It’s crisply cold. The snow crunches under my boots. Slowly the sun rises over the mountain tops and brings the fresh, white snow into a sparkling glittering dress. A true winter wonderland.
Gran Paradiso National Park
“We are very lucky today,” says Stephanie, the young ranger in the side valley of Rhêmes Notre Dame. Only a few minutes ago we were in the visitor centre of the Gran Paradiso National Park and learned a lot about the fauna in Italy’s oldest national park. Most of all about the bearded vulture. In the former days these giants of the skies, with a wingspan of up to 3 metres, were believed to be lambs and baby eaters, which led to their total extinction in this region. In fact, bearded vultures mainly eat carrion and bones. Meanwhile, people are trying to repopulate them. Today, three pairs of adult birds live in the Valle d’Aosta and with a bit of luck you may spot one of these impressive birds as it circles over the valley and mountains. We are lucky!
Stephanie has a well-trained eye. She is the first who sees the bearded vulture circling in the distance. As if he wanted to present himself to us, he sits down on a rocky outcrop above us. Stephanie sets up her binoculars. Now I can see it. A huge animal with an orange-redish chest
The young ranger also draws my attention to the majestic ibex with its giant horns, which climbs under the bearded vulture in the rock face. A few chamois also cross our field of sight.
The Grand Paradiso National Park is a paradise for nature lovers. Only few people are still living here. Many of the stone-built houses with shingle roofs are abandoned and left to decay. Some are used as holiday homes. Only a few are permanently inhabited. One has to love the isolation and nature to live here. Only rarely tourists find their way to this side valley and thus one can enjoy having the nature almost for oneself.
My toes are getting cold. Stephanie puts her binoculars back in her backpack and we continue our winter hike, always keeping an eye on the majestic Granta Parey mountain range. The silence in the valley is heavenly and I can imagine how beautiful it must be to hike in the mountains early in the morning in summer and watch the sunrise.
In the valley of rye
This is exactly what one of the teachers at the local agricultural school enthuses about. On his initiative, an ancient crop that had already disappeared from the region has been re-cultivated in the Rhêmes Saint George valley and an old bakery and mill have been brought back to life again.
It is an attempt to enable the few people still living in the valley to earn a living and to keep the younger ones in the area. This project also aims to bring more tourists to the region. The fruits of this project can be enjoyed in the Ristorante le Barme del Ours. Here delicious local cuisine is served accompanied by excellent wines. Among other things, a tasty menu of rye. Anyone who has tasted it will definitely believe that the project will turn out to be a success!
The Valle d’Aosta is an insider tip for connoisseurs. Italian “Benessere” and French “art de vivre” merge here.
Ski paradise and pleasure region La Thuile
About 15km north-west of Rhemes Saint George lies the skiing and enjoyment region La Thuile. The small mountain village La Thuile at 1’441m is mainly a tourist village. Hikers in summer and skiers in winter. From here the cable car takes you up to Les Suches at 2’176m. This is a unique skiing area that stretches out into France. It is one of the largest skiing areas in the Valle d’Aosta. Unfortunately I forgot to take my skis with me. The crowded slopes in my home country have disturbed my enjoyment of skiing in recent years. Here I would like to get back on the skis again. The prices are moderate and the slopes almost deserted. Only during Christmas, Carnival and Easter there are probably more people here.
So I can enjoy the view even without skis, as far as Mont Blanc, which is called Monte Bianco here, and let myself be spoiled with the local delicacies in the mountain restaurant Lo Ratrak.
Stefano Collomb, an award-winning Maître Chocolatier, awaits me with his surprising creations for dessert down in the village.
It’s always a risky thing to present chocolate to us Swiss people abroad. But here even I get surprised. I’m particularly impressed by the chocolate with juniper, the extraordinary combination is a real treat on the tongue.
I try to restrain myself and decide to bring my ski equipment next time. Somehow you have to earn the treats. At the neighboring table some tired skiers enjoy the chocolate fountain with fruits. I’ll do the same, but only next time!
Hotel enjoyment at Montana Lodge and Spa
The hotel is not less enjoyable.
The Montana Lodge and Spa is a modern yet cosy five-star hotel in La Thuile. A real feel-good hotel. My room with lots of wood is cosy and spacious. The only thought that drives me out of the room is that I want to do at least a little bit of sports. I can imagine what will await me later in the evening in the restaurant and so I make at least a few rounds in the hotel pool in the spa before I plunge into the next culinary adventure. I want to stay here!
But there are more discoveries to come in the Valle d’Aosta.
The city of Aosta
At the base of the surrounding mountains there are terraced vineyards. Here and there a castle towers on a top of a hill above the valley. Only a handful of villages are grouped against the snow-capped three and four thousand metre peaks.
The town of Aosta lies at 580 metres above sea level. It is nestled in the Grand Combin and Mont Vélan to the north, Monte Emilius and Becca di Nona to the south and Testa del Rutor to the west. The cosy small Italian town with its 35,000 inhabitants could not have found a more beautiful setting. Besides pretty shops and restaurants, you will find many traces of an eventful history from Roman times to the present days. From the Augustus Arch to the ruins of the Roman theatre.
During Christmas time, small wooden houses populate the square next to the Roman theatre, where local delicacies and handicrafts are sold. I can barely imagine a more beautiful place for a Christmas market. And again I plan to come back with more time next time. With much more time.
Before returning home to Switzerland, I like to visit one of the castles of the Valle d’Aosta.
On a hill not far from Aosta lies the Castle of Fénis. A real fairytale castle with many towers and elaborate frescoes. The origins of the castle date back to the 13th century and it has been continuously extended over the centuries.
It is only one of many treasures that the small Valle d’Aosta has to offer. Enjoyment, history, a great deal of unspoilt nature and impressive mountain giants that encourage hiking and skiing, all this is the Valle d’Aosta, the valley of hidden but also of obvious treasures.
If you love nature, want to avoid masses of tourists and still value quality and enjoyment at reasonable prices, I recommend the Valle d’Aosta as a small insider tip.
With sunny regards,
Further information about the Aosta Valley in winter
Unfortunately, travelling to Valle d’Aosta by public transport is relatively complicated. Therefore I would recommend a travelling here by car. This has the advantage that it is also unbound in the area. It is very worthwhile to actively discover the Aosta Valley. From Zurich the drive by car to Aosta takes about 4 hours and 30 minutes.
- In the region of the Gran Paradio National Park I stayed at the Hotel Granta Parey in Rhemes-Notre-Dame. An uncomplicated hotel with simple but clean rooms and very kind hosts.
- You can eat well at the Ristorante Le Barmé de l’Ours, Frazione La Fabrique 15 at 11010 Rhêmes-Saint-George
Phone: +39 01 65 90 75 04
- Guided hikes (English) are offered by the husband of ranger Stephanie. Further information can be found here: Guide Trek Alps
- Hotel info: Beautiful five-star design Hotel Montana Lodge & Spa
- Restaurant: In the Hotel Montana Lodge & Spa you can eat very well.
- Ferner auf der Höhe at the restaurant Lo Ratrak at the gondola station Les Suches
- Chocolatier Collomb for fine biscuits and delicate, surprising chocolate creations.
- Skiing: Other information about the skiing area La Thuile
Disclosure: This article is the result of a research trip to which I was invited. My opinion remains unaffected.