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”.
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 cauda – 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: spumonepiemontese, a mousse of mascarpone cheese with rum; panna cotta, smooth cooked cream; and light pastries like lingue di gatto (cat's 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 main, purpose-built ski areas – Oulx, Claviere, Cesana, Sestriere, Sansicario, Sauze d’Oulx and Pragelato – collectively constitute some 400km of interconnected runs, known as Via Lattea (The Milky Way). They are well used by British tour operators and all had their facilities upgraded in 2006, when they hosted the alpine events of the Winter Olympics 2006. You can gain access to the ski area from Pragelato on the Pattemouche-Anfiteatro cableway: a daily lift-pass covering all the resorts costs €36.
Sestriere was the dream resort of Fiat baron Gianni Agnelli, who conceived it as an aristocratic mountain retreat. Today, the reality is a bland resort dominated by two cylindrical towers, though the mountain is impeccable – the choice for World Cup and Olympic ski races. Nearby modern Bardonecchia is a weekenders’ haunt, with small chalet-style hotels and more than 100km of runs – it's not directly connected to the Via Lattea, and is run by the Bardonecchia ski company.
A flourishing medieval town, and later the seat of one of Piemonte’s few Renaissance courts, Saluzzo, 57km south of Turin, retains much of its period appeal. Flaking ochre-washed terraces and Renaissance houses line cobbled streets that climb up to a castle, from where you can enjoy views of the town. A pleasant place to stay, the town makes a good base for walks in the Po, Varaita and Maira valleys, which cut through the foothills of the Monviso mountain towards France.
The town of Alba and the surrounding Langhe hills (protected by UNESCO World Heritage status) signify two things: white truffles and red wine. The exquisite truffles are more delicate and aromatic than the black variety found further south, whereas most of the area’s very different wines all come from the same grape, the Nebbiolo. The final taste is dependent on the soil: tuff-rich soil produces the grapes for the light red Nebbiolo; calcium and mineral-rich soil for the more robust Barolo, the “King of wines and the wine of Kings”. The entire picturesque area around Alba is dotted with attractive hill-towns, castles, wineries and cantinas, the best being at Barolo and Pollenzo. Ask at the tourist office for one of the excellent free maps and suggestions for wine tours.
A few kilometres south of Alba, in the heart of Le Langhe, the most famous spot is Barolo, which gives its name to one of the premier Italian wines. It’s a small village with peach- and ochre-washed houses set among extensive vineyards. A steady stream of wealthy gastronomes and wine connoisseurs come here for the Enoteca Regionale del Barolo and the WiMu Wine Museum housed in a turreted castle on Piazza Falletti 1, while for a more quirky take on the wine industry, there's the original Museo dei Cavatappi, or Corkscrew Museum, at Piazza Castello 4.
Though not as famous as Barolo, the pretty village of Pollenzo, situated just south of the Alba–Bra road, merits a visit. The buildings at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele 13 are of particular note: once home to the Agenzia di Pollenzo, King Carlo Alberto’s headquarters for viticultural trials, they now belong to the Slow Food association and house the University of Gastronomic Sciences and the Banca del Vino, as well as a hotel and restaurant. Stored in the Savoy wine cellars, the Wine Bank keeps wines from all over Italy – a vault of the best vintages. Professional sommeliers guide you through the wine-tasting sessions, and it's an essential stopping-point for all wine lovers.
Some 30km northeast of Alba, in Piedmont, the wine continues to flow in Asti, one of the most important towns in medieval times, whose province is capital of Italy’s sparkling-wine industry and the most famous producer of Asti Spumante. Each September, this small town becomes the focus of attention as it gears up for its Palio, the oldest horse-racing festivals in Italy. On the day of the race, the third Sunday in September, there’s a thousand-strong procession of citizens dressed as their fourteenth-century ancestors, before the frenetic bare-backed horse race around Piazza Alfieri – followed by the awarding of the palio (banner) to the winner and all-night partying.
The rest of the year, the piazza and the former Palio site, the Piazza del Palio, host the region’s largest open-air market (Wed & Sat). On the second weekend of September the piazza houses the Festival delle Sagre during which producers sell traditional dishes and wines in a reconstructed medieval village, and hundreds of people dress in costume to evoke agricultural life in the Middle Ages. If you want to sample Asti Spumante or other wines from the region, come for the Douja d'Or wine festival (held from the second Friday to the third Sunday in September), where there are tastings in the Palazzo del Collegio.
The beauty of Asti is that it holds history, culture, cuisine and landscapes all in one. The Torre Troyano clock tower is a medieval monument that is well worth a visit. The underground cathedrals are also a treasure worth visiting - once used as underground tunnels for the Cathedral, now used as wine cellars due to the ideal temperature and conditions for storing wine. Being a capital for wine, vineyards have adapted to tourism and offer wine tours and wine tasting. Truffle is famous in Asti, growing locally in nearby forests. Many restaurants offer truffle in their dishes so be sure to try the local cuisine.
Agliano spa is perfect for relaxing and there is a golf course on the perimeter of Asti for the golfers. There are trekking trails along the wine routes that make a pleasant afternoon taking in the hilly landscapes and stopping off at vineyards for tasting. You can walk these trails or hire a bicycle. For wildlife, there is the Rocchetta Tanaro National Park and the unique WWF Oasis of Forteto della Luja - ideal for birdwatching.
The main attraction of northern Piemonte is the mountains, especially the dramatic Alpine Valsesia, which winds up to the foot of Monte Rosa on the Swiss border. On the way is the industrial town of Ivrea and one of the region’s most visited sanctuaries, the Santuario di Oropa near Biella. From here you’re well poised for either Piemonte’s mountains or those of Valle d’Aosta, a few kilometres west. Worth a slight detour is the magical train ride that starts at Domodossola, conveniently en route if you’re heading for Switzerland.
Heading north from Piemonte into Valle d’Aosta, the A5 and SS26 road snake their way through the Bassa Valle (Lower Valley), peppered with ancient forts and castles. The Valle d’Aosta is dominated by the highest mountains in Europe, namely Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, and in winter the region sees plenty of skiers from Turin and Milan thanks to its excellent resorts. In summer it’s a popular destination too, with plenty of outdoor sports including mountain climbing and trekking.
Backed by wooded hills and encircled by two rows of turreted walls, the Castello di Fénis is the result of various building campaigns between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. The original manor house belonged to the Challants, Viscounts of Aosta, who added a semicircular stairway in the courtyard in the early fifteenth century. The courtyard is adorned with wonderful frescoes, including a courtly St George rescuing a princess from the clutches of a dragon, overlooked by a tribe of wise men and prophets brandishing moral maxims on curling scrolls.
Aoasta, the attractive mountain-valley capital of Valle d’Aosta province, is an ideal base for exploring the northwest of the region. Surrounded by the Alps, the town’s key attraction is its position, with access to the lovely valleys of the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, the ski resorts of Mont Blanc and a sprinkling of castles, such as the impressive Castello di Sarre.
For some of the area’s most beautiful mountains and valleys, head to the Gran Paradiso National Park – Italy’s first national park, spread around the valleys at the foot of 4061m-high Monte Gran Paradiso. The park’s three valleys – Cogne, Valsavarenche and Val di Rhêmes – are popular, but tourist development has been cautious and well organized. The hotels are good and the campsites not too vast. There are a few mountain rifugi and bivacchi (unoccupied shelters) between which run well-marked footpaths. Though it’s primarily a summer resort for walkers, the cross-country skiing is also good, and every winter a 45km Gran Paradiso trek is organized at Cogne (contact the tourist office in Cogne for details). The starting point for the ascent of Gran Paradiso itself is Pont in the Valsavarenche, while Cogne gives access to the Alta Via 2, a long, high-level mountain trail.
Gran Paradiso National Park owes its foundation to King Vittorio Emanuele II, who donated his extensive hunting park to the state in 1922, ensuring that the population of ibex that he and his hunters had reduced to near extinction would, after all, survive. There are now around 3500 ibex here and about 6000 chamois, living most of the year above the tree line but descending to the valleys in winter and spring. The most dramatic sightings are during the mating season in November and December, when you may see pairs of males fighting it out for possession of a female. You might also spy golden eagles nesting, and there are a number of rare Alpine flowers, most of which can be seen in the botanical garden in the Val di Cogne.
Dominated by the snowy peaks of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco to the Italians), the northern reaches of Valle d’Aosta are spectacular and very popular. The most sensational views are from the cable cars that glide and swoop across the mountain from Courmayeur, while the resort of La Thuile, which hosted the Women's Skiing World Cup in 2016, offers superb winter sports.
Located at the foot of Mont Blanc, Courmayeur is the smartest and most popular of Valle d’Aosta’s ski resorts. It's the region's oldest Alpine resort – indeed, Italy's first alpine guides association was established here in 1850. The scenery is magnificent, the skiing good, and the area is equally popular in summer, with excellent climbing, mountain biking, rafting, angling and 100km of walking trails: the tourist office can advise on routes. The thermal baths in Pré-Saint-Didier, 6km south of Courmayeur are a lovely spot to soothe aching muscles after a day's skiing or hiking.