Valle d’Aosta is a beautiful Italian valley filled with medieval castles, Roman ruins and stunning Alpine scenery.
Like most Alpine hubs, Valle d’Aosta is known first and foremost as a winter destination. According to its official tourism website it offers cross country skiing, snow shoeing, ice climbing, ski mountaineering, off piste adventures (some where you are helicoptered in), and of course it also boasts 23 ski resorts with more than 500 miles of down hill ski runs. And although most people visit in winter for these activities, I actually love Valle d’Aosta in the summertime. Here’s why:
Stunning Alpine scenery
My introduction into the valley was on a sunny July afternoon via an air gondola, or cable car, from Helbronner station high up in the mountains above.
We had ascended the Alps early that morning on the French side from Chamonix. We took all our belongings — just two backpacks, we like to travel light — on a one way journey through a series of increasingly smaller gondolas to Aiguille du Midi. (48.50 Euros for a one-way adult ticket on the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car at the time of this post).
Once there, we were able to purchase tickets to Helbronner station. It’s a mountaintop dividing-point between France and Italy (18 Euros for a one way ticket on the Tramway du Mont Blanc at the time of this post). The ride there was an intense 30 minute dangle through remote Alpine backcountry in a teeny four person cable car. It was barely big enough for me, Jim, and our packs. The wind roared around us and whistled through the cracks in the gondola.
Jim played his harmonica. And every time we passed through a metal support tower, it made a suspenseful clickety-clack noise (like on the climb up of a roller coaster). Then immediately after passing through, the car would swing back and forth wildly. It probably wouldn’t have been so intense if the space hadn’t been so small and if we weren’t up quite so high. But we were. So high above the glaciers and mountains in fact, that at one point an airplane flew beneath us!
At Helbronner station we passed through an old passport control station where travellers used to get their passport stamped before the EU’s open borders. There’s still a dividing line in yellow where we crossed over between France into Italy. It’s a unique chance to be in both counties at once!
At Helbronner, we purchased our final tickets down into Valle d’Aosta (36 Euros for a one-way ticket on the SkyWay Monte Bianco at the time of this post). The valley is in the heart of the Italian Alps, and sits below famous peaks like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. The ticket included a series of three very steep cable car rides down, in between which we were able to get out and explore the mountainside. It was incredibly beautiful. At one point I couldn’t help but burst forth singing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music.”
The last ride let us out in our first Italian town, La Palud. From there, we caught a bus and train into the main hub of the valley, Città d’Aosta.
The city of Aosta itself is well connected to a variety of outdoor thrills by public bus and has a car-free city centre with small mountain town vibes. And best of all, in the summertime, it also offers low season crowds and prices.
Aosta feels like a typical small Italian town. It’s filled with history: narrow pedestrianized streets filled with colorful buildings dating from the 15th through the 19th centuries. It has a Romanesque church bell tower that’s over a thousand years old. And as a bonus, since the town was once a fortified Roman garrison, it’s also filled with Roman ruins that are over 2,000 years old. One of the more spectacular examples is its original Roman walls that have been preserved almost completely, including the East gate.
There’s also an impressive Roman victory arch from 35 BCE just outside the ancient city walls in the middle of a roundabout, as well as an original Roman bridge that’s still in use today. In fact outside of Rome, Aosta has some of the best preserved Roman ruins I’ve seen in Italy. It’s a pleasure to simply walk around the town. You’ll discover all sorts of ancient treasures even if you’re not specifically looking for them. And in the summertime everything is pretty low-key, mostly just locals and a handful of local tourists. But because of its winter high season, the city is equipped with anything a traveler would need including an awesome visitor center/tourist information office located in the main square.
But perhaps Aosta’s single most notable Roman site is its theater.
It’s a living theater. And even though only the southern façade remains intact, it creates a dramatic backdrop for today’s performances. While we visited, we managed to catch a free evening concert of a piano-violin-cello quartet. It seemed like the entire town turned out for it, and we were just along for the ride. When it ended, we left en masse through the streets to our various homes (or hotels). With the fresh mountain air and great music, the experience was incredible and communal.
In addition to Roman ruins, Valle d’Aosta also has a lot of medieval history including a dozen or so castellos dotting the valley. Every few minutes, we’d spot a new one on our train ride into Città d’Aosta.
— Laura Rowley
Photo of Castello Fenis exterior via Stefano Gobo
Photo of Castello Fenis interior via BillH-GSACC