First of all, I must apologise to the people of Liguria – because I now have a new favourite region of Italy. Having holidayed a number of times in this beautiful country, I never thought that Cinque Terre would be knocked from the top spot of my ranking. However, after a memorable few days in the Aosta Valley, my Italian hot-list has been blown wide open.
The north-west Valle d’Aosta may be Italy’s smallest region, but it’s home to some giant attractions: the massif of the Mont Blanc mountains in the western Alps. The valley has spectacular scenery and, because of its proximity to the borders of France and Switzerland, there’s a unique mix of food, culture and architecture.
By glancing at some of the place names in the valley – Courmayeur and Cogne, for example – you may think that you are in fact in France. That’s because the Aosta Valley is a truly bilingual region. From chateaus to castelli, you’re as likely to hear langue française as you are lingua italiana. But whether you say Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco, you’ll be understood.
Starting with the top villages, towns and attractions to visit, this Aosta Valley travel guide also looks at the best places to eat and drink, plus where to stay.
Courmayeur and Val Ferret
Travelling northbound from Turin International Airport, my Italian Alpine adventure started in Courmayeur which, at 1,300m, is located at the northern point of the Aosta Valley and at the foot of Mont Blanc.
This resort town is known for its swish skiing and shopping options and can rival that of Chamonix, which is just over the border in France. Courmayeur boasts plenty of restaurants, bars and historical attractions.
It’s also a trekker’s paradise as just minutes outside of the town you can walk through the stunning Val Ferret – a hiking trail featuring mountains on both sides and a perfect river of glacier water. Walking with local tourism expert Maria Chiara Caneparo, the trail took us along the river past the Golf Club Courmayeur et Grandes Jorasses and to an ideal spot, Ristorante Chalet Mont Dolent, where you can lounge on deck chairs and sip an espresso or something stronger.
Skyway Monte Bianco
Courmayeur is also home to the Skyway Monte Bianco – a cable car that climbs nearly 3,500m and links the town with the Punta Helbronner peak. Opened in 2015, this genius feat of engineering offers some of the best Alpine panoramas you can find.
At Pavillon (2,173m), the midway stop, you can enjoy a feast of regional cuisine in the Alpine Restaurant, watch a film at the Alpine Movie Hall, see more than 900 plants at the Saussurea Alpine Botanical Garden, and also taste the unique wines at the Cave Mont Blanc wine-making cellar.
It’s at the 3,466m third and final station where Skyway really gets out of this world. Punta Helbronner, nicknamed “The Sky”, is part of the Mont Blanc massif. You’ll see Alpinists preparing to climb the glacier towards France or settling in at the Rifugio Torino mountain hut. For those who prefer a slightly tamer experience, visitors can “step over the border” or continue their journey to France by taking the small Panoramic Mont-Blanc glacier cable cars to Aiguille du Midi.
At the Punta Helbronner station, there’s also a unique dining spot, the infinity table by Kartell, and LaFeltrinelli book shop, the “highest library in Europe”.
Top tips for visitors going to Skyway: take a jacket as it’s very cold and snowy at the summit. Also, also don’t forget your camera because you’ll want to relive this scenery.
The Courmayeur to Punta Helbronner round-trip ticket costs €59 (£51) and it’s worth every single penny; montebianco.com
Cogne and Gran Paradiso National Park
At 1,544m, Cogne is another outdoors haven in the Aosta Valley. Situated in the Gran Paradiso National Park, the walks and treks in and around the village are truly breathtaking and in winter it becomes a top location for cross-country skiing.
Accompanied by nature guide Nicoletta Apère, our walking loop route took us more than 20km as we passed the Cascades de Lillaz waterfalls, pretty rivers and the village of Valnontey, where there are cafes, a farm and a few shops.
Inside the quaint village of Cogne, you can explore some of the region’s oldest traditions. There’s a shop and exhibition – Les dentellières de Cogne – which is dedicated to 400 years of lace making. Sculptor Dorino Ouvrier, an artist from Cogne, also has an exhibition of his wood sculptures.
Aosta: ‘the Rome of the Alps’
If you check the map and place an “X” at the point where the roads from France, Switzerland and Rome meet, you will find Aosta – the capital of the Aosta Valley. This strategic location was chosen by the Romans in 25 BC and the city has since become known as “the Rome of the Alps”.
Roman ruins, architecture and historic monuments can be found all over Aosta, which was originally designed as a walled city with gates and arches.
During a tour with expert guide Felicity Roulet from Aosta Welcome, she explained that while the Roman influence is evident, there are in fact “layers of the past” to explore across Aosta. A lot of the Roman sites can be found underneath the current city. And then there are medieval buildings and monuments, many of which were constructed using materials from the Roman ruins, and also neoclassical piazzas.
With so much history to learn about, Aosta offers a perfect day trip or two away from the mountains. And it’s definitely worth spending time exploring the city’s archaeological sites, such as the Roman Theatre, Cryptoporticus, and the Archaeological Museum.
Forts, castles and museums
If you drive along the main highways through the Aosta Valley, you can’t fail to notice the many castles and forts dotted along the landscape.
One of the most famous is the stunning Castello di Fénis, a perfect medieval castle which was once the seat of the noble Challant family. Now owned by the regional council, Fénis Castle is open to visitors who can explore the many great rooms and see the surviving frescos. A ticket to the castle (€11/£9.50 for adults) also includes entry to the nearby MAV – Museum of Handicrafts of the Aosta Valley.
At the southern end of the Aosta Valley you will find one of the region’s most spectacular constructions – the Forte di Bard. Accessible by a series of panoramic funiculars or via a walking and cycling path, this huge fortress was originally built by the House of Savoy in the early 1800s as a military stronghold and has been completely restored. Movie fans may also recognise Forte di Bard as it featured in Marvel’s 2015 film Avengers: the Age of Ultron.
At the top of the fort visitors can enjoy a range of permanent and temporary exhibitions and a number of museums, including The Museum of the Alps. The Prison at Fort di Bard has 24 tiny cells and is also open to the public.
Open from Tuesday to Sunday, a ticket to Forte di Bard starts from €8 (£7) for adults and €7 (£6.10) for concessions and includes entry to an exhibition. Children can enter for free. The all-inclusive ticket, which has access to all of the museums and exhibitions, costs €24 (£20.90).
Hotels: where to stay
Located in Courmayeur just off the main highway, Walser Hotel has great views of the mountains and is just a few minutes’ walk to the main shopping street and restaurants. The hotel, which has a classic ski lodge vibe, has comfortable double, triple and family rooms and a very nice ground-floor sitting area which is decked out in traditional Alpine decor. There’s also a spa with a whirlpool and sauna – perfect for relaxing after a day on the trails or slopes. Price from €120 (£105) in a double room B&B; walserhotel.com
Hotel La Madonnina del Gran Paradiso, Cogne
If pampering is what you’re after then you can’t go wrong with La Madonnina. Situated at the foot of the Gran Paradiso mountain and five minutes away from Cogne village, this hotel boasts beautiful rooms and suites and a restaurant serving up plenty of local dishes. The wellness centre and spa offers a range of massages and treatments and there’s even an indoor pool. Price from €150 (£131) in a double room B&B; lamadonnina.com
Duca d’Aosta Hotel, Aosta
Centrally located on a quiet street just off Piazza Émile Chanoux, Duca d’Aosta is a modern hotel and a great base for exploring Aosta’s historical sights. Fully renovated in 2015, the rooms here are contemporary and the lounge area on the ground floor boasts plush sofas and designer Italian furnishings. On the ground floor, you will also find the cafe which serves a hearty breakfast. Price from €135 (£118) in a double room B&B; hotelducadaosta.com
Where to eat and drink
Being in Italy, and with France and Switzerland just over the mountains, the Aosta Valley’s food scene is unsurprisingly assolutamente incredibile! Taking the best ingredients and traditions from the Alpine region, the dishes on offer in the valley are sensational and the cheeses and charcuterie are some of the best I have ever tasted. To be honest, I think I overdid it on the formaggio…
Here are some suggestions of places which should be on your foodie radar.
Pavillon Alpine Restaurant, Skyway Monte Bianco
The buffet on offer at Skyway Monte Bianco’s Pavillon Alpine Restaurant is unlike any buffet I’ve had before. If sitting down for a bite at 2,173m is not unique enough, then the dishes here will introduce you to some of the region’s most traditional offerings. Instead of the pile-it-on-your-plate choices like other buffets, the items are presented in single servings and you can choose dishes from the starter, main and dessert trolleys. It was at the Pavillon station where I was introduced to polenta – a traditional creamy dish from the area which is made from cornmeal. The polenta came as a side with wild boar stew. montebianco.com
Stefenelli Desk, Aosta
Chef Marco Stefenelli, who was born in nearby Cogne, is producing some outstanding cuisine in Aosta. The Stefenelli Desk menu includes some intriguing items which take food design to new levels. For example the “crispy fried egg”. This dish (€16/£13.90) comes served with a foam of Fontina cheese and potatoes, black truffle pearls and a parmesan waffle. Sitting directly in the middle of the plate, the egg looks like a planet with the parmesan waffle acting as its rings. It’s an out-of-this-world dish and a must-have item if you come here. stefenellidesk.com
La Cave de Cogne Osteria & Bottiglieria, Cogne
From the outside, La Cave de Cogne just looks like a normal wine shop. Walk through the property and out the back and you’ll find a beautiful garden where you can sit down to eat and drink. As wine was the order of the day, I paired a house white with the Platter of La Cave (€16/£13.90) – a selection of hams and dry-cured sausages served with honey chestnuts. This is an ideal lunch place for a break between trekking. lacavedecogne.com
Trattoria Le Bourg, Fénis
If you are visiting the Castello di Fénis and the Museum of Handicrafts, then stop for lunch or dinner at Le Bourg. Here you can order many homemade regional dishes for a decent price. I had the local meats and cheeses (yes, I know; €13/£11.30) and the brasato alla birra bauch, a casserole-style dish of beef in a beer sauce served with potatoes (€16/£13.90).
La Madonnina Restaurant, Cogne
The menu at the restaurant of La Madonnina hotel in Cogne highlights some tasty dishes from the Aosta Valley. With dinner included as part of the half-board offering, I skipped straight to the meat course and ordered the battered beef escalope which comes wrapped in ham and Fontina cheese. Mamma mia, what a dish – I’m still full now. It was also at La Madonnina where I also experienced a dessert delight… lamadonnina.com
Top foodie tip: try the Crème de Cogne
Conge is where one of the valley’s most delicious desserts originates from. Crème de Cogne, a creamy chocolatey dish, can be found on many restaurant menus across the valley – including at La Madonnina hotel. It came served with Tegole Valdostane biscuits, which literally translates as Valdostane “tiles”, as they look like the traditional tiles used on roofs across the valley. Dip the tiles into the cream and then eat… perfetto!
Cave des Onze Communes, Aymavilles
If a glass of vino is your preferred tipple then you are not going to go thirsty in this part of Italy. You will see vineyards on the hills throughout the Aosta Valley, and in Aymavilles, less than four miles from Aosta, you will find the Cave des Onze Communes.
Established in 1990, this cooperative produces unique wines from 63 hectares of vineyards from 11 municipalities in the valley: Quart, Saint-Christophe, Aosta, Sarre, Saint Pierre, Villeneuve, Introd, Aymavilles, Jovençan, Gressan, and Charvensod.
The most unique wine I tasted was a white that’s not aged in wooden barrels or steel drums, but in stone. The Petite Arvine Miniera is aged in a huge case made of granite (which is the same stone as the Mont Blanc) and then transferred to the mines near Cogne. The altitude and the conditions of the mines make this wine very crisp and clean on the palate. It’s the perfect mountain tipple.
Visitors to Cave des Onze Communes can buy wines directly from the on-site shop and also book vineyard tours and tastings. caveonzecommunes.it
Transport: how to get to Aosta Valley
Aosta Valley is located within a few hours’ drive of three international airports: Turin and Milan in Italy, and Geneva in Switzerland. I flew into Turin from London Gatwick on easyJet and then took a one-and-a-half hour car transfer to Courmayeur.
Should you choose to plan a very scenic route, then you could drive from the UK down through France and into the Aosta Valley. The 7.2-mile Mont Blanc tunnel links the French ski town of Chamonix with Courmayeur at the north of the valley.