The Aosta Valley is Italy’s tiniest region. Not many tourists have heard about it and even most Italians have never been there. Wedged between the Italian region of Piedmont, France and Switzerland it is also one of the most remote and unique parts of Italy. In the summer of 2022, we spent almost 3 weeks hiking and travelling in the Aosta Valley.
Our main motivation for the trip was hiking in the Alps: The Aosta Valley has amazing hiking possibilities. But we also managed to do some sightseeing in the main town of Aosta and of course we tasted a lot of regional delicacies.
Hiking in the Aosta Valley: Alta Via 1 and Gran Paradiso National Park
The hiking in the Aosta Valley was the highlight of our trip to the region. We did a 7-day long distance hike on the Alta Via 1 from Paquier to Courmayeur, staying in rustic mountain huts or on campsites along the way.
After a few days in Courmayeur, from where we did some day hikes, we moved to the Gran Paradiso National Park. The park is named after the Gran Paradiso Mountain. Rightly so, since it is the highest mountain (4061m) standing only on Italian territory. King Vittorio Emanuele II established a Royal Hunting reserve in 1856 in order to protect the ibex population there. After all, ibexes were almost extinct in the rest of Italy at that time. And in 1922 it became Italy’s first national park, with an ibex population of 3000.
It was a worthwhile move – today there are around 4000 ibexes living in the Gran Paradiso National Park. And yes, we did see an ibex on one of the several day hikes we did in the area. The Gran Paradiso Park is quite popular with Italian hikers. In fact, we met a lot of Italians travelling in the Aosta Valley primarily to hike the trails around Gran Paradiso.
Vegetarian food in the Aosta Valley
Everybody likes Italian food. But usually, you expect pizza and pasta. Travelling in the Aosta Valley, however, Italian food turns out different! Due to the altitude and the remoteness of the region the eating habits are quite distinct from the rest of Italy. Polenta is the main source of carbohydrates and far more ubiquitous than pasta. One of the most popular ways to prepare is with a lot of butter and Fontina cheese.
The Fontina cheese is another regional specialty. It is a slightly stinky, nutty-tasting yellow cheese made from cow’s milk. It originated in the Aosta Valley, but today Fontina cheese is produced in other parts of Italy too. To get the “Made in the Aosta Valley” label it must be made from unpasteurized milk from a single milking. There is also a fontina blue cheese on offer, and we had a tasty Polenta with blue cheese in a restaurant in the village of Valnontey.
Another regional dish is the rich Zuppa Valpellinese. Luckily, we got to taste it during our hiking trip, as it is not usually on the menu in restaurants. We had no idea what to expect when new acquaintances from the campsite asked us to join their dinner. The “zuppa” turned out to be a kind of bread and cabbage stew with lots of local Fontina cheese thrown in.
When we stumbled into a local festival in Étroubles, we could also try some typical local treats. After yet more cheese, we were delighted to have raspberries with whipped cream.
Signature drinks of the Aosta Valley
As you might have guessed, the regional kitchen is quite cheesy and heavy. Therefore, many people drink hard liquors after a meal to assist digestion. The spirit of choice on the mountain huts as well as in restaurants is Genepi. We found this strong herbal liquor a rather acquired taste.
And then there is the Caffé Valdostana, which we saw on menus but never noticed anyone drinking. It turned out that it is a typical drink in winter for skiers, snowboarders, and other winter sport enthusiasts. A strong black coffee is mixed with sugar, orange peel, lemon, and grappa and then flambeed. As if this kind of “mulled coffee” is not unique enough, you also drink it from a special ‘Friendship Cup”. This is a (traditionally hand-carved) wooden cup that resembles a teapot with several spouts. Usually you order the Café Valdostana for the whole group, and you get a cup with a number of spouts according to the number of group members. This way everyone is sharing just one “Friendship Cup”. We fortunately found a small café in Aosta where we could try this exotic drink in summer and in a small group consisting of only the two of us.
Languages spoken in the Aosta Valley
The Aosta Valley is officially bilingual. However, most people speak nothing but Italian. They might understand French, though. If you are travelling in the Aosta Valley and do not speak Italian, people in the tourism industry will automatically switch to French. There is a local dialect too, called Valdôtain. We once heard an old woman talking with the bus driver in this dialect (the bus driver answered in Italian). We speak only a little Italian but understand a bit more. At least our French is enough for simple conversations. Accordingly, communication was sometimes a bit tiresome, but the Italians were very, very patient and friendly with us.
Sightseeing in Aosta
On a rainy day we went to the main town of the region, to Aosta, for some sightseeing. The area was a strategic crossing point during Roman times. Unsurprisingly, most of the sightseeing places are connected in one way or other to Roman times. The most impressive site is the reconstructed Roman Theater with a stunning mountain panorama back-drop. There is not much left of the skene, the high wall behind the stage that is characteristic for the Roman theaters, but parts of the semicircular grandstand are still in place.
We also enjoyed visiting the “Cryptoporticus” in the north of the Roman Forum in Aosta. These underground vaults were built during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus. Allegedly the forum architects used the cellar rooms to level the slightly sloping ground for the large forum square. The underground chambers might have been in use as warehouses and military storage.
The historical museum in Aosta gives a good overview of the history of the region starting from prehistoric times. But alas, most explanations are in Italian only – not so unusual in Italy, and even in Italian-speaking regions in Switzerland. In Bellinzona, for instance, we also experienced challenging museum labels only in Italian.
Should you travel in the Aosta Valley?
If you like hiking and unusual places, the Aosta Valley might be your next travel destination. Unless you speak Italian, you might have some minor difficulties with the communication, but the friendly people, the delicious food and the spectacular nature more than make up for it.
Getting there and around
From Turin the “Aosta – Pont Saint Martin” railway line goes as far as Aosta. To go deeper into the mountains you have to switch to one of the numerous buses in the area. There are several companies that serve the Aosta Valley. Svap buses cover Aosta town and the Central Valley region while the Arriva buses go as far Courmayeur and to the Northern valleys. For timetables and ticket purchase you can use the Arriva app and the Moovit app.
We had no sponsoring for our hiking trip in the Aosta Valley and paid all expenses ourselves.
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