When you exit the Mont Blanc tunnel on the italian side, you'll be in the Aosta Valley (French: Vallée d’Aoste, Italian: Valle d'Aosta), an area steeped in history, with sensational mountain scenery. Interestingly enough, this autonomous region of Italy actually has two official languages, Italian and French.
Just a few kilometres after the tunnel, in an amazing setting at the foot of Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi, lies Courmayeur, one of the area's top spots for climbing and other mountain sports. From there the road takes us to the Aosta Valley in Italy, just 30 kilometres away.
Did you know?
The Aosta Valley is the smallest region in Italy, covering 3,266 km², exactly 1/100th of the surface area of the country. A third of the region is situated at an altitude of over 2,600 m.
Aosta, "Rome of the Alps"
This town of 30,000 inhabitants is doubly attractive. Firstly, there is its historical centre, surrounded by ramparts, with many vestiges of its glorious Roman past. In fact, some call Aosta "Rome of the Alps". Secondly, Aosta is a gateway to the Castle route of to the east, and Gran Paradiso (French: Grand-Paradis) National Park, to the south.
Take the Castle route
The Aosta Valley has a number of castles, erected in the Middle Ages to defend the population against invaders and looters. Most of them stand on rocky spurs, like stone sentinels protecting the Valley. Sarriod de la Tour Castle (with its extraordinary "Room of heads" with 171 figures), Sarre Castle (rebuilt in the 17th century), Fénis Castle (with its double walls and parapet walk), Verres Castle (accessible by a steep path), Issogne Castle (with magnificent murals), impressive Fort Bard on its rock. There's plenty to see!
Gran Paradiso National Park
This 70,000-hectare park is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. As its name suggests, it is "paradise" indeed. As you stroll along, spot the fauna: ibex, chamois, marmot, vultures and eagles. Check out the flora: larch, pine, spruce, edelweiss, gentian, and wild orchid.
The park has three visitor centres in the villages of Cogne, Valsavarenche and Rhêmes-Notre-Dame.
An information centre located between Villeneuve and Arivier provides all sorts of information about the park: what to see, where to hike and where to stay.
Did you know?
Originally the park was created by King Victor Emmanuel II to save the Ibex from extinction. In 1856, he created a royal hunting preserve to protect the ibex from poachers. This preserve became the first Italian national park in 1922.
At the edge of the Gran Paradiso National Park, lies Cogne, a little town (1,500 inhabitants) well worth visiting. For a long period, Cogne was an isolated village. It developed exquisite lace craftsmanship, which is still the pride of the town today (don't forget to visit the Lace Co-op). Cogne has preserved its traditional architecture with stone-roofed houses (visit the Gérard-Dayné house).