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 favourite activities, with Sestriere being 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 “Lombardy and the Lakes”.