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Exploring the Aosta Valley. Italy’s beautiful but tiny region

17/10/2023 by .
Exploring the Aosta Valley

Andy Mossack goes exploring the Aosta Valley. Italy’s smallest region makes up for its size by packing an awful lot in.

The Aosta Valley might not be high on your list of known Italian regions, but after reading this, you’ll be putting it right up there. You might even be tempted to visit it and let it seduce you the way it seduced me. It was certainly top of a few would-be invaders lists over the centuries from the Romans to the Savoyes and Napoleon, all of them recognising its strategic importance in controlling the alpine passes and a gateway to further riches. Small wonder then it was so popular, and today it is still seen as special, enjoying an autonomous status within Italy with three official languages, Italian, French and Valdôtain, the local patois

Make no mistake, the Aosta Valley, or Valle d’Aosta as it’s known locally, might be tiny as far as regions go, but this pocket rocket has it all. Bucket loads of history, hilltop castles, jaw-dropping landscapes, and Courmayeur, the famous skiing resort to top it all off. Speaking of which, if you’re fond of mountains, there’s the highest peaks in the Alps for company: Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and Grand Paradiso, so you’re going to be right royally spoilt for choice.

Exploring the Aosta Valley

The Aosta Valley is indeed a valley, and a very large one at that. A huge glacial U shape valley running over a 140 kms bookended by Piedmont, its illustrious neighbour, and the borders with France and Italy. Along the way you encounter some enchanting alpine villages who bend the knee to Aosta the region’s capital and historic Roman city.

So let’s take a few moments exploring the Aosta Valley’s highlights.

Fort Bard

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This narrow gorge above the Dora River has been used as an effective defensive position since the 5th century in some form or other, perched high on a rugged rocky outcrop. It was last used by the House of Savoy as a fortress in 1800 and managed to frustrate Napoleon’s advance to Turin for 2 weeks until he finally succeeded in destroying it. It was rebuilt as a fort in1830 but was ultimately abandoned for decades until the Regional Government decided to renovate the site for tourism and reopened it as the Museum of the Alps in 2006.

Today the Fort, and village attached to it, were famously used as the fictional country of Sokovia in the 2015 Marvel movie Avengers: Age of Ultron and enjoy a plentiful supply of Marvel visitors, many of them dressed up as Avengers characters. But Fort Bard is much more than a giant movie set. There’s a luxury hotel, an excellent museum about the alps and alpine life, a restaurant and conference facility and a performance and temporary exhibition space. Parts of the old walls still carry the scars of Napoleon’s cannon balls.


Exploring the Aosta Valley

Aosta’s nickname as the Rome of the Alps is well merited, as the city is a treasure trove of ancient Roman archaeology. In fact, the whole city is still proudly supported by an ancient network of subterranean arch foundations which have certainly stood the test of time. Originally part of the supporting porticos of the huge ancient forum, you can visit them in a stunning underground colonnaded walkway known as the Criptoportico Forense.

Other impressive Roman remains include the giant 22-metre-high façade of the ancient Roman Theatre.  The tiered seating here could hold up to four thousand spectators. Quite extraordinary.  As is the Arch of Augustus, all 11.5 metres of it. Near here is the Porta Pretoria gateway, once entirely covered with marble.

Exploring the Aosta Valley

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Via Sant’ Anselmo, Aosta’s old town main artery is traffic free and as most of the Roman sights are near here, your sightseeing will be relatively stress free. I think Aosta makes a worthy capital, its Roman monuments are remarkably intact, while the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary and Saint John the Baptist, with its Romanesque clock towers and ottoman-frescoed ceiling is a must see while exploring the Aosta Valley.


This wonderful village speckled with luxury alpine-style properties sits at the gateway to the Paradiso National Park, the first national park in Italy, opened in 1922. And Cogne’s huge belt of green space – the Sant’Orso meadow – is a symbolic pathway into the park, a recognition of its importance to the wildlife that lives safely within. Ibex, golden eagles, chamois and marmot in particular.

Exploring the Aosta Valley

Cogne is ringed by giant glaciers and peaks, Paradiso on one side and Mont Blanc on the other and its rich mining legacy has left something of a well-heeled air about it. Nowhere is this more visible than at the historic Bellevue Hotel and Spa, a sumptuous chalet-style property in an envious spot right on the green belt and family owned since 1925.

With its two swimming pools, huge spa and award-winning wine cave the Bellevue’s legendary status is unmatched. Mind you, Hotel Sant’Orso, its close neighbour is not too shabby either, another shining example of luxurious chalet style living.

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Exploring the Aosta Valley

Cogne’s proximity to Paradiso offers doorstep access to countless hiking and biking possibilities which I sampled of course. I took an e-bike to visit some local sights including the excellent magnetite mining exhibition and mines high up on Costa del Pino. Le Beson, a local cheese farm run by twins Fabian and Sebastian is worth a visit as is the magnificent waterfalls at Lilaz.

Gran Paradiso Trekking in quota Stefano Venturini e1697534338869

Then I swapped two wheels for two legs and tried a very rewarding circular hike along the Valnontey River trail. This was an easy enough hike, but there are some seriously tough hikes to be found too, ones that require a professional guide, so fear not, Cogne has hikes to suit all skill levels.


Our last stop on our way exploring the Aosta Valley is Courmayeur, the Valley’s famous ski resort lying at the foot of Mont Blanc. We’re well on our way, but a stop off at Aymavilles to visit Les Crêtes Winery for a tasting is a worthy diversion. This beautiful winery in the heart of the Valley has been owned by the Charrère family for generations and supplies most of the hotels and shops throughout the region. Try a tasting together with some local cheeses and charcuterie, because somehow, I find wine tastes so much better when your surrounded by the vines it came from.

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I arrived at Courmayeur during the finale of the annual Tour de Geants race, one of the toughest runs in the world. It involves 800 runners competing in a 360-kilometre race around the Aosta Valley peaks with a time limit of just 150 hours. Talk about endurance. Many of the senior athletes have little or no sleep over the 4 or 5 days it takes to complete, while other mere mortals just want to finish it somehow however long it takes.

As I was walking to the village centre a runner passed me to the finish line, his eyes glazed and haunted. Not for me thank you.

Whilst winter is Courmayeur’s party playground for monied skiers, come summer, her famed runs transform into rich green alpine pastures. The dominion now of walkers and bikers, shared of course with cows. An animal revered in these parts not only for its glorious milk from which the delectable local fontina cheese is borne from, but for its fighting qualities.

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I say fighting, but the battle of the queens or combats de reines as it is known locally, is simply a natural way cows decide who is the queen of the local herd by locking horns and pushing each other. This ancient ritual held throughout alpine Italy, France and Switzerland, has become a traditional event to eventually find the queen of queens, no doubt a very proud moniker for the winning farmer.

Courmayeur has another surprise for summer visitors; a charming yet very tricky 9-hole golf course. As regular readers of my travel stories might know, I am a big fan of mountain golf. It brings an entirely different challenge to playing a links or park course. These courses use natural mountain terrain and thin air to create a whole new ball game. And Courmayeur Golf Club has the distinction of having been designed in 1938 by Henry Cotton no less, one of golf’s greatest icons.

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No visitor to Courmayeur should miss experiencing Skyway Monte Bianco its headline act. A 360 rotating gondola ride up Europe’s tallest mountain to almost 3,500 metres. Skyway hosts a cinema, a museum area, and outside a botanical garden and a children’s playground.

So have you been seduced after exploring the Aosta Valley with me? Sometimes, bite size chunks really are tastier, and I reckon the Aosta Valley is a small but perfectly tasty part of Italy.

Images (C) Andy Mossack, Stefano Venturini, Aosta Valley Tourism and Hadi (fighting cows wiki).

Tell me more about exploring the Aosta Valley

For more details on the places featured in Andy’s Exploring the Aosta Valley feature and other sights in the region please visit Valle d’Aosta Tourism and Courmayeur Mont Blanc Tourism

Where to stay while exploring the Aosta Valley

Hotel Duca d’Aosta – right in the heart of Aosta old town and walking distance to all the sights.

The Bellevue Hotel and Spa – a Relais & Chateaux property, the best hotel in Cogne and utterly charming.

Les Crêtes Winery – tasting from €25

Skyway Monte Bianco – from €55 roundtrip

Courmayeur Golf Club  Open from May to September. Rounds from €42

Getting to the Aosta Valley

EasyJet and BA operate regular flights from Gatwick to Turin and Milan and the Aosta Valley is around a 90-minute drive.

Getting to Gatwick by train: Fast, frequent train services are provided to Gatwick Airport by Gatwick Express and Southern from London Victoria, and by Thameslink from London St Pancras, through central London via Blackfriars and London Bridge. Single fares start at £12 (Advance on Southern, Anytime on Thameslink); Thameslink off-peak return is £22.30.


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