Italian Wine

Photo by  Global Jet

I Love Touring Italy

by Levi Reiss

Aosta Valley

If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Aosta Valley region of northern Italy bordering France and Switzerland. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be an ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. This tiny region, by far the smallest in Italy, has about 150 historic castles, forts, and towers. As small as it is, more than 20% of this region is classified as a nature reserve. And the Alpine skiing is some of the best in Europe.

We'll start our tour at Bard in southwestern Aosta Valley near the Piedmont border. We'll head north and slightly west to St. Vincent and then to Breuil-Cervinia near the Swiss border. Next we proceed southwest to Castello Fénis and the Gran Paradiso National Park. We continue north to Cogne and Aosta. Finally we'll travel northwest to finish our tour at Courmayeur, not far from the French border.

The medieval village of Bard is fairly close to the northern border of Piedmont. In addition to its historic homes perched on a mountain overlooking a gorgeous gorge you can visit the Twelfth Century Forte di Bard that held up Napoleon's military progress for almost two weeks. He had it destroyed. The fort was reconstructed in the Nineteenth Century.

Our next stop is St. Vincent, which has been a spa resort for well over one hundred years. It's home to the Casino de la Vallée, where Sean Connery once won 20 million lire. St. Vincent is one of the largest casinos in all Europe and a favorite of jet setters. It was also the site of the European Chess Club championships in 2005.

Breuil-Cervina is a skiing village at the base of the Matterhorn founded in the 1930s during Mussolini's rule. There are about 200 kilometers (120 miles) of ski runs on the Italian side of the mountain, said to be best for intermediate- level skiers. Experts will prefer the Swiss side of the mountain.

The Castello Fénis was built in 1330 by a relative of the ruling House of Savoy. It includes two sets of walls and several guard towers for defense. Castello Fénis once controlled the Aosta Valley. Some of its frescoes are still legible, especially if you're familiar with ancient French. If you only have time to visit a single Aosta Valley castle, this is the one to visit.

The little village of Cogne is the entry point for the Parco Nazionale de Gran Paradiso (Grand Paradise National Park), Italy's first national park, which once belonged to King Victor Emanuel III. It is home to hundreds of plant and animal species, including many that are rarely found elsewhere in Europe. Nearby sights include the Aymavilles Castle dating back to feudal times, a real upstart compared to the perfectly preserved Pondel Roman Bridge over the Grand Eyvia River, which celebrated its 2000th birthday in 2003.

The city of Aosta, numbering about thirty five thousand residents, is home to more than one quarter of the region's total population. Founded in the very distant past it was a Roman garrison of three thousand soldiers more than two thousand years ago. If you approach the town from the east, you'll see the Arco di Augusto (Arch of Augustus) commemorating Rome's victory over the previous residents, a Celtic tribe. Be sure to see the Collegiata di Sant'Orso (Collegiate Church of Saint Orso), an Eleventh Century Gothic church built over a Sixth Century church founded by a local saint. The Twelfth Century Cloister guarded by about forty stone columns carved with Bible scenes and illustrating the founder's life is right next door.

Unfortunately rather little of the massive Roman amphitheatre remains. Its arches are now part of the Convent of the Sisters of San Guiseppe. In contrast, the Porta Praetoria (Pretorial Gate) is still in quite good shape, some two thousand years after construction.