The Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley) in Italy’s northwestern corner feels like a world apart. Wedged in between France and Switzerland, it’s a ruggedly beautiful area of high peaks, glaciers, and waterfalls set above small towns and remote villages — a hiker’s paradise — that’s also home to a distinctive multilingual culture and deep-rooted traditions.
The massif surrounding Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc), Europe’s highest mountain (elevation: 15,781 feet), dominates the western end of this sparsely populated region. On the Italian side, Courmayeur is the largest town in the area (population: 2,870).
The massif is enormous, an uninterrupted chain of peaks that’s over 29 miles long, up to 12 miles wide, and over two miles high. To put it in perspective: long distance trekkers hiking the Tour du Monte Bianco trail typically take 10-12 days or even longer to complete the full circuit around it.
Our base in this part of the Valle d’Aosta, Entrèves, is a tiny enclave on the outskirts of Courmayeur that’s in the shadow of Monte Banco. Part of what makes Entrèves so special is its cluster of cobblestoned streets and slate-roofed stone houses.
Street scene in the village of Entrèves, with Monte Bianco in the background.
Like the rest of the village, the charming inn where we stayed had a traditional slate roof, as well as a museum-like interior brimming with oil paintings, carved wood doors, alpine furniture, and a lovely formal dining room.
The main dining room of the inn where we stayed in Entrèves.
Preparing a cheese plate in Entrèves (note the traditional style of dress). Locally produced cheese — organic and incredibly flavorful — is a staple of the regional diet.
From Entrèves, we did some terrific day hikes up into the mountains, on sections of the long-distance Tour du Monte Bianco trail, and alongside some beautiful glacier-fed rivers.
The steep trail up to Refugio Elena, a mountain hut near the Italian-French-Swiss border.
The view towards Combal in the Val Veny.
Three glacial lakes at Lac Miage in the Val Veny.
Panorama views from Punta Helbronner (elevation: 11,371 feet) in Val Ferret.
The trail below the rapidly receding Prè de Bar Glacier, Val Ferret.
Each of these hikes gave us a whole new perspective on the power of water to shape an alpine landscape.
We also spent time halfway between Entrèves and Turin in the southern part of the Valle d’Aosta. There, our base was the village of Cogne (population: 1,439), a hub for hiking in the Gran Paradiso National Park.
A view of Cogne from the trail above the village of Gimillan.
Though the town may have been busier and more commercial than Entrèves, the hotel where we stayed was full of charm and the traditions of local life. The rustic but nicely furnished rooms were a counterpoint to the much more elegant dining room with its white tablecloths, silver tableware, and wait service wearing traditional clothing from Cogne.
Our charming room in Cogne.
The elegant dining room in Cogne, where we enjoyed all kinds of local cheese, honey (dandelion or alpine flowers), bread, wine, produce, and freshwater fish.
Food and wine are focal points at this inn. A circular kitchen garden out back supplies (literally) locally sourced vegetables and herbs for all of the hotel’s dining rooms, regionally produced cheeses ripen in a traditional cheese cellar, and a wine cellar holds over 1,400 bottles of wine, many produced in pesticide-free vineyards.
Outside our window, the inn’s chefs picked fresh vegetables and herbs every day from a large kitchen garden out back.
They used the herbs to season the restaurant’s artfully presented food.
Even more than in Entrèves, we caught glimpses of local life through some of the people we met in Cogne.
Rino Billin, the sommelier at the inn, completed a six-year course of study learning about wines. His father and brother are also in the hospitality business. He insisted on bringing us down to the hotel’s wine cellar, which he has carefully curated into a collection worth well over $2 million.
At the Cooperativa Les Dentellières lacemaking shop in the village, we spoke in French with one of the 40 women who’s a member of the traditional cooperative.
As she demonstrated how to weave thread around spindles and bobbins at a lightning-fast pace, she spoke about learning to do bobbin-lace work as a very young girl, how the tradition is passed down from mother to daughter, and how weaving is now second nature to her.
“C’est ma passion,” she said very matter-of-factly as she explained how she could work so quickly by hand and from memory
As we returned to town from a long hike one day, we crossed paths with an elderly French-speaking woman from the nearby mountain village of Moline. After she complimented Sandi’s outfit, she talked to us about her two cows, which she seemed to be escorting on a late afternoon stroll.
“C’est ma passion,” she said with a bit of a shrug — the same phrase that the lace maker had used the day before to describe her work with lace.
From our fantastic location in Cogne, we had great views of glaciers and hiked by remote settlements in Italy’s first national park, the one-time hunting reserve of the King of Italy.
Our favorite picnic spot facing the Gran Paradiso Massif.
At Pont de l’Erfaulet on the trail from Valnontey.
On each of these hikes, we passed several remote settlements and small farms that were classic examples of vernacular architecture.
An isolated small farm at Tchezeu, about 1,000 feet above the village of Gimillan — itself about 1,000 feet above the valley floor in Cogne.
The hamlet of Vermiana near Valnontey.
An alpage (small dairy farm) near Valnontey.
In addition to hiking in the mountains, we spent four days in Turin, the largest nearby major city (population: 870,702) that’s about an hour south of the Valle d’Aosta.
Turin’s history as a city dates back to ancient times — there are impressive Roman ruins in the historic center, where some of the streets still follow the grid laid out over 1,900 years ago — and it’s filled with many other reminders of its storied past.
In many ways, Turin’s heyday was as a seat of political power. It was the capital of the Duchy of Savoy that stretched from parts of modern France into parts of modern Italy between 1416 and 1860, when it became (for four years) the first capital of the newly-unified Italian state. The city is still home to many grand squares and lovely palaces from that era.
Piazza San Carlo, arguably Turin’s prettiest square, was laid out as a parade ground and public market in the 1500s. Its harmonious look took shape in the mid-1600s.
Piazza Castello became a more formal square with porticoed buildings in the late-1500s. The former royal palace and the temporarily closed pavilion housing the Shroud of Turin are nearby.
Though it’s a city of small-scale buildings usually no more than four or five stories high, Turin had the then-tallest building in the world in the late-1800s, the Mole Antonelliana (“mole” in Italian means “a building of monumental proportions,” and Antonelli was the leading architect on the project).
Originally designed to be a synagogue (Jews wanted to celebrate gaining full civil rights in 1848), the Mole became a very different project as Antonelli kept making major — and very expensive — changes to his initial plan. Eventually, the city had to take over the project due to the constant cost overruns.
Today, the building houses a museum of cinema, some offices, and some restaurants, as well as a rooftop observation deck.
In many ways, the Mole is the iconic symbol of Turin. Local artists enjoy adding its image to all sorts of humorous designs and street art.
Some people refer to Turin as Italy’s Detroit — FIAT, the country’s biggest auto manufacturer, is still based there, as is much of the nation’s automotive industry.
Before World War II, Turin was an even bigger industrial hub, home to major assembly lines and hundreds of small manufacturers connected to the automotive industry. In the 1930s, under orders from Mussolini, many of those plants were converted into weapons manufacturing firms, only to became major targets of allied bombing runs during the war — roughly 40% of the city was destroyed by aerial bombing between 1940 and 1945, and about half of the population fled to the countryside at the height of the war to avoid the nearly-constant bombardment.
This exhibit in the Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile (The National Automobile Museum) features two icons of Turin — a red Fiat and the Mole Antonelliana — placed on a floor map showing the locations of hundreds of small automotive manufacturing shops in pre-war Turin.
At the Museo della Resistenza (“Resistance Museum”), the excellent displays tell a ground-level story of the rigors of civilian life in wartime Turin. The museum features a fascinating mix of exhibits and archives focusing on the city under bombardment, the German occupation, the Italian Resistance movement, and the return of democracy.
The museum’s curator, Francesca, spoke with Sandi about her grandfather, a one-time Fascist who switched over to the partisans’ side when the partisans gained control of Turin on September 8, 1943. Francesca’s grandfather was sent to a nearby detention center, where he eventually died in custody. His story has inspired Francesca to dedicate her own life to raising awareness of the city’s history and promoting freedom and tolerance through art.
While Turin rebuilt fairly quickly after 1945, the consolidation and shrinking of the car industry starting in the early-1970s led to major population losses — the city still has about 200,000 fewer residents than it did at its peak in 1971 — and with many empty buildings, there’s a bit of a hollowed-out quality to the city. Even so, and even if we didn’t fall completely in love with it, we still enjoyed learning about Turin’s rich history and its prominent place in Italian affairs.
People sometimes ask us why we go back to Europe so often. The answer is very simple: we keep finding quiet corners like northwestern Italy where we can hike amid majestic scenery, enjoy excellent food and charming lodging, learn a little history, sample local color, and experience interesting bits of urban life. The challenge now — as always — is figuring out the next destination.