For millenia, the region of the Valle d’Aosta was one of the main access routes between northern and southern Europe. Celtic people entered the area between the fifth and third centuries B.C, the Romans marched through leaving roads and bridges that are still visible today, and, during the Middle Ages, pilgrims on their way to both the Middle East and Rome found their way through this small but important valley. The result is a network of centuries-old trade routes that provide unparalleled hiking through a region of the Italian Alps that remains extremely rich with old traditions and customs.
Sheltered by the towering peaks of Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and Monte Rosa, the reaches of the Val d’Aosta remain entirely mountainous. In the valley itself exists a unique culture, complete with battling cows, (an old Aosta tradition), Roman ruins and a hundred different castles. Glaciers, Gothic sculptures, Baroque village churches, numerous fortresses, spectacular views and glamorous ski resorts like Courmayeur also add to the mix. The food is hearty and the local inhabitants speak Patois, a dialect whose origins lie in Provence.
Some call this region the “Rome of the Alps” since the Val d’Aosta has a milder, sunnier climate than the resorts on the other side of the peaks. Opposite the Val d’Aosta lie the towns of the Valais in Switzerland, and the Mont Blanc Massif in France. To the south of the valley, the Gran Paradiso National Park forms an entirely different mountain range that offers an opportunity to enjoy some of the most remote, high altitude hiking in the Alps with an opportunity to witness an abundance of wildlife.
Originally, the Gran Paradiso National park existed as a hunting preserve for the French speaking Dukes of Aosta. The preserve was later donated by King Vittorio Emanuele III, who gave his own hunting reserve to the state to become Italy’s first national park. Today, the park encompasses approximately one sixth of the regional territory and hosts over 4,000 steinbock, or big horned sheep. In addition to steinbock, the Gran Paradiso provides home for a number of protected species such as marmot, chamois and ibex. Some hikers have even enjoyed glimpses of the rare ermine, ptarmigan and golden eagle.
Since the region of the Val d’Aosta and the accompanying Gran Paradiso exist as Italy’s most sparsely populated area, the soaring peaks, hidden valleys, exapansive glaciers and treasures of wildlife still wait to be discovered and enjoyed.