If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Aosta Valley region of northern Italy bordering France and Switzerland. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. This tiny region, by far the smallest in Italy, has about 150 historic castles, forts, and towers. As small as it is, more than 20% of this region is classified as a nature preserve. And the Alpine skiing is some of the best in Europe.
We’ll start our tour at Bard in southwestern Aosta Valley near the Piedmont border. We’ll head north and slightly west to St. Vincent and then to Breuil-Cervinia near the Swiss border. Next we proceed southwest to Castello Fénis and the Gran Paradiso National Park. We continue north to Cogne and Aosta. Finally we’ll travel northwest to finish our tour at Courmayeur, not far from the French border.
The medieval village of Bard is fairly close to the northern border of Piedmont. In addition to its historic homes perched on a mountain overlooking a gorgeous gorge you can visit the Twelfth Century Forte di Bard that held up Napoleon’s military progress for almost two weeks. He had it destroyed. The fort was reconstructed in the Nineteenth Century.
Our next stop is St. Vincent, which has been a spa resort for well over one hundred years. It’s home to the Casino de la Vallée, where Sean Connery once won 20 million lire. St. Vincent is one of the largest casinos in all Europe and a favorite of jet setters. It was also the site of the European Chess Club championships in 2005.
Breuil-Cervina is a skiing village at the base of the Matterhorn founded in the 1930s during Mussolini’s rule. There are about 200 kilometers (120 miles) of ski runs on the Italian side of the mountain, said to be best for intermediate-level skiers. Experts will prefer the Swiss side of the mountain.
The Castello Fénis was built in 1330 by a relative of the ruling House of Savoy. It includes two sets of walls and several guard towers for defense. Castello Fénis once controlled the Aosta Valley. Some of its frescoes are still legible, especially if you’re familiar with ancient French. If you only have time to visit a single Aosta Valley castle, this is the one to visit.
The little village of Cogne is the entry point for the Parco Nazionale de Gran Paradiso (Grand Paradise National Park), Italy’s first national park, which once belonged to King Victor Emanuel III. It is home to hundreds of plant and animal species, including many that are rarely found elsewhere in Europe. Nearby sights include the Aymavilles Castle dating back to feudal times, a real upstart compared to the perfectly preserved Pondel Roman Bridge over the Grand Eyvia River, which celebrated its 2000th birthday in 2003.
The city of Aosta, numbering about thirty five thousand residents, is home to more than one quarter of the region’s total population. Founded in the very distant past it was a Roman garrison of three thousand soldiers more than two thousand years ago. If you approach the town from the east, you’ll see the Arco di Augusto (Arch of Augustus) commemorating Rome’s victory over the previous residents, a Celtic tribe. Be sure to see the Collegiata di Sant’Orso (Collegiate Church of Saint Orso), an Eleventh Century Gothic church built over a Sixth Century church founded by a local saint. The Twelfth Century Cloister guarded by about forty stone columns carved with Bible scenes and illustrating the founder’s life is right next door.
Unfortunately rather little of the massive Roman amphitheater remains. Its arches are now part of the Convent of the Sisters of San Guiseppe. In contrast, the Porta Praetoria (Pretorial Gate) is still in quite good shape, some two thousand years after construction.
The Duomo (Cathedral) was built over one thousand years ago, replacing the original Fourth Century building. It contains several objects of interest including a carved ivory piece honoring a Roman Emperor that recently celebrated its sixteen hundredth birthday. The cathedral is the major site for the Aosta Valley’s annual International Organ Festival.
We end our tour of the Aosta Valley at Courmayeur, as the ads put it, on the sunny side of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc). The loads of tourists who go there either don’t know or more likely don’t care that both easy and difficult ski slopes are lacking and that the place is sometimes overcrowded. The site is beautiful, and there’s a lot of night life. And in the summer you can take the Télépherique de l’Aiguille du Midi and enjoy a spectacular view of a glacier snowfield as you pass over French territory.
What about food? Aosta Valley cuisine often resembles that of the neighboring Piedmont region. They both have a strong French influence due in grand part to the over five hundred year reign of the ruling House of Savoy. You can even get ham made from ibex or chamois from the Gran Paradiso National Park. The real Fontina cheese comes only from the Aosta Valley.
Let’s suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Zuppa Valdostana (Cabbage and Cheese Soup). Then try Costoletta alla Valdostana (Veal Chop with Fontina Cheese). For dessert indulge yourself with Panna Cotta (Cooked Milk Custard). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We’ll conclude this article with a quick look at Aosta Valley wine. Not surprisingly this tiny region comes in twentieth among Italy’s twenty regions for both area devoted to the vine and actual wine production. About one quarter of the wine is classified as DOC. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. There is only a single DOC wine, divided into 23 categories. Very little Aosta Valley wine is sold in North America. So that gives you another reason to visit this beautiful region.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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