Why Italy’s Smallest Region Includes Massive Attractions

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Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions. The smallest is named Val d’Aosta. Have you ever heard a non-Italian yearn with desire to visit Val d’Aosta? Unlikely. They pine—instead—for strolling through Tuscan villages or hunting Piedmont truffles or cruising Campania coastlines on a Vespa or sipping Nero d’Avola wine in Sicily.

Val d’Aosta? Few non-Italians will recognize that name.

Which is marvelous, yet inexplicable. Marvelous because international droves of backpackers and floppy hatted trekkers clutching guide books are—as yet—not visibly rampant. Inexplicable because this region—with only 1% of Italy’s surface area and about the same size as the U.S. state of Rhode Island or twice as large as U.K.’s County Surrey—is saturated with superlatives. Val d’Aosta borders the tallest mountain in Europe and includes the continent’s highest vineyards (Spain and Switzerland may disagree). Here are Italy’s highest ski resort and highest cable car and once longest tunnel in the world in the least densely populated region of the country.

Val d’Aosta forms Italy’s northwest corner. It is bordered north and west by Switzerland and France. Geographically—it is a twisted west-to-east valley carved out by glaciers some 20,000 years ago. The principal 100-mile (160 kilometer) main valley of Dora Baltea is joined by perpendicular valleys, which include Veny and Ferret around the town and ski region of Courmayeur below Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc—Europe’s tallest peak). Close by loom other daunting mountains—Monte Rosa, Cervino and Gran Paradiso.

This is a land of oak, chestnut, beech, pine and larch trees, a land of foresters and stock farmers, as well as of iron and steel producers; it is a land of winter sports, summer hiking, river rafting and thermal pools; a land of deep valleys and daunting rock walls.

The number of visitors to Val d’Aosta this past June was 98,401, or about 2,000 less than during the pre-pandemic month of June in 2019. That is about the number of visitors to Florence every four days. Two thirds of these arrivals to Val d’Aosta are Italian.

For all its hardscrabble and challenging highland terrain, the region has long attracted diverse newcomers—including waves of Celts, Ligurian-Gallic Salassi and Romans, followed by Burgundians and Ostrogoths and Byzantines and Lombards and Franks and Savoys. Residents cherish local history and identity, which are some reasons why Val d’Aosta remains one of five autonomous regions within Italy.

Aosta Town –

Aosta—planned by the Roman Pretorian military—is geometric in layout. The city includes the arched Pretoria Gateway as well as the looming Arch of Augustus—oddly perched alone on a grassy street corner. This somewhat unheralded stone gateway—still beautifully intact—was built to celebrate Roman defeat of the Salassi dozens of years before the Christian era emerged.

If you explore the city, pace along pedestrian Via Sant’Anselmo street past an officina della pasta (pasta workshop), buy a local cookbook with goat antelope salami recipes or consider eating at a local trattoria. From this attractive and pedestrian friendly city look to the valley sides, and prepare to explore further inland.

Courmayeur –

Driving west of Aosta you will pass through at least a half dozen tunnels that ramp increasingly upward as they approach the Alpine town of Courmayeur. The economy here is focused on visitors—mostly skiers during winter and hikers during summer. Being Italian differentiates this town from similar French and Swiss Alpine resorts. For example, each morning throngs of visitors leave town to hike on mountain trails. They appear lean, fit, hardy and determined, but also stylish—flaunting bella figura attire such as Osprey daypacks, colorful Scarpa walking shoes, Bollé sunglasses, Komperdell walking sticks and Courmayeur caps.

Food, amazing food, is woven into local culture—not flaunted, but expected. The town has ample café bars—down-ho, such as Mont Blanc Bakery (try the crostatine marmellata with an espresso) or upscale like the Grand Hotel Royal e Golf (that’s really a name). Open air market vendors are generally understated and don’t advertise their products as ‘organic,’ although many are seriously so. That svelte woman selling dirt coated carrots? She likely woke at 5:30 a.m. to bake a few bread loaves before tramping out to tend her garden.

Much about life here appears communal. But then, this is Italy. Prominent gesticulating conversations are snippets of cultural expression; posters advertise not yoga, but yoga per tutti (everyone). Why not? Bring the extended family. Love and tension (and the word ciao) are ubiquitous. Even the Deodata Arte gallery includes—of course—a sculpture of the word Amore.

Whether walking a dog, arguing on a cell phone with a banker or speaking with a fellow diner by twirling fingertips—much of life here appears as visual theater. Again, why not? Drama underlies this culture where the national language was based not on Latin, but on local vernacular adopted by poet Dante Alighieri seven centuries ago. Respect for words and language endures. That cafe table neighbor is not texting his ex, but underlining sentences in a literary hardback.

Val d’Aosta region is bilingual, with two official languages (Italian and French), although about a fifth of residents also speak Valdôtain. Restaurants with French names (La Bouche, La Clochette, Le Massif) do not reflect some effort to gain a marketing edge (ample visitors prefer Italian to French cuisine, thank you) but the history of a land that wavered between French and Italian rule. In the 17th and 18th centuries it became French—for a time—before reverting to what eventually became the nation of Italy.

On a wooded hill outside Courmayeur that is part of Hotel and Restaurant Chalet Plan Gorret, I sat in a narrow garden deck chair beside planters of pink geraniums below Alpine vistas of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc). Out of a restaurant kitchen window came sounds of chopping, pounding, jangling, laughter, a few heartfelt songs and a round of ‘happy birthday’—tanti auguri—first in English, then in Italian. Male and female voices—Italian, French and Senegalese—lit up with the air with joyous, sonorous, blissful banter and words about cooking and life—troppo, basta, dove, allora, mangiato, meglio. This gave a sliver of insight into the importance here of melding community with cooking; preparing Italian meals in this region can be intensely social.

This Plan Gorret restaurant is run by Paola Olla, who moved to landlocked and highland Val d’Aosta from the shoreline city of Cagliari on the island of Sardinia. Her restaurant blends traditional meals with seafood to produce cucina valdostana e sarda. Dinner begins with a flatbread appetizer and three jams—lemon, onion and cauliflower/parsley—paired with a glass of Petite Arvine wine, followed by deer tartare with berry teriyaki sauce, fresh sprouts and wasabi mayonnaise. Next, sea bass with zucchini tempura, olive powder and plum tomatoes—matched with a glass of Val d’Aosta Pinot Gris. Perhaps, now, your interest in visiting Val d’Aosta grows?

From near Courmayeur take the Skyway—a twirling circular cable car with deep valley vistas, a viewing platform at the high point destination (as well as a café and bookstore) and a mid-level station with deck chairs for sunning on grassy mountain fields, as well as a high-altitude botanical garden swarming (in summer) with butterflies and bees. Hours spent here mid-summer can contribute not just to a sunburn or tan, but to amplifying your personal paradigm of appreciating relaxation.

Mountain passes of Val d’Aosta were historically strategic. The north side of the valley (left bank) is Val del Grand Saint Bernardo, headed by the Saint Bernardo pass—crossed by Napoleon and 40,00 troops, as well as by Charlemagne and Henry IV. Today—most trans-Alpine travel is subterranean. The 3.6-mile (5.8-kilometer) Great Saint Bernard tunnel links Val d’Aosta with the Valais canton of Switzerland, while the six-mile (11 kilometer) Mont Blanc tunnel hooks Val d’Aosta to France.

Further down from Courmayeur and closer to Aosta, different valleys are approachable, each with unique characteristics. Lower portions and sub-valleys can be bizarrely beautiful, even somewhat forgotten.

Drive upward and northward from the Dora Baltea valley floor into subsidiary Val del Grand Saint Bernardo. Aim for, say, the village of Vetan. This is a land of switchbacks and tunnels, rockfalls and steep single-lane mountain roads used for two way traffic. This is a stunning yet somewhat bypassed region where village elder women gossip in street centers because vehicles are infrequent. It is a land of stone masoned villages and bewildering views, of elevated picnic sites and wooded valleys. Here are slate roofs and signs warning that roads are iced in winter and clogged with cattle during summer. Open your window while driving and listen to the hollow clanging of cowbells. Here, a one-hour car journey takes two because you keep stopping to take photographs.

From here look south across the Dora Baltea valley floor to see other valleys, such as Rhemes, Savarenche and Cogne. In contrast to Saint Bernardo, Cogne valley streets are wider and better engineered, gardens are less haphazardly landscaped, and pizzerias and bars are more frequent. Roads are less inclined here, while camper vans and SUVs are more ample. Whereas the Bernardo valley has distant vistas of almost Himalayan beauty, the Cogne valley impresses because of its proximity to nearby towering rock cliffs and raging turquoise rivers. Cogne is sort of a miniature Italian version of Yosemite meets Vail, while Grand Bernardo is more Andes peaks and altiplano in a geography where time itself appears to often be a fading memory.

Food and Wine –

Val d’Aosta food is based on mountain fare, with ample chestnuts and gnocchi as well as herbal Saint Marcel ham, Alpine fontina and fromadzo cheeses, polenta, porcino mushrooms and black truffles, black bread, fried trout, fondue, mint fritters and raspberry sorbet (with grappa, per favore). Local wines include Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle (from high-altitude, ungrafted Prié Blanc grapes), Petite Arvine—a rich and acidic white and Enfer d’Arvier (from red Petit Rouge grape). Also, try sampling génépi, a liqueur made from over a dozen Alpine herbs with a taste both sweet and wild.

A word of caution: because this region caters to skiers and hikers, restaurant service is often precise, orchestrated, and delivered efficiently. Long, languid, three-hour lunches of the sort ubiquitous in Italian Tuscan or French Bordeaux wine country are rarer here, where staff are versed at turning tables. The quality of meals, however, is often excellent.

Val d’Aosta is a compact space of dazzling vistas, a dozen ski resorts and ten nature reserves. This is a land for the physically active, as well those wanting only to soak in thermal springs and gaze at inspiring Alps. Fly into Milan, Turin or Geneva and enter this region of serrated peaks and sumptuous meals, crisp air, clean starlight and gorgeous valleys worth exploring.

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