Discovering Aosta

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 visted 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 ledderhosen-clad men whose St. Bernards run through fresh snow looking for avalanche survivors. What I realized during my visit last summer was that, athough 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.

Arch of Caesar Augustus, circa 25 BC.
In tact Roman gate, Porta Praetoria circa 25 BC.

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.

Osteria dell’Oca

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 portions are large. The menu is a balance of traditional Valle d’Aosta dishes and classic Italian fare. If you’re vsiting over a weekend, you should call ahead and make a reservation as this is a popular place!

Pila ski resort is walking distance from downtown Aosta.

Aosta offers much year round. If you’re visting 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. In summer you can ride the funicular to reach hiking trails that lead to jaw-dropping vistas.

There’s much to do and see in the Aosta. I’m looking forward to going back to discover more about this wonderful town.

5 Things to Know Before Visiting Milan’s Duomo

The cathedral (duomo) is without a doubt the most majestic, iconic building in Milan. No visit to Milan is complete without visiting this historic site. It’s beauty, size and history is unmatched. Located in the heart of Milan, it is the gathering place of the city. Rallies, concerts and protests take place in the Piazza Duomo in the shadow of the Duomo. The cathedral was built in the spot where a paleo-Christian churches and baptistery once stood. Mighty men and worshipers have gathered in the same place for over 1,600 years. If you’re planning a visit to Milan here are five things you should know before visiting the Duomo :

No. 1 – THE DUOMO OF MILAN IS ONE OF THE LARGEST CATHEDRALS IN THE WORLD.

The Duomo of Milan is technically the largest church in Italy (St. Peters in Rome is in Vatican City). It is the third largest church in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. It measures 515 ft (157 metres) long and 302 ft (92 m) wide. It can house up to 40, 000 people!

Gothic flying buttresses adorn the roof of the Duomo.

No. 2 – YOU CAN VISIT THE ROOF!

You can visit the rooftop of the cathedral by either climbing the access stairs or, if you’re willing to spend a few more euros, by elevator. The views from the rooftop are magnificent. Not only do you get a spectacular city view, you get a close up view of the church’s giant gothic spires and flying buttresses. If you’d like to skip the lines, there’s also the “Fast Pass” option which allows you to skip the long elevator line and take a separate elevator. You can buy your tickets at the the duomo ticket office located directly across from the church and next to the Museo del Duomo by either waiting in line or by using the self service kiosk. If you want to skip the ticket lines altogether, you purchase tickets by visiting https://www.duomomilano.it/en/buy-tickets/.

No. 3 – THE DUOMO TOOK NEARLY 600 YEARS TO COMPLETE.

Made of marble quarried from mines along Lake Maggiore which was ferried into the city using canals, the Duomo is a towering example of gothic design. Started in 1386 and completed in 1965 it’s construction history was long and complicated. Construction began in 1386 initiated by Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo. In 1500 Ludivico Sfzora finished the octogonal coppola and decorated the inside but the exterior remained undecorated for hundreds of years. Construction continued over the years and in the early 1800’s as Napoleon was about to be crowned King of Italy, he ordered the facade of the Duomo to be completed. Napoleon was crowned King of Italy in Duomo on May 26, 1805 but the cathedral still needed work. Finally, in 1965 the details were completed.

No. 4 – DON’T MISS THE ARCHEOLOGICAL AREA!

Did you know the duomo was built over a fourth century church complex which included two churches and a baptistery? You can still visit the spot where on Easter morning April 24, 387 St. Ambrose baptized an illustrious new convert, St. Augustine. The remains of the baptistery and churches are still visible and are located in the archeological area under the church. The entrance to the archeological area is by the church front entrance.

No. 5 – THERE’S A DRESS CODE.

If you’re visiting the Duomo in summertime, you want to make sure that you’re properly dressed. Throughout Italy, entering a church in shorts, mini skirt, tank tops or strapless shirts/dresses is generally frowned upon. It’s best to be respectful and take into consideration that it is a place of worship. If your’re not properly dressed, the security team will let you know and you will have two options; go back to your hotel and change, or buy a cheap wrap from the vendors in Piazza Duomo who are ever ready to make a profit off unprepared visitors to the Duomo.