In the extreme northwest of Italy, fringed by the French and Swiss Alps and grooved with deep valleys, Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta are among the least “Italian” regions in the country. Piemontesi spoke French until the end of the nineteenth century and Piemontese dialects reflect Provençal influence; Valle d’Aosta is bilingual and in some valleys the locals, whose ancestors emigrated from Switzerland, still speak a dialect based on German. Piemonte (literally “at the foot of the mountains”) is one of Italy’s wealthiest regions, known for its fine wines and food, and for being home to huge Italian corporations such as Fiat and Olivetti. Italy’s longest river, the mighty Po, begins here, and the towns of its vast plain have grown rich on both manufacturing and rice, cultivated in sweeping paddy fields.
Turin, on the main rail and road route from France to Milan, is the obvious first stop and retains a freshly restored Baroque core, with a cornucopia of galleries and museums. South of Turin, Alba is a good base for visiting the region’s wine cantinas. Asti, to the southeast, comes to life during its famous medieval Palio, or horse race. For the rest of the region, winter sports and walking are the main activities; Sestriere is the main skiing centre, while the ascent of Monviso in the far west appeals to the climbing fraternity.
Bordered by Europe’s highest mountains, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, veined with valleys and studded with castles, the Valle d’Aosta region is picturesque. The Aosta Valley cuts across it, following the River Dora to the foot of Mont Blanc. It’s in the more scenic tributary valleys that you’ll want to linger, and Aosta, the regional capital, makes an excellent staging post on the way to the smaller mountain resorts.
Straddling the two provinces is the protected zone of Italy’s oldest and largest national park, the Gran Paradiso. The mountain rifugi and hotels here become packed in summer but development is purposely restrained to preserve pristine conditions.
Although the western shore of Lago Maggiore is actually in Piemonte, we’ve treated all the lakes as a region and covered them in the “Lombardy and the Lakes”.Read More
Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta are a paradise for gastronomes and connoisseurs of vintage wines. Rich Piemontese cuisine betrays close links with France through dishes like fonduta (fondue) and its preference for using butter and cream in cooking. Piemonte is perhaps most famous for its white truffles, the most exquisite of which come from around the town of Alba and are ferociously expensive. They are most often used in the form of shavings to subtly perfume a dish of pasta or a risotto. Watch out too for porcini mushrooms, chestnuts, and bagna caöda – a sauce of oil, anchovies, garlic, butter and cream, also served as a fondue. Agnolotti (pasta filled with meat or possibly with mushrooms or other vegetables) is the best-known dish, followed by meat buji (boiled) or braised in wine. Cheeses to look out for are tomini, robiole and tume. The sweets, too, are marvellous: spumone piemontese, a mousse of mascarpone cheese with rum; panna cotta, smooth cooked cream; and light pastries like lingue di gatto (cats’ tongues) and baci di dama (lady’s kisses).
The best known is the bonet, a confection of chocolate and amaretti. Turin is also credited as the home of zabaglione, an egg yolk, sugar and Marsala mixture used to fill pastries.
The hills of Le Langhe and Monferrato produce traditional wines such as Barolo, Barbera and Nebbiolo. These fine reds need ageing, and Barolo in particular can be very expensive. Everyday wines are made from the dolcetto grape, notably Dolcetto d’Alba. Probably the most famous is the sweet sparkling wine, Asti (wine makers dropped the “spumante” from the name in 1994 in a bid for a new image) – there has been a trend in recent years to make dry spumante too. Martini & Rossi and Cinzano vermouths are also produced in and around Turin, a fusion of the region’s wines with at least thirteen of the wild herbs that grow on its mountains. The traditional version, now a brand name, is Punt e Mes (“point and a half”) – one part bitter to half-a-part sweet.
Piemonte’s ski resorts
Piemonte’s ski resorts
Piemonte’s main, purpose-built ski areas – Claviere, Cesana, Sestriere, Sansicario, Sauze d’Oulx and Bardonecchia – are well used by British tour operators and, as hosts of the alpine events of the Winter Olympics 2006, have all had their facilities recently upgraded. They collectively constitute some 400km of interconnected runs, more than 200 in all, known as La Vialattea (The Milky Way; wvialattea.it). You can gain access from Pragelato, thanks to the cableway Pattemouche-Anfiteatro.
Sestriere was the dream resort of Fiat baron, Gianni Agnelli, who conceived it as an aristocratic mountain retreat. Nowadays, the reality is a bland resort dominated by two cylindrical towers. The mountain is impeccable: the choice for World Cup and Olympic ski races. Modern Bardonecchia – unlike the others, not directly connected to the Vialattea, and run by another company, BardonecchiaSki (wbardonecchiaski.com) – is a weekenders’ haunt, with small chalet-style hotels and over 100km of runs. Sauze d’Oulx, a little way south, is generally known as the “Benidorm of the Alps”, attracting hordes of youngsters – though it isn’t so bad that it doesn’t also attract its share of families.