For this trip to Italy, we decided to visit Aosta Valley—the smallest of Italy’s twenty regions. This beautiful valley, in the northwest corner of Italy is bordered by the French & Swiss Alps in the north and the scenic Gran Paradiso Park in the south. We based ourselves in the town of Aosta so we could do some day hikes and learn about the area.
There are several advantages to visiting Aosta Valley in the fall. First, there are very few tourists and the trails and towns are uncrowded. Second, the weather can be perfect for hiking, with highs in the low 70’s (Fahrenheit) in the valleys and low 60’s in the higher areas. But because this is between seasons, most of the lifts and funiculars are closed, along with the rifugios that serve food and other refreshments. This limits where you can go and what you can see.
If you don’t speak Italian, you can also try French. Both of these are the official languages of the region. But since the valley is a popular tourist destination, you’ll find many people who speak English.
Here’s what we discovered during our one week in Italy’s least populated region…
Gran Paradiso Park
Back in 1856, King Vittorio Emanuele II created this majestic park and named it after the highest peak of the area—Gran Paradiso. The picturesque town of Cogne is where you’ll find the start of many fine hikes. Most of the hikes are challenging and steep, but worth the effort. Afterwards, you can enjoy a nice meal or refreshments in Cogne, where you can explore the small town and shop a bit.
The principal city of the region, Aosta is centrally located for exploring the entire valley. This ancient settlement with its strategic position was considered an important settlement for the Romans. Visiting today, you can still see much of the old Roman walls that surround the old city center. The Roman theatre is also worth a visit.
There are several interesting churches to visit, including the Cathedral with a beautiful cloister. The smaller St. Stefano Church is now used as a gallery and we enjoyed the international watercolor exhibit being shown.
The old city center of Aosta has a pleasant pedestrian-only area with plenty of shops, restaurants and piazzas to enjoy. Although its a popular weekend get away for the nearby Swiss and French neighbors, Aosta feels like a real town with plenty of local activity. Don’t miss the evening Passeggiata, when everyone is out socializing.
Heading northwest on Highway SS26 or the Autostrada one can reach the pretty town of Courmayeur in about 30 minutes. The free, SS26 is quite scenic as it meanders through small towns with ancient towers and castles in strategic positions. It’s possible to visit several castles throughout the valley or you can just admire them along the drive.
As you approach Courmayeur, the massive Mont Blanc comes into view. From the town there are several hiking areas to explore. The scenic Val Ferret has many walking paths with optimal views of the south face of Mont Blanc. It’s also a very popular area for rock climbing, mountain biking and cross country skiing.
Forte di Bard
On the one cloudy and cool day of this past week, we decided to visit Forte di Bard, a fortified settlement built in the 11th century. It was rebuilt several times and now it’s a center for art, history and education. During our visit we explored the Museum of the Alps, a wonderful exhibit of Venetian Art and an exhibition of nature photography by Walter Bonatti, an Italian mountain climber and journalist.
Another short drive took us high up windy roads that led to some fantastic views of Monte Cervino, the Italian name for the Matterhorn. We took a short hike up the valley for a closer look at this amazing monolith. Since we were viewing it from the south side, there wasn’t much snow left on the mountain. It must be quite different during the winter.
The closest town, Breuil-Cervinia, is mainly a ski resort with high rise hotels and shops. But just down the road we stopped at Valtournenche, a more picturesque mountain town with excellent local food.
Getting to the Valle d’Aosta is not that difficult. We rented a car at the Milan airport and arrived in about 2 hours. If you start in Turin, it’s an even shorter trip. If you don’t like to drive, it’s possible to take the train or bus. There are also two modern tunnels that connect this valley to France, using the Mont Blanc tunnel and to Switzerland using the Great St. Bernard Pass.