The Unspoilt Charm of the Beautiful Aosta Valley in Northern Italy
Exploring the French Speaking Region of Valle d’Aosta Italy
The Unspoilt Charm of the Beautiful Aosta Valley in Northern Italy
Valle d’Aosta is a region of northwest Italy just across the borders from both Switzerland and France. Lying in the Western Alps, it’s probably best known for its views of the legendary peaks of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso and the ski resorts of Courmayeur and Cervinia.
But it has a great deal more to offer besides. We went for a three day trip to sample some of its hiking, wine, gastronomy, Roman remains and a few of its many castles. You could visit all of the places outlined in our itinerary or pick and choose and create your own list of places to visit.
Wine Tasting at Maison Anselmet
Getting our priorities right we started with some wine, some 15 minutes drive out of Aosta (the regional capital) in the village of Villeneuve, we visited Maison Anselmet. Here for 3 generations the Anselmet family have been producing great wines. The vineyard covers some 10 hectares of often steep and precipitous ground marked out by drystone walls. We tasted a variety of both white and red wines. My personal favourite was the aptly named Le Prisonnier, this could certainly keep me behind bars for a good while.
Maison Anselmet: Tours and taskings are available and bookable in advance via the website- see here.
Sarre Royal Castle
Reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the wine we travelled less than 10 minutes to our first castle, Sarre Royal Castle. This relatively small castle stands on a promontory in Lalex, overlooking the Aosta valley floor and on the road to Mont Blanc.
Built in 1710 the property was purchased by the King of Italy Victor Emanuel II in the mid-1800`s and became the royal hunting lodge and summer residence for the next 3 generations until the abolishment of the monarchy in 1946.
The castle was purchased by the Valley de Aosta authority in 1989 and is now a museum.
A key feature is a corridor and large reception room decorated with literally hundreds of ibex and chamois horns and heads, speculator if a little macabre.
From the Sarre Royal Castle you can enjoy beautiful views of the valley below.
Next we continued our tour to visit Fénis Castle.
Fénis Castle Valle d’Aosta
We then travelled approximately 30 minutes to Fénis Castle. This is an imposing medieval castle located in the town of Fénis and is one of the most famous castles in the Aosta Valley. The castle appears to offer fantastic defensive capabilities, with numerous towers with slit windows, battlements and an outer and inner courtyard. However it was never used for military purpose but as a prestigious private residence for the Challant family
From the inner courtyard a semi-circular staircase leads up to a series of wooden balconies and into the main building. At the top of the staircase there is an impressive depiction of Saint George killing the dragon, while the walls of the balconies are decorated with images of sages, prophets and proverbs.
Inside the castle is arranged over 3 floors. On the first floor you can see the weaponry, the kitchen, the woodshed and a storage tank for rainwater. On the second floor there a number of living and bedrooms as well as the chapel. The third floor which houses the servant`s quarters is not accessible.
Day Two – Hiking along the Cammino Balteo
Cammino Balteo Hike
We started day two with a hike. We did part of stage 8 of the Cammino Balteo hike which starts in Champagnod and ends in Torgnon. This was a hike over about 11km and took just over 3 hours at a fairly gentle pace.
The terrain was largely easy paths through forest and meadows, with one modestly steep incline and decent. These would present little problem for most hikers, even children. At various points there are fabulous views of Mont Blanc with its snowy peak glinting in the sunshine.
The Cammino Balteo is a circular route of about 350 km offering a journey into the culture and the history of the Aosta Valley with ancient villages and imposing castles, with varied landscape that varies from forest to meadow to vineyard, many with wonderful mountain views.
The route is divided into 23 stages each of between 4 and 6 hours (see the website here), but each stage can also be broken down into short hikes, as we did.
Lunch Stop at “Jour et Nuit” Torgnon
Arriving in Torgnon we were ready for a good lunch and a glass of wine or two, we found both at the Restaurant “Jour et nuit”.
And as a bonus just as we arrived at the restaurant, we were fortunate enough to meet a herd of cows on their ritual decent from the mountain for winter, a great sight and formidable sound!
Ten minutes’ drive from Torgnon, in the hamlet of Triatel, you will find a fascinating museum called Petit-Monde. The Petit-Monde Museum consists of three buildings of wood and stone built between the late middle ages and 1700. Each of the building contain numerous artifacts from the period and providing a fascinating vision of rural life, social organisation and tradition of the region.
The three buildings are:-
The Grenier dating from around 1472, this is a warehouse traditionally used for the conservation of cereals and foodstuffs.
The Gradze a rural building for where multiple agricultural tools and machinery was stored
The Rascard a terraced building from the late medieval prior, used for the conservation and processing of the wheat and corn. The visit is completed by the village mill, located on the Petit-Monde stream.
The Park of Gamba Castle
En route back to our hotel we stopped of for a stroll around the green island that surrounds Gamba Castle, just outside the village of Châtillon. The castle itself dates back to the early 900s, however the park was conceived around 1900, one thousand years later. Its 54,000 square meters is designed to replicate a typical English Park and boasts over 150 different species of tree. There are three principle exhibits, a giant Sequoia imported from California, this is around 40 meters tall and the truck has a circumference of over 2 meters, A bald Cypress, originating from the swamps of Florida and a Honey Locust indigenous to North America.
Day Three – The Romans Bridge, Roman Road & Ford Bard
The is a classic line in British humour which asks “what did the Romans ever do for us” (from the Monty Python film A Life of Brian). Obviously, the answer is a very great deal and the Romans left their mark right across Europe, so there is no surprise that the same is true in the Aosta Valley.
We visited two prime examples; the Roman bridge in the village of Saint Martin and the remains of the Roman road to Gaul near the village of Donnas.
Pont Saint Martin
Some 50km south west of the city of Aosta we discovered the village of Sain Martin and at its heart a bridge built by the Romans way back in the 1st century BC. The bridge is a single arch stone construction that rises 23 meter above the River Lys, just five meters wide it was the only crossing available to travellers until 1831 and is still in use by pedestrians today. The local legend has it that the bridge was built by the devil and for the past 97 years it has been the centre of the colourful Pont Saint Martin carnival (in late February).
The Road to Gaul
A few kilometres west of Saint Martin on the SS26 road towards Bard you will find the remains of what was once the main route from Rome to southwest France. This section had to be craved out of rock and the section that is preserved is about 220 metres in length, part way along there is an archway measuring 4 metres wide by 4 metre high. The stone is so heavily rutted that it must have been a very uncomfortable ride.
Just outside the town of Bard there is a rocky outcrop which is an ideal location to build a fortification to control and defend the main route through the Alps from Italy to France. The original Fort can be traced back to the 5th Century, but this was replaced in the 10th Century.
So dominate is the position of the Fort that in 1800 a force of just 400 solders halted the march of a French army of 40,000 and held them up for more than 2 weeks, and so foiling Napoleon Bonaparte`s plan for a surprise attack on the city of Turin 70 kilometres to the south. Eventually overcoming the resistance, Napoleon ordered that the Fort be raised to the ground.
Just 30 years later, in 1830 Charles Albert of Savoy commissioned the building of the current enormous two level Fort which dominates the surrounding countryside for miles. The Fort remained in military service until 1975 and then following significant renovation it reopened as the Museum of the Alps in 2006. Access to the Fort is either by foot or via a 3 level futuristic panoramic lift.
There is a lot to see, so make sure you leave enough time. Our time was short but we did see…The Ferdinando museum which retraces the history of the fortification of the Alps and the Opera Carlo Alberto utilises the former prison cells of the Fort to re-tell its long history.
Film buffs may recognise Fort Bard as being the Fort Hydra in the 2015 Avengers, Age of Ultron movie set in a fictional country called Sokovia. In the same movie a large section of the city of Aosta was transformed into Sokovia’s capital city.
So if you’re interested in exploring this beautiful and unspoilt area of Italy, please find some further information below.
Information and Resources for Visiting Valle d’Aosta
Address: Fraz. Vereytaz, 30, 11018, Villeneuve AO
Tel: +39 0165904851
Visit the Maison Anselmet website here
Address: Location Lalex, SARRE
Visit the Sarre Castel Website here
Address: Location Chez-Sapin, 1 FENIS
Visit the Fénis Castle Website here
Petit-Mond (Biblioteca comunale)
Address: Location Capoluogo, 11020 TORGNON
Tel: 0166.540433 (Ufficio Turistico)
Visit the Petit Mond website here
Custodi del Parco Gamba Castle
Address: Location 11024 Chatillion
Tel: 0166 563252
Forte di Bard
Address: 11020 BARD
Tel: 0125 833811
Aosta Valley on Google Maps:
On this map you can see where Valle d’Aosta is located in relation to Zurich,
Pictures courtesy of Google Maps
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