exhausted. Carthage ultimately lost the war, as they did in the case of both the First and Third Punic Wars.
The area was conquered during the time of Caesar Augustus and was named Augusta Praetoria, from which the modern name of Aosta is derived. During the Middle Ages, the area was controlled by the Challant family, who left their mark by building many of the region’s castles and by the House of Savoy, later to become the Kings of Italy. Today, Valle d’Aosta is an autonomous region known as a winter sports paradise. However, travelers are now discovering that there is plenty to enjoy in this region all year round.
In this setting of stately mountains and diverse valleys sits the oldest National Park, the Gran Paradiso, which was once the royal hunting ground of the House of Savoy. Mount Gran Paradiso, after which the park was named, is the highest peak completely within Italy.
The great modern tunnels of Gran San Bernardo and those under Mont Blanc are extraordinary engineering masterpieces that highlight this point of intersection between Italy and the rest of Europe. When most people think about the Aosta Valley, they immediately think of the ski slopes of Cervinia, Courmayeur and Pila, famous throughout Europe as destinations for anyone who loves skiing and winter sports. This region offers amazing natural attractions, but other cultural and traditional treasures also abound.
Those who come from the south can use the symbolic entrance to the valley at the town of Pont Saint Martin. From this starting point, the road winds into the beautiful Gressoney Valley. The first century BC Roman Bridge, over which the old consular road to Aosta used to pass, is an example of the Roman influence on this territory.
Along the valley all the way to Courmayeur, you can count 82 buildings that stand along the valley like sentinels, including primitive fortifications, military fortresses, residences and watchtowers. These are evidence of the region’s rich feudal history and offer visitors the opportunity to follow an incredibly engaging and interesting route. The most famous castle in the Aosta Valley is the Castello di Fénis, which looks austere, but is in fact a collection of the best defensive techniques of its time. The refined interiors reveal the wealth of its former occupants. Other beautiful castles are the Castle of Issogne, Sarriod de la Tour, Sarre, Saint-Pierre and Ussel, to name but a few.
The road plotted by the castles leads to the town of Aosta, with its mix of Roman and Medieval history, enriched by picturesque traditions. The former Roman fort-town of Augusta Praetoria is one of the few remnants of the Roman Empire that still follows is original street plan. For a small city, there are plenty of large Roman ruins to explore, giving Aosta the nickname “Rome of the Alps,“ with important monuments such as the Arch of Augustus, the Praetorian Gate and the city walls. Assuming it is not too cold, you can take a long stroll along the walls for almost the entire length. The Arch of Augustus commemorates the defeat of the local Salassi and the imposition of Roman rule beginning in 25 BC, while the Porta Praetoria was once the main city gate, with a vault made of enormous stones – another example of Roman engineering. The main piazza is quite attractive and hosts one of Italy’s best historic cafes, the Caffe Nazionale, which has been around since 1886. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is particularly interesting, with the archaeological excavations under the floor of the most recent church, as are Piazza Chanoux and the monumental building of the Sant’Orso Collegiate Church, which dates back to the 11th Century.
At the end of each January is a fair that takes place every year in Aosta, dedicated to St. Orso. Thousands of tourists fill the decorated streets of the old town, which shows off the oldest crafts of the valley, using wood, wrought iron, leather, wool fabrics and lace.
In any season of the year, visiting Monte Rosa surrounds one in enchanting and magical surroundings. A number of sports are enjoyed there and in its three valleys – Ayas, Gressoney and Valsesia, the hub of one of Italy’s largest ski resorts. Cross-country skiing, mountain skiing and snowboarding are enjoyed during the winter season, while climbing, rafting, canoeing, hiking and mountain biking are the options during the warmer months.
To admire the beauty of the glaciers, Punta Helbronner is a magnificent terrace where you can take in the stunning views. A cable car will carry you up to Mont Fréty, where one can visit the Pavillon du Mont Fréty Natural Oasis. It houses the Saussurea Mountain Garden, one of the highest mountain gardens in Europe, with more than 900 plant species of wild flowers from Mont Blanc and other mountain ranges around the world.
During the summer, the Oasis is ideal for hiking and admiring the magnificence of the landscape. If you would want to see Mont Blanc from above, you can experience the thrill of a hot-air balloon flight and practically skim the mountaintops, providing views and an experience that can only occur in this unique and special place that is Italy’s only region that contains but one province.