In the north-western corner of Piemonte, along the borders with France and Switzerland, is the Valle d'Aosta (also known as the Val d'Aosta), the smallest and least populated of all the Italian regions.
Along with the other border-regions, the Valle d'Aosta is not typical of Italy, having strong Swiss and particularly French influence. Because of its multi-cultural heritage, the Aosta Valley is one of the five autonomous regions of Italy.
When you drive into Italy from France through the Mont Blanc Tunnel or from Switzerland through the Great St Bernard Tunnel or over the pass, it's into the Valle d'Aosta that you emerge. This is a region dominated by mountains - Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, Gran Paradiso - and thus a clean, beautiful and invigorating place to spend some healthy time. There are medieval castles to visit and lots of Gothic architecture to admire but the main attraction of the Valle d'Aosta is the fabulous mountains.
Language in the Valle d'Aosta
The Valle d'Aosta is officially bilingual, with all its road signs in both Italian and French. French is widely spoken in the region, as is a dialect called Franco-Provençal. In the Lys valley, the Walser population speaks a dialect of German.
What to see and do in the Valle d'Aosta
Enjoy the mountains
The Valle d'Aosta is famous for its fantastic skiing and many of the famous Alpine ski resorts are here, including Courmayeur, Cervinia and Gressoney.
The Gran Paradiso National Park, straddling Piemonte and the Val d'Aosta, is an area of outstanding natural beauty and wonderful for hiking, skiing, watching the legendary ibex - or just having a picnic on a summer's day.
If you're into mountain activities - climbing, hiking, skiing - or watersports such as rafting and kayaking, you won't find many better places to enjoy them than the Valle d'Aosta.
Explore the Roman city of Aosta
Aosta, the regional capital, was built by Caesar Augustus in 25 BC as a military outpost at the foot of the Alps. The Roman structures, including the city wall, four towers and an amphitheatre, are remarkably well preserved.
The 11th-century cathedral, with its mosaic floor and vibrant stained-glass windows, is also worth a visit. So too is the other 11th-century church, dedicated to the city's patron saint, Sant'Orso.
Eating and drinking in the Valle d'Aosta
The cuisine of the Valle d'Aosta has a distinctly French flavour to it and, while delicious, is not what one might expect to be eating in Italy. Instead of the pasta that you'll find in every region south of here, in the Val d'Aosta you're more likely to be offered polenta, rice or potatoes. Also, rather than following the antipasto-pasta-meat/fish tradition typical of Italy, a meal in this region tends to consist of one substantial course.
Local specialities include:
- black rye bread
- Fontina cheese
- carbonade, a beef stew often served with polenta
As for the wines of the Valle d'Aosta, they are good and well worth trying when you're there. Unfortunately, because production is small, they tend not to be exported.
The grolla ritual
The grolla is the most characteristic piece of Valdostan craftwork and the obvious souvenir to take home with you. It's a wide, wooden cup with a lid and several spouts, used as a friendship cup to pass around. Originally, it had religious significance (the word grolla comes from the same root as 'grail') and was filled with wine. These days, the custom is to fill it with a potent mixture known as caffè alla valdostana, which is coffee with grappa, sugar and spices. This is heated and served flaming, to melt the sugar and to create a nice spectacle.
For more information about the Valle d'Aosta...
Buy a guide book for travelling around the Valle d'Aosta.
Check out this website:
Valle d'Aosta - official website