Valle d’Aosta in northwestern Italy is a dramatic glacial valley overlooked by the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
The region offers good skiing and hiking, Roman ruins in the town of Aosta, vernacular architecture and some impressive medieval and Renaissance castles.
Bounced around between France and Italy in the Middle Ages, the town of Aosta remains bilingual. Once an important Roman settlement, the Roman theatre with its 22-metre-high façade is particularly impressive (Via Porta Praetoria, Aosta; 9am-7pm Sep-Jun, to 8pm Jul-Aug; free).
Fontina cheese must be made from full-cream unpasteurised milk of Valdostan cows that have grazed above 2,700 metres. Learn about cheese-making traditions at the Valpelline Visitors' Centre (00 39 0165 73309; fontinacoop.it; Frissonière; 8.30am-12.30pm and 2.30pm-6.30pm).
The Aosta valley is lined with castles, each within view of the next so that messages could be passed via a system of flags. The nearest to Aosta and one of the grandest is the restored Castello di Fénis (00 39 0165 73309; Fénis; 9am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-5pm Sep-Jun, to 8pm Jul-Aug).
Linked by cable car to its French cousin Chamonix, Courmayeur is a nexus for skiers bound for the high slopes in winter, while in summer it is a prime hiking destination. The Scuola di Sci Monte Bianco offers ski lessons (00 39 0165 842477; scuolasci montebianco.com; £30 per hour).
The Gran Paradiso National Park was established in 1922 to protect the endangered ibex. The Giardino Alpino Paradisia is a fantastic Alpine botanical garden within the park (00 39 0165 74147; Valnontey; 10am-5.30pm Jun-mid-Sep, to 6.30pm Jul-Aug; £2.50).
Eat and drink
Perched at the first midstation on the Punta Helbronner cable car at a heady height of 2,173 metres, Rifugio Pavillon is a traditional mountain refuge with a deckchairlined terrace. Tuck into cabbage rolls with chestnuts, and pasta in venison sauce (00 39 0165 844090; Pavillon du Mt Frety, Courmayeur; lunch Dec-Oct; mains £8-£14).
Offering pizzas, steaks and hearty après-ski cooking, La Terraza is a popular restaurant in the centre of town. You'll also find Valdostan dishes including polenta, spicy sausage, fondue and pasta with fontina (00 39 0165 843330; Via Circonvalazione 73, Courmayeur; lunch and dinner; mains from £12).
Expect fabulous Valdostan cuisine at cosy Trattoria degli Artisti. Antipasti such as puff pastry filled with fondue, cured ham and salami are followed by mains of beef braised in Morgex et de La Salle wine (00 39 0165 40960; Via Maillet 5-7; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat; mains £12-£18).
Ad Forum is set in a pretty garden in Aosta and is built on the site of the Roman forum. Dishes such as risotto with strawberries and spumante, and lasagnetta with pear and blue cheese are generous (adforum-enoteca.com; Via Mons de Sales 11, Aosta; Tue-Sun; mains £12-£22).
Hotel Ristorante Petit Dahu serves rustic food such as mushroom polenta, and venison stewed with wild Alpine herbs in its wood-panelled dining room (hotelpetitdahu.com; Valnontey; lunch and dinner, closed May and Oct; menu £30).
Albergo Mancuso is a family-run hotel with simply furnished double rooms with terracotta-tiled floors. It's a friendly place and the owners will help you to secure a discount in a few local restaurants (00 39 0165 060333; albergomancuso.com; Via Voison 32, Aosta; from £45).
Right beside the imposing hulk of Mont Blanc, Hotel Bouton d'Or serves a hearty breakfast, has a sauna, fantastic views and a lounge full of interesting Alpine paraphernalia. It also offers a shuttle service to the cable car (00 39 0165 846729; hotelbouton dor.com; Strada Statale 26/10, Courmayeur; from £100).
Old wooden skis, traditionally carved wooden shoes, claw-foot baths, indoor and outdoor pools, a Jacuzzi, sauna and gym, and sumptuous skiers' breakfasts make Hotel Milleluci seem more like a palace than a converted farmhouse. Set on a hillside, its balconied rooms look out to the twinkling lights of Aosta below (00 39 0165 235278; hotelmilleluci.com; Loc Porossan 15, Aosta; from £130).
Overlooking the meadows, the green-shuttered Hotel Bellevue 14 evokes its 1920s origins with canopied timber beds, cowbells strung from beams, and open fireplaces. Afternoon tea and use of the spa is included (00 39 0165 74825; hotelbellevue.it; Rue Grand Paradis 22, Cogne; closed mid-Oct-mid-Nov; from £140).
On the hillside of La Salle, just east of Courmayeur, the Mont Blanc Hotel Village has beautifully styled rooms, many with balconies and views across the valley. A series of cavelike nooks conceals spa treatment rooms and saunas (00 39 0165 864111; hotelmontblanc.it; La Croisette 36, La Salle; from £170).
When to go
The best time to hike is between July and the first week of September, when the snow has melted and the buses run frequently. April to June are less busy, but there is the risk of avalanche above 1,000 metres. For skiing, prime season is February and March.
Aosta is on the A5, which connects Turin with the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Trains run from all over Italy, via Turin, and Savda operates buses throughout the region (savda.it). Cars can be hired from Europcar at Aosta train station (£25 per day; europcar.it).
How to go
Turin airport is 70 miles from Aosta. Alitalia and Ryanair fly from Stansted (from £60) and Manchester (from £170; alitalia.com, ryanair.com). Hire a car at the airport (from £25 per day; europcar.com), or take a train from Turin to Aosta (£7; trenitalia.com).
The article 'Mini guide to Valle d’Aosta, Italy' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.