A long weekend beckoned us towards the northwest mountain region of Italy and we couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by the majestic beauty and history before us!
Even though two years seems like a long time to spend in a foreign land, there are so many places to visit that I try hard to pick very different and unique areas each time, knowing that it is unlikely that we will have a chance to return. After some research and consultation with opinionated Italians (the best kind!), I landed upon the valley region of Aosta (called Val d’Aosta, and yes, my Georgia friends, Valdosta was named after this region indirectly). Wow! There are snow capped mountains on virtually all sides, with a town called Aosta that dates back to before the Roman times of Augusta (thus the name), and with Roman ruins to match.
This Italian alps region is bilingual (French and Italian) and it is situated near the Italian entrance of the Mont Blanc pass, and at the end of the Great and Little St. Bernard Pass (and yes, we saw a St. Bernard dog in the town!). Because of its geography, it’s been a very important part of military history, from the times of the Romans when an arch was built in honor of Augusta in 35 BC to celebrate a Roman victory.
There is also a Roman theatre built in the same timeframe that could contain up to 4000 spectators, along with an amphitheatre. It is said that in the ancient Roman days, there weren’t even 4000 inhabitants around, but the Romans wanted to build an impressive and large theatre just because they could.
Roman ruins are everywhere. The streets are mostly cobblestone and the shops range from restaurants featuring the local regional specialties (more about that later) to ski clothe shops. It is clear that snow skiing is the major draw to the area, and with the mountains we saw as we arrived by train, we understand why. There’s a cable car close to the town center where you can take it up and ski close by.
I found a hotel up on the ridge looking down on the town, which gave us a perfect view of the town and the area, and the steep climb up and down the narrow road made for quite the workout every day. The hotel ( Hotel Milleluci) was AWESOME. http://www.hotelmilleluci.com/homepage.asp?l=1 Sorry- had to use that overused word. Breakfast (included with the room) was an enormous spread of regional meats/sausages and cheeses, eggs cooked however you like, cappuccinos made to order, granola, fruit, and breads galore, even a freshly cooked panna cotta every morning! But the incredible part was the huge spread of cookies and cakes, more than a dozen different selections, which greeted us every morning. Whatever of these baked goods that are not eaten at lunch are put out with tea for the guests to nibble on during the day. Outside there are little huts where the skiers can deposit their skis and boots for the evening. In the winter you can’t come up to this area without snow tires and chains.
Having trudged up the steep road to get to the hotel, we understand why. It’s like San Francisco hills!
If the incredible breakfast and view weren’t enough, the hotel also had a sauna and spa that is free to all guests. You can pay for a massage, which I would love to do after a long day of skiing, but we just enjoyed the outdoor heated pool, the hot dry sauna that overlooked the mountains, the hot indoor whirlpool and the steam sauna where you could rub your limbs in sea salt. We loved it!
The hotel did not have a restaurant for dinner, so we took recommendations from the manager and walked into town for a terrific dinner at Osteria da Nando, a small family owned restaurant where we met Grandma, Mom, Dad (we think), and a son who was our waiter. http://www.osterianando.com/ Grandma had a seat right by the front door and the minute we stepped in, she got up to check the door behind us, to make sure it was securely shut (it was chilly!). The dad and son waited on the guests in a room that couldn’t hold more than 25 in a seating. We were the only English speaking guests, and the son moved easily from French to Italian to English as he went from table to table. This restaurant has been recognized by Michelin as an authentic regional restaurant that serves quality food at good prices, and Michelin’s description was spot on. We decided to try the 5 course meal paired with local wine for each course, and by course 4 we were seriously regretting our decision NOT to stick with the 3 course meal. We tried the local polenta, cow and goat cheeses, an incredible veal chop that momma brought out with great fanfare and cut from a sizzling plate in front of us (it was so impressive that other guests stood up to watch, and of course then also ordered the veal), and the desserts were also fantastic. It was all good, but just too much food for us. The son explained all the courses as well as the wines we tried, all of which were local. Kevin’s description of the different regional wines was that they had a cake batter smell to them. He’s right- they did have a sweet smell, but it was fun to actually try wine that a local person chose for the specific food we were eating. If you come to this area, you simply must go to this restaurant. The family and the food were an experience to savor!
Of course we walked around the town and saw the Roman ruins one day, visiting the old churches as well.
On another day we took a bus to Courmayeur, which is a major launching pad for mountain climbing and hiking, as well as even bigger and better skiing. It is also where you can get a cable car called the Skyway, which gets you up to Helbronner where you can see Mont Blanc and the tops of many of the surrounding mountains.
We loved Courmayeur- visiting a mountain guide museum to read about the profession and see the clothes and tools used over the years.
The cable car was high and worth the trip. Up we went, with some even taking their dogs (remember, dogs are generally welcome everywhere), all the way to the top where snow covered everything.
The ski slopes are not yet open (they will open in early December), but you can see how incredible the skiing would be for good skiiers up there. No thank you, says this Florida girl. I got as close to the steep slopes as I want to get! But I loved the view, even when we got clouded over, and under, us. I would definitely recommend this area for both summer and winter visits. I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to accurately describe the beauty of the region. Pictures will have to suffice.