There are all sorts of reasons to love the Aosta Valley in Italy. Located in the country’s northwestern extreme between France and Switzerland, it could well be considered the heart of the Alps. It’s home to six ski resorts and three of Europe’s highest peaks — Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. But dig a little deeper and Italy’s smallest and least populous region promises more: exquisite Italian mountain food, curious traditions, first-rate hotels, glorious mountain refuges and high altitude vineyards.
This is ski country. A Shangri-La for snowboarders. Narnia for telemarkers, and all within two-to-three hours of Turin, Milan and Geneva. Usually, it is plastered in snow, yet seems an afterthought when considered in the same breath as the famous names that nudge against it. You’ll have heard of Chamonix and Zermatt along the French and Swiss borders. Val-d’Isère and Les Arcs, too. But perhaps not Champoluc or Pila. If you’re thinking of an antidote to the usual winter getaway, read on for our beginner's guide to skiing the Aosta Valley.
Every Alpine mountain village has an origin story and the Aosta Valley is no exception. It was put on the map by the Romans, who conquered the region around 25BC, fortifying the peaks with watchtowers from which to control the valley’s strategic mountain passes. Today, plenty of ruins confirm their ambitions. The road to the resort of Gressoney-La-Trinité curves past the stone arch of the Pont-Saint-Martin bridge, while father along the valley Aosta town is home to an ancient Roman theatre, an aqueduct and an arch dedicated to the Emperor Augustus. Nowhere else can you ski between the lines of such history.
Over the centuries, absorption into the Savoy lands saw French traditions come and go, before the valley finally became part of a united Italy in 1861. Since those days, both nuanced French and Italian tongues and culinary traditions have remained central to Aosta’s way of life, while the area developed its own independent streak after winning autonomy following the end of WW2.
Italy’s most snow-sure mountain village is just sensational. It’s only a small town really, a selection of pre-WW2 hotels and apartment blocks anchored to the lesser-known side of Monte Cervino — or the Matterhorn as the rest of the world knows it — but it’s an institution to Italians. With 350km of terrain to explore, the numerous gondolas and chairlifts lead to mid-mountain base Plan Maison, from where Europe’s most iconic mountain shows off its best side. Continue higher to Plateau Rosa, and the Swiss frontier beckons — beyond are the destination slopes of Zermatt.
Cervinia hides just as many special moments for non-skiers. Vineyards grow to 1,300m in the valley, and at Hotel Excelsior Planet, owner Matteo Zanetti leads guests through wine tastings of the area’s ten unique grapes. Or at boutique hotel Principe Delle Nevi, a wine tunnel connects rooms to a heated pool and buzzy apres-ski terrace. On the piste at mountainside restaurants Chalet Etoile and Ristorante Bontadini, meanwhile, penguin-like waiters shuttle wild rabbit tagliatelle, truffle ravioli and chamois with polenta from the kitchens. Lobster at 3,000m? Only in Italy would you find such trophy plates between red runs.
Champoluc (1,579m) is one of those seemingly quiet, downplayed places that creeps up on you before screaming “boo”. For many, it is just a warm-up for the Aosta Valley’s bigger ticket resorts, but this western arm of the Val d’Ayas has the screensaver vistas, off-piste bowls and gourmet highs to convince you to linger longer.
The unpretentious resort shares the Monterosa Ski Area with neighbouring Gressoney-La-Trinité (1,637m) and Alagna (1,212m) and with more than 180km of pisted runs, as well as undeveloped, all-terrain off-piste, it’s tailor-made for those needing a serious workout. A mixture of groomed blues, reds and blacks equates to a family-friendly all-rounder, while the Passo dei Salati-Indren gondola shifts up the adrenalin for off-piste thrills at 3,275m. Across the three valleys, there is plenty of glade skiing and a bonanza of memorable restaurants, too. New this year is Rifugio Novez, a mountain refuge with a playful menu ping-ponging from red potato gnocchi to cubed beef and stone-ground polenta. Prepare to lick every plate clean.
Things are characteristically mellow in the Monterosa Ski Area, but era-defining plans are afoot. Headline news suggests a mind-bending proposal to connect the resort with Cervinia, ultimately creating the world's second biggest ski area behind France’s Trois Vallées.
Check into CampZero, a new eco-resort with plenty to entertain you whatever the weather. There’s two restaurants, a Finnish sauna, bubbling jacuzzi and lap pool, as well as two ginormous outdoor and indoor climbing walls.
This swank-to-the-max resort at the climax of the Alps provides perhaps the most dramatic landscape in the whole Aosta Valley. At first glance, the historic village is the domain of luxury boutiques, hotels and wine bars, all populated by a moneyed Milan set who often don’t feel like wrapping up for winter. But then there is the backdrop: Courmayeur sinks its teeth into the contours of stunning Mont Blanc, spilling down the valley from the 11.6km-long tunnel that burrows beneath Europe’s grandest mountain all the way to Chamonix.
In Aosta terms, the ski terrain delivers big — 100km of pistes — but it’s the scenery that’s the secret weapon. Count 14 peaks at more than 4,000m and the prospect of skiing the world’s longest lift-served run, the Vallée Blanche, accessed by the Skyway Monte Bianco gondola. The 360-degree spectacle from its panoramic viewpoint Punta Helbronner (3,462m) is exhilarating.
Without resting on its laurels, the resort is further extending its scope, this year opening up the Arp ridge overlooking Mont Blanc’s sunnier southern side. The arrival of Le Massif, an 80-bed eco-resort with ski butler service, and its equally bling sister chalet La Loge du Massif are also the embodiment of all that is chi-chi about Courmayeur.
Were this mountain town easier to get to it’d be overrun with ski obsessives. But free of the crowds, with access to 35 lifts and 150km of pistes that push above the 2600m mark, it remains out on a limb.
It’s nestled below Mont Valasian on the French border, sharing a lift pass with La Rosière across the Espace San Bernardo ski area, and is family-friendly by design with plenty of gentle undulating, north-facing slopes. For experts, La Thuile’s USP is insanely-brilliant ski touring and heli-skiing, with chopper charters buzzing overhead to some of the most inaccessible powder in the Alps. If you need any hard core ski training, this is the place to do it.
While La Rosière has expanded this year, opening up five red pistes served by two new detachable chairlifts below Mont Valaisan, La Thuile has kept doing what it does best: delivering easy-access pistes, affordable breaks and stopped-clock history. From a distance, the village appears like a modern development, but look closer and you’ll see echoes of the valley’s mining past and ruins dating back to Roman times.
Days have changed, but you can still don a toga like an emperor — especially at the village’s standout hotel, Montana Lodge & Spa, with its private spa, heated pool, sauna and Turkish bath. In the blurred light of the steam room after a hard day on the slopes, it’s a worthy finale to any winter Aosta Valley trip.
Header image: Monterosa ski area © Oprea George/Shutterstock