Valle d’Aosta, Italy
Northern Italy crowded during the summer peak? Think again. It really depends where you’re staying. The smallest region of the country, Aosta Valley in the heart of Gran Paradiso National Park, is all about breath-taking nature, peace and quiet. The highest peaks of the Alps can be found here: Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso. This fact makes it the perfect destination for trekking in summer and skiing in winter. But that’s not all. There’s so much more to do. Enough for at least a week or more. And it’s also a great destination to combine with neighbouring Switzerland and France, both just around the corner.
The regional capital of Aosta forms the base of most people’s trips to Gran Paradiso National Park. It’s a gorgeous old Roman town that is framed by jagged Alpine peaks. It features tons of restaurants, bars and shops. It are the Roman remains and monuments though that are the real eyecatchers. There’s an obvious reason that Aosta is called ‘Rome of the Alps’! However small, the town boasts an amphitheatre, an underground Criptoportico Forence and the arch of Augustus. Want to learn more about the Roman history of this region? Then visit Museo Archeologico Regionale.
Milan, Geneva and Turin are all only two hours away, but Aosta feels completely different. There’s definitely an influx of tourists, but it doesn’t receive the numbers like any other regional capital does. What I didn’t know either is that the region is bilingual. Due to centuries of conflict between France and Italy, French and Italian are both the primary languages spoken here. Influences from both countries are noticeable in the architectural style of the buildings as well. But the hospitality, I have to say, is Italian above all. We only had friendly waiters at restaurants and camping hosts who went above and beyond to make our stay as comfortable as possible.
On the complete opposite of Aosta Valley you can find Courmayeur. This ski resort is the quieter version of its French cousin Chamonix. It might lack the upscale charm of its French counterpart, but it doesn’t make it less attractive. On the contrary even. While driving from Aosta to Courmayer, Mont Blanc (4810m) can be seen from far. Europe’s highest mountain is like a mesmerizing beast and the sight of it is absolutely amazing. So, pick a café terrace of your choice, order a beer and take in the views! Looking for some more active things to do? Courmayeur is also an excellent base for skiing trips, mountaineering, river rafting or mountain biking. And looking for a day trip to France? It only takes a short trip through the Mont Blanc tunnel.
Aosta valley itself is a gorgeously green space, with river Fiume Dora Baltea meandering right through it. Castles dot the lush hills and snowcapped peaks surround you while you drive the main roads. Who says highways are boring? Definitely not the ones in Aosta Valley!
We often saw people rafting and canoeing on the river. This is something we didn’t have time for, but we’ve definitely added this to our list of activities for a next time. Another great thing to do is is visiting the vineyards that are featured in the area. There’s a dedicated wine trail that let visitors discover the different grape variations that grow in the Aosta region.
Gran Paradiso National Park
I’ve to say that Gran Paradiso National Park is the quiet side of the Alps. When we were there we barely saw any cars driving the road up to Cogne. In Cogne itself, it was a bit more busy.
To understand the complicated set up of the National Park it’s best to visit the official visitor center in Cogne. Here they can provide you with car and hiking routes, as well as a programme of events and things to do. The route to Cogne is a feast for the eyes and led us to our first hike. We parked our car just outside the village, strapped on our hiking boots and simply followed a river leading up to majestic peaks.
It was quite hot that day, and after an hour or so we decided to sit down at the riverbank before our walk back to the car. Our feet were cooled down immediately by the icy waters and butterflies suddenly became my best friends.
Next, we drove down to Lillaz and visited its beautiful waterfall, only about 20-30min walk from the town. Lillaz is where the road ends and we returned to our campsite near Aosta shortly after.
However, the road from Aymavilles to Lillaz isn’t the only mountain pass in the National Park. You can also opt to start in Villes Dessous and follow the road to Pont, or to Pellaud. On longer hikes, you might spot some wildlife like alpine chamois, the Eurasian badger or perhaps even the highly protected ibex. As I mentioned earlier, there’s enough to see and to visit in Aosta for a longer stay!
Little St Bernard Pass
Little St Bernard Pass, or Colle del Piccolo San Bernardo (Italian) or Petit Sain-Bernard (French), is a mountain pass and forms a natural border between Italy and France. This is Great St Bernard Pass’ little brother, but the route is just as beautiful. The road starts in Aosta Valley in the town of La Thuile and finishes in the French village of Bourg Saint-Maurice. The route in total is about 26.5km in length.
On our way back to Italy, we made a stop at Mont Blanc Adventure Park. This is where you can climb and zipline. That’s not what we came for though. We came for the views from the viewing platform. Isn’t it stunning?
The name of the pass might ring a bell if you’re into dogs? Yes, that’s right. Large St Bernard Pass is the reason those large fluff balls got their name. Soon I’ll update my best road trips in Switzerland post with Great St Bernard Pass and will tell you all about the legend of the St Bernard dogs. But to lift a corner of the veil, it has everything to do with a hospice on top of the mountain and rescuing travellers lost in the snow….
Valle d’Aosta, on top of the world
Valle d’Aosta proves to be a brilliant destination for nature lovers. But even culture and history buffs will love it here. I feel that the region is a great alternative to the more touristic Dolomites (South Tirol) in the east, as it has a similar offer – without the crowds. To me, it’s the perfect natural hideaway!