Prior to moving to Italy, I had never heard of Aosta. When reading about “must-see” places in the Bel Paese, this quaint city didn’t make the list. Last summer, as I searched for a place to escape from the brutal heat of Milan, I came across an article about Aosta, which is located in the smallest and least populated region of Italy, Valle d’Aosta. After deciding to check it out the town for myself, I made a trip. I must tell you, it is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have visited in the country.
Aosta is nestled in the northwest corner of Italy, near the French and Swiss borders. It’s a breathtaking valley surrounded by the stunning landscape of the Alps, not far from the famed Mont Blanc. In the past, I have always associated the Alps with Switzerland and lederhosen-clad men whose St. Bernards run through fresh snow looking for avalanche survivors. What I realized during my visit last summer was that, although it is only a short two hours by car from Milan, Aosta is a completely different world, rich with Roman history, French/Italian alpine cuisine, and world-class skiing and hiking. This winter, I returned to this hidden gem and spent a few days exploring.
The Romans set up camp in the Aosta Valley in 25 B.C. to take advantage of the strategic mountain passes, which functioned as a gateway to the north. The city of Aosta, the regional capital, was founded by Ceasar Augustus in 24 B.C. Surprisingly, there are many Roman ruins still visible today in the city center. For a history nerd like me, it was a joy to roam through the Roman theater and walk under the arches of Porta Praetoria as so many have done for over 2,000 years.
The culture and food of the region is a mix of Italian and French influence. Although Italian is the official language, French is heard frequently and Italian is spoken with a unique accent that, at least to me, sounds French.
The food is hearty mountain cuisine – polenta, soups, stews and fondue. The area’s most famous cheese, Fontina, is used in many local dishes including Fonduta Valdostana and Polenta Concia (polenta with Fontina and butter). I’ve never been a fan of polenta, but now I realize it’s because I never had good polenta! There’s plenty of delicious polenta dishes to sample in Aosta. We happened to visit during the Christmas season and were fortunate to sample the local sausages, fresh Fontina cheese, polenta and mulled wine (Vin Brule’) for very reasonable prices at the Christmas market.
Where to eat:
There’s a dizzying array of restaurants to choose from. A great place to sample delicious local dishes is Osteria dell’Oca. Located just off the main pedestrian street, Via de Tillier Jean Baptiste, it is everything an Osteria should be; quaint, quirky, authentic and reasonably priced. The food is outstanding and the portions are large. The menu is a balance of traditional Valle d’Aosta dishes and classic Italian fare. If you’re visiting over a weekend, you should call ahead and make a reservation as this is a popular place!
Things to do in Aosta:
Skiing/Hiking – Aosta offers much to offer year-round. If you’re visiting in winter, Pila ski resort is located just up the mountain and can be reached by the funicular station, which is walking distance from the historic center of town. There are more than 24 ski runs at Pila, plenty to keep an avid skier busy. In summer you can ride the funicular to enjoy jaw-dropping vistas or wander through the miles and miles of hiking trails.
Roman Ruins – If you prefer to stay in town there is plenty to see. There so many Roman ruins to visit in Aosta. It’s incredible to me that these ruins have survived. Visit the Aosta Tourist Office located at the Roman gate (Porta Praetoria) to get a map to the most important sites.
Castles – The Aosta Valley is full of castles. For example, minutes away from Aosta is Fenis castle built in the 14th century. You can visit the tourist office website to learn more about castles in the area.
There’s much to do and see in the Aosta. I’m looking forward to going back to discover more about this wonderful town.