Thanks to our grandfathers: Regione Valle d'Aosta.
The small village of Arnad is the home of the exceptional Lard d’Arnad - but don’t think this is the only product for which it is famous!
When we think of Italy and oil, olives are the first to spring to mind. But here in the Valle d'Aosta olive trees aren’t exactly common, whereas walnut trees abound. This was probably the reason why the production of walnut oil began in the first place, as a substitute for olive oil, which once was considered expensive and hard to come by.
The Arnad walnut oil is made from selected walnuts with a low acidity level, which are then dried and cold-pressed.
The harvesting, threshing and processing of the walnuts are still conducted manually and old wooden presses are used.
This oil is particularly rich in vitamin E, which helps to combat cellular ageing, and contains a high concentration of alpha-linolenic acid; an omega-3 fatty acid, which improves the health of blood vessels, thereby decreasing the risk of heart disease. With the increase in health awareness, walnut oil has become an attractive alternative to other oils with a higher percentage of monounsaturated fatty acids. Moreover, it contains no cholesterol!
But first and foremost, the Arnad walnut oil is perfect for delicately flavouring fresh salads, grilled vegetables, asparagus and potatoes, and it adds that special nutty fragrant to cured meats, particularly to the Lard d’Arnad, of course.
Just 10 kM into the Valle d'Aosta stands the town of Arnad. This is the birth place of the Lard d’Arnad, the only product of its kind to have been given the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), a prestigious European recognition for quality products.
In the Valle d'Aosta, lard has always been considered an important nutritional ingredient, and records show that the production of lard can be traced back to the year 1570.
In time, the processing techniques have undergone some changes and have now reached a level of near-perfection, where the quality of this eclectic product is constantly scrutinized, so it can continue to delight the palates of those who taste it.
The Lard d’Arnad can be served as a starter on a piece of rye bread or alongside chestnuts. It goes very well with preparations made with polenta or game and finally, because of that special sweet flavour, it can be used even in desserts!
In order to obtain this exquisite product, severe guidelines have to be set.
First, and foremost, the pigs cannot weigh less than 160 kg, they must be over 9 months of age and they must only come from the Valle d'Aosta, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto or Emilia Romagna regions. Secondly, their diet must be entirely natural and fresh and can by no means be made up from animal feed with additional vitamins or minerals.
Furthermore, to achieve this lard’s unique flavour, it is necessary to keep to the traditional recipes, which call for the product to be put into special chestnut containers, called Doil, to be seasoned with local spices and mountain herbs, such as salt, rosemary, garlic, sage, bay leaves and other non-grounded spices. The layers of lard are then covered with water and crystallized salt.
The lard is then left to season for at least 3 months, even if this period of rest can last up to 12-13 months.
To promote this PDO delicacy, the town of Arnad hosts a “Lard Festival” each year – the so-called “Féhta dou lar”, where lots of volunteers participate and which attracts thousands of curious and enthusiastic tourists.
During the last days of August, with music, entertainment and good food, the town of Arnad pays homage to this precious lard that has represented for centuries a fundamental ingredient in of Valle d'Aosta cuisine. In these four days of festivities, you can taste local products, your kids can participate in workshops, and there will be plenty of opportunity to end the evening with a dance!Any suggestions?
No visit to the Valle d'Aosta is complete without tasting the typical dairy products that most mountain areas have to offer.
The Gressoney Valley boasts some notable cheeses, the most known of all being the Gressoney Toma, a savoury locally produced table cheese, also called Kesch in local Walser dialect.
Produced directly on the mountain pastures of the Lys valley and also in the centre of the valley using traditional method, the tome are left to mature on wooden planks in cellars or caves for a period ranging from two to four months - ideally, the cheeses could be left to mature for 18 months but producers currently prefer to sell a less mature, smoother tasting version.
No more than 1000-1500 medium-sized cheeses (4/5 kg) are produced per year and this ensures both quality and the use of traditional methods of production. A characteristic trait of Gressoney Toma is that it is a half-fat cheese, prepared using semi-skimmed cow's milk. The skimming is achieved via surfacing, i.e.: the milk milked in the evening is left to rest in copper containers until the following morning, thus allowing the fattiest part, the cream, to rise to the surface and be removed with a large wooden spoon.
The remaining milk is used to prepare this delicious cheese with a compact paste and savoury flavour.
Another typical cheese of the valley is Salignön, a mature ricotta cheese with a creamy fat texture and a spicy hot flavour, obtained from the left over whey from cheese-making. To make Salignön, a cheese produced in various areas of the valley, the whey is enriched with milk or cream, mixed with salt, pepper and chilli pepper and is further seasoned with mountain herbs. In the past the short maturation process took place near the fireplace and the final product acquired a slightly smoked flavour.
Salignön is a true delicacy but it is not easy to find: you can only purchase it in a limited number of shops and some dairy farms.
Unlike other cheeses, usually eaten at the end of a meal, Salignön is served at the table mostly as a starter or used as a filling for the typical local “miasse”, a sort of corn-flour rectangular pancake.
Other cheeses, not only typical of this area, can be found in the Gressoney Valley: these are Fontina, Valle d'Aosta Fromadzo or Seirass, all of which are best eaten with a glass of hearty red wine. What better way to end a day of sports or sightseeing in the mountains?
What are the odds of winning a world title in any sports discipline? And what are the odds of competing with your own brother for the same gold medal? Well, the odds exist and they are called Ivan and Simone Origone, brothers and true champions of KL, or speed skiing as it’s called today.
The two brothers from Ayas have competed for the world title for just about 11 years, without leaving hope for other rivals, other than the third step on the podium.
The lives of Ivan and Simone are full of world records and victories. Simone is the older brother, born on November 8, 1979 and 8 times a world champion, with 3 world records to his name. In fact, in the year 2006 he brought the record to 251,40 km/h, which he then improved in 2014 and in 2015, when, on the tracks in Verbier, he took it to an impressive 252,632 km/h.
Two hundred and fifty-two kilometres an hour… a whole lot more than what your average automobile can achieve. Altogether, Simone’s record of achievements consists of 8 world championships, 5 gold medals, 3 world records, 4 Pro Mondial gold medals, 1 silver medal and 2 speed masters (the former Pro Mondial).
Ivan, the younger brother, was born on March 31, 1987, and he is certainly no less of a champion!
Since 2004, on two occasions has he managed to steal the prized first cup from his brother, which he won in 2008 and in 2015, while he came in second to Simone on 5 other occasions. Ivan also holds the junior world record with a speed of 250,70 km/h, which he obtained the very same day his brother Simone broke the world record.
2014 was the only year in which the brothers didn’t come first and second, that year the Austrian Klaus Schrottschammer broke their winning streak by taking first place. But the following year, they came back with a vengeance!
At the beginning of 2016 Ivan broke Simone's World Record, reaching a smashing 254,958 km/h: yet another chapter in this story of record-breaking brothers!
Two great champions, two brothers jumping down snow-clad slopes with a common objective: to go as fast as possible. A family affair, you could say. A show-down going 250 kilometres an hour on a pair of skis.Any suggestions?
The Monte Rosa massif is, indeed... massive! Part of the Pennines mountain range and flanked by glaciers, it is the highest mountain in the Swiss Alps, although 75% of it lies within the Italian border. The massif counts ten peaks, nine of which higher than 4,000 metres in Italian territory, four on the frontier and five on the Italian slope. The 10th, the Dufourspitze (4,643 metres), is the highest peak of the mass and counts the highest in Switzerland and second highest in the Alps, exceeded only by the Monte Bianco.
It is from the Italian side that the Monte Rosa takes on the appearance of a single, united massif.
The mountain carries an Italian name and doesn’t have, for example, a German equivalent, even though many of the peaks and passes have German origins. The reason for this is mainly that the area was inhabited by the Walser – a German speaking community – who initially were responsible for the German names. As for the etymology of the name Monte Rosa, it actually has very little to do with the colour pink, as some can be brought to, logically, think. The mountain does take on a slightly pinkish shade at sunset or sunrise, as most mountains do, but the name actually derives from an Aostian patois word – roëse – meaning glacier.
The first to succeed in climbing the Monte Rosa were 7 mountaineers from Gressoney: Valentino and Joseph Beck, Sebastian Linty, Joseph Zumstein, Nicolas Vincent, François Castel and Etienne Lisco. They reached a minor summit between Lyskamm and Ludwigshöhe, the Entdeckungsfels (or Roccia della Scoperta). The year was 1778.
41 years later, in 1819, Nicolas and Joseph Vincent conquered the summit that now bears their name – the Vincent Pyramid.
The same year, Nicolas Vincent and Joseph Zumstein reached an impressive 4,561 metres, and that sub peak is now known as the Zumsteinspitze. In 1893, mountain guides from Gressoney accompanied her Majesty Queen Margherita of Savoy to the inauguration of the highest mountain refuge in Europe – the Regina Margherita Hut. Queen Margherita thus became the first woman to ascend the Monte Rosa – quite the accomplishment! The highest peak of the Monte Rosa – the Dufourspitze – however, wasn’t reached until 1907.
Besides being a popular site for mountaineering, hiking and snowboarding, Monte Rosa hosts numerous ski resorts in the valleys of Gressoney, Champoluc and Alagna Valsesia (Piedmont), with fabulous slopes and heli-skiing, and where you can practically ski until May.
Each year in the town of Verrès (38 km from Aosta, 72 from Turin and 130 from Milan), a historical re-enactment takes place to commemorate an unusual event, which occurred on the 31st of May, 1450.
Ok, this deserves some explanation! Let’s pretend we’re the proud owners of a time machine: let’s hop on board and travel back to the morning of that legendary 31st of May, in the year 1450. Now, if we were to imagine ourselves inhabitants of the town of Verrès, the last thing we would expect to see would be Lady Caterina di Challant, accompanied by her husband, taking an active part in the local festivities.
When Caterina started dancing with the youths of the town, the crowd went mad with enthusiasm and began to cry out “Vive Introd et Madame de Challant” – Long live the Lord of Introd and Lady Challant!
This jubilant slogan can still be heard to this day, more than 550 years later, in Verrès, where Caterina’s “democratic” gesture of mixing with her townspeople inspired the annual historical re-enactment of the memorable event.
Every year, it all starts on Saturday with the Gran Ciambellano – the Grand Chamberlain – who, surrounded by his armigers, archers and standard bearers, announces the arrival of the nobles of the House of Challant, Pierre d’Introd and Caterina di Challant herself.
From this moment on, Lady Challant is the indisputable protagonist of the entire festival.
In honour of this said event, the Countess will then dance with one of the youths, with the crowd singing “Vive Introd et Madame de Challant”. This marks the official start of the carnival, with the Grand Chamberlain declaiming the “Proclamation of the Citizenry”, which invites everyone to participate in the festivities and momentarily forget all woes.
In the following days, Lady Caterina keeps to a tight schedule, touring and parading through town, while the townspeople enjoy a full festive program with masque balls, dances, music and parade floats.
Photo Credits: G. Bonin - Arc. foto Comitato Carnevale Storico di VerrèsAny suggestions?
Margherita of Savoy, the first and the most beloved Queen of Italy, was profoundly attached to the town of Gressoney. In fact, she contributed a great deal to the growing fascination of tourists for this small community at the foot of Monte Rosa. From the late 1800s to the beginning of the 1900, Gressoney became one of the most sought after holiday resorts among the nobility of the time.
The famous Italian poet Giosuè Carducci, although quite the anti-monarchist, was so struck by the Queen’s feminine ways, her eclectic personality, her natural sensibility and her inclination towards the arts, that he dedicated a poem to her – Alla Regina d’Italia.
She was, in fact, a most beloved Queen, a woman of great charm, who knew how to bring the cultural and artistic elite of the time closer to the monarchy.
The Poet and the Queen also shared a love for the Valle d'Aosta.
There, Carducci found many an inspiration for his poetry, while Margherita found peace and quiet during her summer retreats. Another reason for Margherita’s love for the region was her passion for mountains. She was, in fact, an enthusiastic climber; an interest she shared with her dear friend, Baron Luigi Beck Peccoz.
The Baron hosted the Queen at his Gressoney residence for 5 years, from 1894 to 1899. This was a period of numerous alpine adventures for the Queen, who was the first woman to ever climb Mount Rosa. In her honour stands the mountain shelter Capanna Regina Margherita – still the highest in Europe.
Margherita’s passion for mountaineering came to an abrupt stop with the premature death of Baron Beck Peccoz. He suffered a heart attack on the Grenz glacier, trying to cross from Gressoney to Zermatt. Since then the Queen never again set foot on Monte Rosa. Nevertheless, her love for Gressoney didn’t change, so she decided to have her own private holiday residence built there, the Castel Savoia.
The manor was completed in 1904 and really stands out in the midst of a conifer forest in the enchanting locality of Belvedere, where the view is spectacular, dominating the entire valley as far as the Lyskamm glacier.
Even though the Queen was determined not to climb anymore, she still wanted the grand panorama of the entrancing mountains to keep her company, which is probably why her apartments occupied the best position. The manor strikes one as taken out of a fairy tale: the light-coloured building is protected by five towers, each different in size and shape.
The interior is refined and elegant, as was its mistress. In fact, her name is portrayed everywhere and one feels the reminiscence of her past presence. Architectural ornaments, refined boiseries, magnificent medievalesque furniture remind the visitor of the Queen’s sophisticated taste.
Here she stayed every summer until 1925, a year prior to her death in Bordighera, on January 4th, 1926.
The Castel Savoia, however, wasn’t the only royal palace in the Valley in which Queen Margherita of Savoy resided.
In fact, she spent the summer of 1880 in the Castle of Sarre, which was used as the King’s headquarters for his hunting expeditions to the valleys of Cogne and Valsavarenche, now territory of the Gran Paradiso National Park. The interior of the castle hosts an impressive number of trophies: thousands of chamois and steinbock antlers adorn walls and ceilings, giving the castle an air of stern masculinity, which is probably why the Queen much preferred her summers to be spent in Gressoney, in a dwelling more appropriate to her elegance, style and delicacy.
In the Machaby Valley, a short distance from Arnad, is the sanctuary of Madonna delle Nevi (Our Lady of the Snow). It stands in a splendid position at 696 metres, surrounded by chestnut trees. According to legend this is the exact spot where a wooden statue of the Holy Mary was found.
The shepherds who discovered it placed the sculpture in the chapel of a nearby village but the next day the statue miraculously reappeared in the original place where it had been found, as if it had chosen to stand there.
Another legend narrates that a cave close to the sanctuary was the hiding place where a witch and a devil with seven heads kept their prisoners.
Thanks to her faith in the Holy Mary, one of the captives, a girl captured close to the church, managed to calm down the other prisoners by encouraging them to pray to Our Lady of Machaby. To thank them for their prayers, the Madonna delle Nevi showed them a small opening, allowing them to escape.
None of the above can be proven but we know for sure that the original building dates back to the fourteenth century and that the sanctuary was entirely rebuilt between 1687 and 1689. The rectangular simple structure of the church exterior is enriched by the more refined portico, added in 1735. The bell-tower dates back to 1723 while a separate building in the back has frescoes depicting the Mysteries of the Rosary.
The interior of the church is divided into three naves with round arches and stone columns. The ceilings have rib vaults and the walls are full of votive offerings brought by the people over the years. Interesting 19th century frescoes by Alessandro, Arturo and Antonio Artari can be seen in the cupola.
The altar, instead, dates back to the 17th century and is built of black marble with a fine wood-carved tabernacle.
The seventeenth-century statue of the Virgin Mary, defined by the scholar Bruno Orlandoni as “one of the best masterpieces of Baroque sculpture in the Valle d’Aosta” is now in the parish church of Arnad. Various other stone statues decorate the external square and the areas nearby.
The sanctuary is a place of extreme peace and tranquillity, worthy to experience. Visits are by appointment only by contacting the parish office, unless you visit on the 5th August, the patron saint's day, when a pilgrimage takes place and the sanctuary is open.Any suggestions?
The Mont Mars Nature Reserve, situated in the district of Fontainemore in the Gressoney Valley, is the typical scenery you’d want to come across during your holiday in the mountains: forests, meadows, scree slopes and many lakes await the wanderer, as well as an abundance of untouched flora and fauna.
The first lake you’ll come across is the Lago del Vargno with its typical Alpine environment, then the Lac Bonel, the Lei-Long lakes and the Lac de Barme. All of different size and colours, these lakes are sure to leave you breathless with their pristine mountain waters and beautiful hues.
To guide nature-lovers through the Reserve is the ancient mule track (marked with a black 2 on a round yellow sign) leading from Fontainemore to Oropa.
This track is also used for the famous religious procession that passes through the Colle della Balma di Oropa, and has been so for more than 400 years!
The Nature Reserve has been around since 1993 and covers an area of 300 hectares. Situated at an altitude of 1,684 -2,660 metres at the head of the Pacoulla stream valley, the park has a rich flora, boasting larch forests mixed with shrubbery such as rhododendron, blueberry and juniper. Rare varieties of primrose also grow here, as well as mountain arnica, purple gentian, nigritella and - up on the steep, sunlit slopes – the mountain lily.
As for wildlife, the Reserve hosts numerous species typical of the Alpine habitat, such as the marmot, the mountain hare and the chamois.
If you have a keen eye, you will be sure to spot the black grouse, the rock ptarmigan and the white-winged snowfinch somewhere, whereas you’ll need to go down to the river in order to catch a glimpse of the white-throated dipper!
The Mont Mars Nature Reserve is ideal for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and – in winter – snowshoe trekking. There really is something to suit everybody’s fancy!
The St. Giles, or St. Egidio, Collegiate Church stands in the village of Verrès, along the right bank of a stream called Evançon. Common belief dates the foundation of the monastery to the year 912, by commission of Gisella (Italian feminine of Giles), the wife of the Marquis of Ivrea. However, the clergy house and its canons are first mentioned in a written document in 1050.
Throughout its history periods of decadence alternated with periods of flourishment.
According to documents dating back to 1207, the monastery followed the Rule of St. Augustine and was an important centre for the formation of the clergy. During the Lower Middle Ages, thanks to donations and privileges, the complex became the most important religious institution in the Valle d'Aosta. In 1360 the lands around Verrès were donated by the Savoy to the Challant family and, in 1407, Ibleto of Challant built a new chapel which became his family’s burial site.
The main brick building and the adjacent bell-tower, with two interesting statues of St. Grato and St. Giles, were erected in 1512. The current parish church of Sant’Egidio was built between 1776 and 1797 under Verrès-born Provost Nicolas-Amédée Bens.
A curiosity: although in May 1800, during the second Italian Campaign, Napoleon spent a night in the convent, two years later he ordered the suppression of all monasteries, including St. Giles. The religious complex was re-established in 1816 but was then confiscated by the state in 1855.
Elements of the 15th century building can be observed in the marvellous carved stone, three-mullioned window on one of the walls. The interior with its solemn central nave has columns and is richly decorated, while fragments of a 14th century fresco can still be seen.
The choir, with wooden stalls, has one of the first multi-coloured marble altars in the Valle d'Aosta which is itself well worth a visit. In addition to these marvels, a rich library and one of the most important archives in the Valle d'Aosta can also be found at the complex.
When touring the area in the 1830s, famous English painter William Turner paid a visit to the village and made a drawing of the church and castle.
The graphite drawing Verres, Valle d’Aosta, the Church and College of St Gilles and the Castle beyond is contained in the "Fort Bard Sketchbook" which was donated to the Tate Gallery in London as part of the Turner Bequest.
Apart from being the local religious centre, today the church has an active choir and hosts classical and religious music concerts and contests.Any suggestions?
Not far from the imposing Fort of Bard is the enchanting district of Donnas. Here, 332 metres above sea level, hidden treasures are kept.
A town of great strategic interest for the Romans, Donnas was a point of transit and commerce and served as a resting point on the much-travelled Gaul road.
Today, the enchanting hamlet still showcases original 16th century windows, frescoes, beautiful portals in walnut wood and the exquisite Palazzo Enrielli from the 17th century. If you have time, a stroll along the quiet streets of Donnas, dotted with small shops and traditional homes, is sure to take you back in time.
However, just outside the town, Roman history is definitely not forgotten. Coming out from the hamlet, beyond the charming Sant’Orso church, lies a road as old as time.
This spectacular stretch of via della Gallie is more than 2,000 years old and shows exactly how the Romans defied the laws of nature, carving the passage out of live rock. Considering it a feat that would be impressive even if done today, we can only stand in awe at how the construction of this important road was accomplished over 2,000 years ago.
The large stretch of cobbled road measures 221 metres long and around 5 metres wide and is a true marvel for all passers-by. Now the symbol of the town, the road still displays its original carriage tracks and is characterised by a Roman arch, carved out of rock during the first century B.C.
The archway is all that remains to remind us of the incredible amount of rock that was removed; the result of hard-working teams, which demonstrates just how sophisticated the road techniques were at the time, so much so that they have only been surpassed recently, with our modern tunnels and viaducts.
A Roman milestone nearby still indicates the XXXVI miles from Aosta, almost as if time, here, were still in that far-gone first century B.C.
Within the Mont MarS Nature Reserve, just outside the town of Fontainemore and close to Issime, an ancient mule track leads us to the Gouffre de Guillemore. This extremely deep gorge has been carved out of the rocks over time by the River Lys, which here plummets into a spectacular waterfall.
But the Guillemore Gorge isn’t just a striking image in this evocative landscape, it is also a profoundly integrated part of history.
In fact, the Guillemore ravine combines incredible views with years of both natural and human history. This specific spot was the only passageway of the Lys Valley for centuries, with the two mule tracks leading up the Lys Valley on its right and left slopes meeting right here, on the wonderful stone bridge overlooking the abysmal gorge.
Upstream from the gorge you can see, even from the road below, rocks polished by the glacier.
Even a number of potholes are present; these are characteristic formations of erosion caused by the debris-laden subglacial torrent and its piercing movements.
A small, perfectly circular pothole can be seen on the right drainage divide and is easily recognisable, because it is often filled with water.
The Guillemore Gorge is part of the 'sentiero degli orridi' – the Gorge Trail – that passes through four districts; Pontboset (Orrido di Ratus), Champorcher (Goille di Pourtset), Hône (Golilles de Hône) and Fontainemore (Gouffre de Guillemore).
Don’t miss the spot when in the area – 19th century English tourists surely didn’t, as the site was cited in English tour-guides since the beginning of the 1800s!
A picturesque way to reach Perloz - a small hamlet not far from the town of Pont-Saint-Martin in the Valle d'Aosta - is the narrow mule track from Tour d’Héréraz. Passing by the famous Moretta bridge, this road will take you directly to the mountain borgo and its church, situated on a flatter point of the path, just before it begins to steeply go uphill again.
Tradition wants this centuries-old church to date back to the year 732, even though the first written document mentioning the church of Perloz is a papal bull from 1176. The powerful Vallaise family, who dominated almost the entire valley, was profoundly attached to the church, making it their family burying grounds.
While you take in the surrounding landscapes, you will notice two Vallaise castles, one is known as the Ohtal and the other is named Charles, after a Captain of the Vallaise family, who was knighted by the Dukes of Savoy for having partaken in the liberation of the Fort Bard from the French in 1706.
On entering the hamlet of Perloz, other buildings stand out as reminders of extraordinary past events that took place in this now remote village, but once the administrative and religious centre of the noble family Vallaise.
The house of the notary, the so-called doctor’s house, the fortified manor with a viret (spiral staircase) and drain systems will take you back to ancient times. A historic wine press still bears the signs of a horrendous fire started by the Fascists on June the 30th 1944 during a retaliation against the partisan fighters.
Perloz is burning like an enormous brazier, these are the words of Don Pramotton, the village priest, who tells us the story of how the fire devoured many buildings in the village, including the Vallaise castle, of which there is nothing left but the perimeter fence.
If you're less into walking and more into making use of modern-day comforts, know that Perloz is also accessible through a regular car-accessible road. So no excuses - indulge yourself, for an hour or so, with a walk into the past, and keep an eye out for hidden treasures. You will definitely find some!
Tip: if you have some time on your hands, you might want to take a look at the beautiful Varfey, a charming sub-hamlet of Perloz just a short walk away from the main village.Any suggestions?
Immersed in nature all around the Mount Rosa, the Walser villages resist to this day. As mountain farmers, the Walser are a minority who for centuries have represented the highest members of the Alpine population, geographically speaking, creating stable settlements at a minimum of 1,500-2,000 metres above sea-level. This factor has inevitably influenced every aspect of this German-speaking population’s everyday life.
The Walser dialect - Titsch in Gressoney, Toitschu in Issime and Titzschu in Alagna and Rimella – is probably their most recognizable trait of this society and offers an excellent explanation of how isolated areas, each with their own culture, came about. Economical and community issues are, inevitably, some of the main challenges these mountain folk had to face living in high altitudes.
Naturally, even the architecture had to adapt to the severe surroundings; Walser houses served multiple purposes to prevent the inhabitants from having to go outside in the freezing cold all the time.
Every Walser community has its own distinctive features; in the community of the Gressoney valley, for example, we find the Stadel-Haus; a building functioning as residence and as a stable for farm animals, a perfect union for those humid winters on the south side of the Mount Rosa. The stadel stands on the banks of the River Lys, safe from avalanches and an ideal spot to settle small family villages. Here and there, next to the stadel, other homes and rustic villas have been built by merchants who made their fortune during the 18th and 19th centuries. Examples of these buildings can be still be found in Gressoney-Saint-Jean and Gressoney-La-Trinité.
It is fascinating to see how the Walser community still defend their age-old traditions and characteristics to this day, but then, this is how they have always coped, by adapting to their surroundings.
If you’re curious to learn more about this incredible population and their culture, the Centro Culturale Walser has been created in order to safeguard and promote this extraordinary minority. In addition to this, once a year, during the summer, Gressoney hosts a Walser Festival – if you’re around, be sure not to miss it.Any suggestions?
EVERY FIVE YEARS, THOUSANDS OF PILGRIMS hike over the mountains separating the Lys Valley, in Valle d’Aosta, and the sanctuary of Oropa, in Piedmont.
The hikers come from far and wide to complete a gruelling centuries-old pilgrimage to visit a statue housed in Oropa, which is said to have been carved by Saint Luke himself. Pilgrims typically set off from the town of Fontainemore at 11 pm and reach the sanctuary some 11 hours later, following a challenging starlit trail, which sees them climb to over 2931 meters and cover a distance of some nine kilometers.
Once at Oropa, men women and children pilgrims all pay their respects to Saint Luke's mysterious, black wooden statue of the Madonna.
The statue was found in Jerusalem in the 4th century AD and was carried to Italy shortly afterwards. It has been venerated ever since and is said to possess mysterious properties. Dust never gathers on the carving, and, despite of its age, it has not been worn away by touching of pilgrims nor eaten by wood-worms.
But the procession of Oropa, which has been undertaken since 1686, is not just about ancient devotion to God or the church. The event sees members of the Lys Valley take time out from the day-to-day distractions of life and come together with their neighbours.
With the stars as their guide, two nights a decade, they walk side by side, share stories, connect with nature and explore their spirituality.
Curiosity: the next Oropa procession is scheduled to take place in May 2020.Any suggestions?
If your idea of a castle consists of thick walls, high and solid towers, drawbridges and constricted dungeons, well then… you might be disappointed when you first cast your eyes on the Issogne Castle.
It is totally and utterly devoid of any defence mechanisms whatsoever.
But once you cross the entrance threshold and go beyond the portico, you will immediately be taken back into a past long gone, where the first that strikes you is the emblematic wrought-iron pomegranate fountain – a work of art with strong symbolism alluding to the Challant family; the original owners. Set in the middle of the courtyard, it is truly an iconographic masterpiece.
More wonders await visitors on the inside, such as the much cared for Italian Garden; vibrant with flowerbeds and garden paths. The garden makes a perfect frame for the extraordinary Miroir des enfants de Challant (Mirror of the children of the House of Challant), a lavish series of frescoed heraldic arms, highlighting the importance of the Challant nobility and their principal matrimonial alliances.
Not far off, we find the frescoed lunettes of the portico representing the guard-house, the market, the shops etc., taking us back to the everyday life of the 15th century.
On the frescoes, and scattered a bit all over the walls, you’ll notice some characteristic writing. It has been custom, since the 15th century, for all visitors to leave a written testimony of their passing through. These so-called graffiti provide important evidence of fascinating story-telling, commenting on events such as the births of children, the deaths of a loved one, love confessions, or simply an autograph or an important date.
Walking through the castle’s splendid rooms, all furnished and covered in frescoes, you get the chance to relive the ancient past of the noble family who actually lived there, the Challants.
Every inch of the building reflects the style, taste and intellect of the man who transformed the ancient castle into a luxurious Renaissance manor in the 15th century, prior Giorgio di Challant - the most important patron in all of the Valle d'Aosta.
There are other stories attached to the castle, as the miserable family history of Renato, one of the heads of the Challant family in the 16th century, whose unfortunate love life gave vent to talks across the courts of Europe.
His first wife, being accustomed to life in court in Milan, was bored to death in the provincial castle of Issogne, where she practically lived alone, because her husband often was away on business for long periods at a time. So the poor countess filled the void left by her husband by taking up various lovers. But that turned out to be the end of the her, because after a few years of hobbies she eventually lost her head! Renato’s second marriage was no success either. He married Donna Mencia of Portugal, who was unable to give birth to a male heir, and their firstborn eloped with a stable boy on the night before her wedding.
Since then, many troubled events have implicated the castle, which changed owners several times, the last one being Vittorio Avondo, a painter from Turin. An aficionado of all things medieval, he bought and completely restored the castle, which he then donated to the Italian state in 1907. It is thanks to him if we can now admire this incredible castle, which continues to cast a spell on its visitors.
If you happen to lean out of one of the large, bright mullion windows at the Issogne castle, you might catch a glimpse of another nearby manor; the Verrès Castle. Situated on a high mountain rock, it almost serves as guardian of its princely neighbour, quite like the protective father. Imposing, massive and stern, dominating the central valley, this single-structured fortress commands respect from everyone approaching. An austere castle where, every year at the historic Carnival, ancient splendour comes to life, retracing stories of knights in shining armour, their ladies and their daring endeavours.Any suggestions?
If you happen to find yourself in the southern part of the Valle d'Aosta, after passing through the district of Arnad in the direction of Turin, you will most definitely be amazed at the sight of the impressive Fort Bard.
In the 12th century it was nick-named “inexpugnabile oppidum” – a fortification incapable of being overthrown. Although rather different from what it looks like today, it was already then considered a strategic garrison controlling all access roads in the valley.
It first belonged to the Viscounts of Aosta, then to the powerful local lords of Bard. Finally it passed in the hands of the Savoy family in the 13th century, and more specifically in the hands of Amadeus IV, who wanted the Fort all to himself.
The notoriety of the Fort continued to grow during the 17th century, when it became the personal stronghold of the Duchy of Savoy in the Valle d'Aosta.
In 1704, right in Bard, Victor Amadeus II managed to hold back the French. However, the most famous episode dates back to May, 1800, when the majestic fortification played a significant role during the siege of Napoleon and his army; the siege lasted over two weeks, an extremely long time, so much so that Napoleon named the Fort “le vilain castel de Bard” – the Evil Castle of Bard – then had it razed to the ground and sold all the building materials.
30 years later, Charles Felix of Savoy ordered the Fort to be rebuilt, which it was in 1838, and since then it has remained intact to this very day.
The complex is formed of an impressive series of tenaille (pincer-shaped) structures along the overhanging slopes by the river Dora. The fort appeared immensely intimidating and, in fact, it was never attacked. Toward the end of the 19th century, it slowly began its decline and was used as penal colony and ammunition depot during the 20th century.
In 2006, the Fort underwent a series of complex restoration projects, after which it opened up to the public. It also hosts the Museum of the Alps and offers several temporary exhibitions, many of them with international appeal.
Coming down from the Fort, either by foot or in one of the modern panoramic lifts, which allows you a stunning view of the surrounding valley, you reach the village of Bard.
This characteristic hamlet lies on via della Gallie; the ancient Roman road that crossed through the entire territory of the Valle d'Aosta and led beyond the mountains. The village has retained its medieval layout and many picturesque buildings can be found by walking through the ancient streets. Among these Casa Challant and Casa Valperga, the latter bearing a unique façade with a mullioned bifora (window with two lights, now shut up) with a crossed window on either side. Then there’s Casa Urbano, the old mill, and Casa Ciuca with a splendid viret, a spiral stone staircase with steps spreading out like a fan around a central axis.
The village also offers picturesque fountains, fascinating arches and, moreover, at Palazzo Nicole you can still make out the bullet holes left there from the Napoleonic siege.
South of the Fort, you can admire the Marmitte dei Giganti, rock cavities formed due to the erosive force of the sub-glacial waters, where an attentive observer may notice some less evident rock engravings near the cemetery: cup-marks, mysterious figures, a stylized boat. They are engravings from prehistoric times, evidence of this beguiling landscape’s remote past.Any suggestions?
In the Valle d'Aosta one doesn’t necessarily have to climb to Europe’s highest peaks, fascinating as they might be, but also frightening to the less experienced hikers. There are other gentler tracks, so to speak, at a lower altitude, accessible all year round and set in the most evocative of landscapes, where man has left traces of incomparable beauty, such as castles, fortified manors, chapels, as well as Roman and Medieval bridges.
Among these, beautiful mule track leading from Tour d’Héréraz to the hamlet of Perloz; an age-old route linking Piedmont to the Valle d'Aosta and now used as an alternative to the valley floor road. This track goes all the way from the Canavese to the Biellese, also reaching the Lys Valley and continuing towards Arnad.
We suggest you start your route in the pretty village of Tour d’Héréraz, that you reach coming from Pont-Saint-Martin along the main road to Gressoney. A left turn will take you to the church, where you can leave your car in the parking lot. Your eyes will then immediately turn to the impressive and massive bell tower - the oldest tower in the region and the only part still left of the ancient Hérèras castle. In the late 1800s, the church of San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph) was erected with the stones from the castle’s surrounding wall, and a belfry was built on top of the remaining tower. The old residence was assigned as a rectory.
Having left Tour d'Héréraz behind, after a few minutes’ descent along a steep path, you come to the Moretta bridge, situated over a deep canyon dug by the River Lys.
The view is absolutely breath-taking! The Moretta bridge is the only evidence of mankind in this evocative, wild, almost unapproachable landscape - and what a story this bridge has!
Walking across it, you hear some startling roars… maybe it’s just the river running wild, or maybe it’s the dragon’s ghost who never left home. In fact, legend goes that an atrocious dragon roamed the area, devouring animals and men alike and terrorising the neighbouring villages. One day, a man named Vignal offered the dragon a loaf of bread that he speared with his sword.
When the dragon swallowed it, it bled to death. Unfortunately, along with the death of the frightful monster, Vignal himself died, poisoned by dragon blood. Near the bridge, you can find a rock which resembles a dragon with its curvy features.
The road beyond the bridge is called Chemin de la Paroy, because it runs along a rock wall (Paroy is French for rock wall), and it advances into a shadowy combe. If you dare to follow it, it will take you from the Dragon to the beautiful hamlet of Perloz - no dragons there.
If you're willing to do some walking, indulge yourself, for an hour or so, with a walk into the past, and keep an eye out for hidden treasures. You will definitely find some!Any suggestions?
Located on a tranquil mountainside overlooking a river-filled valley, the sanctuary of Notre Dame de la Garde owes its existence to the chance discovery of a small figurine of the Madonna with child.
The statue is said to have been found on the slopes of a mountain sometime during the 12th century and is thought to have been hidden there by early Christians as they fled from invading barbarians during the late Roman empire.
After being found, the statuette was taken to a nearby church in the parish of Perloz, from where it mysteriously disappeared.
It was eventually found again back in its original position.
Seeing the statue’s movement as a sign from God, the medieval church built a chapel on the exact spot where it lay. Of the original chapel, nothing remains, but a more modern structure was built at the site in the 17th century.
Today, the isolated church boasts an octagonal dome and is flanked by a bell tower built in Romanesque style. There is also a boarding house for Pilgrims, who still make the journey to see the mysterious statute, escape the hustle and bustle of modern life and enjoy the lovely views of the valley below.
The chapel contains three isles and sail-shaped walls, which are also decorated with stunning frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament. The frescoes were painted by local brothers Giuseppe, Francesco and Lorenzo Avondo in 1831.
But what about the statue?
The supernatural figurine is housed in the church and takes pride of place at the centre of the altar. Around the small Madonna sit many other small and beautiful religious votive offerings, which have been donated to the church by visiting pilgrims over the centuries.Any suggestions?
Grapes have been grown in the Valle d'Aosta since Roman times. Here, as in many other harsh areas all over the world, farmers have conquered the hills with bare hands and rudimentary tools, creating steep terraces to increase the acreage and prevent the soil from eroding.
The result of this hard work has given rise to the definition of “Extreme Wines” or “Heroic Wines”, as the hard labour required to create tiny plots of land from the steep mountainsides can be considered the work of heroes!
A wonderful example of this amazing and extremely difficult way of growing and harvesting grapes can be found in the Donnas area, between the villages of Donnas, Perloz, Bard and Pont-Saint-Martin, where some of the valley's most distinctive wines are produced.
In 1971 producers joined to form a cooperative to preserve these vine-growing traditions. The Caves de Donnas cooperative has a working capacity of 170,000 kg of grapes and an annual production of about 150,000 bottles. They have received DOC certification for their star wine, Donnas DOC.
Defined as “the mountain Barolo”, Donnas is a dry, full-bodied wine produced from local Nebbiolo grapes called Picotendro (90%) with a smaller percentage of Freisa and Neyret grapes. Aged 12 months in large oak barrels before it can be bottled and sold, its velvety taste and tannic note make it the perfect wine for red meat dishes, game or cheese. Donnas Supérieur Vieilles Vignes, a superior variety made as a blend of 85% Nebbiolo and 15% Fumin grapes, is aged for 24 months while Donnas Napoleon is 100% Nebbiolo grapes and commemorates the passage of Napoleon in the Valley in May 1800.
Other red wines of the area include Nebbiolo Barmet, a fruity, fresh table wine, Rouge des Caves, and Ronc. Rosé wines include Rosé Larmes du Paradis and Magie, a sparkling wine produced using the Charmat method.
The area also produces good white wines such as Pinot Gris and Blanc des Caves table wine.
Noteworthy are the red dessert wine Donatium, the elegant white Dernier Soleil and the local Grappa, Caves de Donnas. It's the ideal ingredient for the traditional Valle d'Aosta "Friendship Coffee", to be drunk from the Grolla, the typical multi-spouted wooden bowl.
The cooperative has a shop where various wines can be tasted and purchased. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday: 9.00 – 12.00 and 14.00 – 17.00; Sunday: 9.00 – 12.00 and 15.00 – 18.00. If you tour the area on a Sunday, the only day it's open, do not miss the opportunity to visit the interesting Museo Del Vino e Della Viticoltura, a remarkable wine museum that will tell you about the history, the production techniques and the different varieties of wines of the area.Any suggestions?
The sabot is a wooden shoe, not dissimilar to the famous Dutch clog, that was once worn throughout the Valle d'Aosta. However, the shoe is particularly linked to the Val d'Ayas, which once carried out a flourishing trade in sabots.
While wooden shoes may seem uncomfortable to modern wearers, they used to be prized for being warm, dry and hard-wearing. In other words, perfect for the inhabitants of the Val d'Ayas, who had a long, harsh Alpine winter to contend with each year.
From the 17th century onward, artisans along the Val d'Ayas known as sabotiers made a living by carving the shoes from single pieces of arola pine, larch, willow and poplar. Each sabotier was capable of making up to 12 pairs of shoes a day.
In order to stop blistering, each shoe was whittled with extra space inside so that they could be worn with thick woolen socks or even stuffed with hay.
Men's sabots were flat and bulky, while the women's shoe was more slender, having a more pronounced heel. They were even made for children and equipped with laces so that they could be tied to the child's ankles to stop them coming loose.
In 1894, a pair of the shoes typically costs between 6 and 8.5 lire – around €18 to €25 in today's money.
By the 1950's the shoes had largely fallen out of favour in the area, with people preferring shoes produced industrially using modern fabrics.
But the sabot lives on, as it still part of the traditional local dress and a popular souvenir taken back home by visitors to the region.
Anyone interested in finding out more about the shoe can visit a permanent exhibition about sabots in the town of Antagnod, organized by a regional cooperative that is working to keep the tradition alive.
Further examples of sabots and sabot production can be found at the Museo dell’Artigianato Valdostano di Tradizione, a museum dedicated to local crafts which can be found in the town of Fénis.Any suggestions?
Perched on a rocky outcrop above the town below, the atmospheric Castello di Verrès is a formidable fortress and an iconic piece of medieval architecture.
Seen from a distance the castle resembles a giant 30 meter-squared cube and is unusual among castles of its time for its single standalone design. When it was erected by local nobleman Ibleto di Challant in the mid-fourteenth century, the prevailing tendency was to build multi-building castles surrounded by a perimeter wall.
But the castle's innovative design had little to do with aesthetic: complete with 2.5 meter-thick walls, the castle is all about defence.
It was constructed to protect the town of Verrès below and safeguard the access to the Val d'Ayas Alpine pass, which was an important Medieval trade route.
Had any aggressor wished to gain access to the castle, their only hope was to proceed along a steep and highly exposed mule-track, through a defensive vestibule and over the drawbridge of the gatehouse. Unsurprisingly, the castle is still standing more than six hundred years after its construction.
Today, the castle is visited by thousands of tourists each year, who happily do not have to face the challenges the castle posed to medieval aggressors! Visitors are rewarded with a fascinating insight on castle life.
The ground floor showcases the more logistical elements and features an armoury, staff kitchen, dining room and cistern. On the first floor, visitors can take in the lord's lush living quarters, banquet hall and bedroom.
The castle is open for visits everyday from 9am to 7pm but we advise you to check the castle’s official site for details.
A curiosity: in several parts of the ground floor the castle has been built into the protruding mountain rock, which medieval engineers left to reinforce the structural integrity of the castle.
Deep below the Val d'Ayas lie precious seems of soapstone which have been known to the residents of the valley since the neolithic.
Green seams of soapstone are a common feature of the area, and once excavated the homogeneous and compact stone has a number of properties that historically made it a valuable commodity.
Firstly, the stone is soft and can be easily worked into a number of different forms.
Not only that, but the stone can be worked into fine detail which means it has been preferred by local sculptors in the towns along the valley for centuries. Many of their intricate works can still be seen. Archaeological digs have turned up numerous examples – mostly dating to the medieval period, which attest to a flourishing industry built around the stone.
As well as being easy to work, the rock is capable of withstanding dramatic changes of temperature and holds heat extremely well – as a result, it has been used for making fireplaces and cooking pots for millennia.
Indeed, the stone gets its Italian name, pietra ollare, from the Ancient Romans, who used it to make pots known as olla, which they used for cooking and storing their food as well as... for holding funerary ashes!
Until the advent of central heating, most middle-class families in the Val d'Ayas heated their homes using soapstone fireplaces. Actually, the material is still a popular choice for building hearths today! In the valley, few local artisans still keep the tradition alive and manufacture all kinds of products from crockery to highly prized fireplaces.
Examples of local soapstone production can bee seen at the Museum of Traditional Craft (Museo dell'Artigianato Valdostano di Tradizione) located at Fènis.Any suggestions?
The Pont-Saint-Martin Historical Carnival has more than a century to its name. In fact, the first edition of this now traditional festival took place in 1902, but it wasn’t till 1910 that the traditions we know today were instilled.
The people of Pont-Saint-Martin are devoted to this annual event as it represents an important part of the local heritage, something the inhabitants are keen on holding on to.
From Fat Thursday to Shrove Tuesday, the town is buzzing with events. With parades, concerts and parties making the town’s streets alive and bustling, these days are a great opportunity for tourists to visit Pont-Saint-Martin.
The protagonists of the Carnival are the Devil himself, Satan, and his opponents: the Bishop San Martino, the Roman Consul, the Tribunes of the People, the Roman Guards and their Officer, and finally, the Lily Nymph with her two Handmaidens.
San Martino and Satan play a central role during these festive days as they narrate the legend of how the bridge of Pont-Saint-Martin came to be (Pont, part of the name of the city itself, means bridge).
One of the main attractions of the Carnival is the 'corsa delle bighe' – the chariot race – where each insula, or district, in town competes for first place. In this curious race, there are no horses to pull the chariot, but only a charioteer with his or her private athletic champions to do the pulling!
On Shrove Tuesday it’s time for the big parade, with floats from Pont-Saint-Martin and the surrounding villages in Piedmont and the Valle d'Aosta.
The party ends with a spectacular display of fireworks beneath the old Roman bridge, where Satan burns as he lets out a tremendous scream.
The end of the carnival is always a sad day for the inhabitants of the town, but, as the saying goes: «'l carlevé l'è mort, viva 'l carlevé» (“The Carnival is dead, Long live the Carnival”). When a carnival is over, it’s time to plan the new one – so don’t worry if you’ve missed this years’ edition, the one to come will be even more spectacular!Any suggestions?
Castel Savoia Alpine botanical garden is situated at an altitude of 1350 m. within the grounds of Castel Savoia in Gressoney, an impressive grey-stone, multi--turreted 19th century castle built as a summer residence for Queen Margaret of Savoy. The gardens consist of a series of rocky beds with alpine plants, surrounded by imposing larch and fir trees.
Unlike other alpine gardens, those at Castel Savoia were created as a pleasure garden where the plants were selected for their particular ornamental qualities and their magnificent brightly coloured flowers.
Visitors can admire examples of martagon lilies, alpenroses, bellflowers, edelweiss, willow herbs, globeflowers, alpine columbines, arnica, gentians, saxifrages, fireweed and various evergreens. These beautiful plants thrive in the bright sun and crispy air of the Gressoney valley.
Opened in 1990, the 1000 sq. m large garden was designed with the help of Efisio Noussan, a prominent botanist who was president of the Valle d'Aosta Society for Flora until his sudden death in 2001. Great planning was put into the design and construction of the rockeries and paths that gently lead you past flowers, trees and shrubs, across little bridges and down stone steps.
The garden is open all year long and may be visited during castle opening times - admission is free.
To completely enjoy the burst of colours and fragrances plan your visit for July or August, when the flowers are in full bloom.
Giuseppe Bettoni (Pino), a sculptor from Perloz, a small district at the mouth of the Gressoney valley, had a peculiar dream: to restore life to the typical village of Chemp, situated on a hillock surrounded by chestnut orchards, but in a state of near abandon. And this he intended to do through art.
He began to repopulate the village with some of his more important works of art.
Now, suspended illustrations, sleeping old drifters, little girls and strange animals inhabit this magical place. These mystical souls have taken over the small houses and await the visitor with their mesmerizing aura. The small village stands in the middle of the woods, full of late 19th century stone houses, with a tiny immaculate chapel, a delightful fountain and a beautiful old granary from the 17th century.
Pino watches over them, quite like the affectionate father. His studio is conveniently located in the village, so he can protect his creatures. This is where he creates his best works of art, exhibited at shows and fairs, the most important of which is the local and ancient Sant’Orso fair.
The ideal time to visit this territory is in spring, when peonies blossom, high on the nearby Col Fenêtre (1670 MASL). A magnificent flower, the peony, is one of the botanical gems of the Alps, a rare species, and known for its large and beautiful leaves. From the end of May and halfway through June, the green pastures and the grey stony ground are coloured with an intense fuchsia. The locals call it rosa pasqua (Easter Rose) and it is considered to be the Queen of the Pastures.
Far from the frenzy of the big cities and the famous tourist traps, these places should be visited in silence: only in this manner will the precious traditions reveal themselves as witnesses of a past long gone.
A tip: Through an easy track it only takes 20 minutes to reach another marvel of rural architecture; the village of Varfey. Situated on a terrace overlooking the central valley and the Canavese plain, it is on the border of the districts of Perloz and Lillianes, of which the letters P/L show on the road to the village. It is possible to come across some of the few inhabitants who still live here today, in their 19th century houses. Their lives are still intertwined with the passing of the seasons: from the intense summer months, a time of haymaking, of harvest and of mountain pasture, through the colourful autumn and the harvesting of chestnuts, to the long winter months, when the cold covers this fairy landscape in a thick mantle of snow.Any suggestions?
We wouldn’t be here today without our stubbornness and the support of these Italian companies and institutions.