The Gap Life Diaries | Valle d’Aosta: Polenta & chill
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Valle d’Aosta: Polenta & chill

While tourists flock to enjoy the sandy beaches of Puglia, to photograph the adorable towns in the Cinque Terre or on the Amalfi Coast, to walk around historical cities like Florence and Bologna or the European capital of shopping, Milan, or to stay in Sicily for a holiday filled with cannoli and marzipan fruits, Italy’s tiniest region, the Valle d’Aosta, rarely features on travellers’ itineraries.

Looking up at the Forte di Bard.

But oh what they are missing, because this little mountainous region bordering both Switzerland and France is an absolute gem.

My first experience in the Valle d’Aosta was only about 6 weeks after arriving in Turin, to Cervinia (read about that here, if you fancy!) where I almost died of frostbite on the 1st of September as it was about 20 degrees colder than Turin and snowing, and I’d only brought ballet pumps.

In the 5 years since then, although I’ve become considerably better at choosing which shoes to wear, for some reason I’ve never gone back. At least I hadn’t, until this summer, when fellow Brits Abroad, Matt and Zena asked if S and I were up for a day trip.

We rented one of the bright red Fiat 500s from Enjoy – a surprisingly convenient Italian car sharing app – and set off out of the city, Taylor Swift blaring from the speakers and Matt merrily singing along.

Pleasantly empty streets in Bard town.

The Val d’Aosta is barely an hour away from Turin in the car, and the road takes you through some nice stretches of valley, making for quite a nice little drive. You can keep going all the way up to Cervinia (which takes considerably longer than an hour), or you can choose to stop well before that, as we did this time.

We are all proud owners of Abbonamento Musei cards (in short: you pay €50 a year – or €32 if you discover you qualify for the “young person” version a couple of months before your 27th birthday, like I did, hooray! – and get free access to a TON of museums, galleries and historical sites in the whole of the Piemonte region. It’s a bargain, and I feel no shame at all in having one, even though my friends’ first reaction is usually “Isn’t that for old people?”. No regrets.) so had decided that the first stop should be the Forte di Bard, an old castle on a little hill, with a pretty gigantic museum inside it. We flashed our cards and wandered happily around for a while, even catching a small Steve McCurry photography exhibition.

We grabbed a bite to eat (correction: we gorged ourselves on something like 14kgs of polenta) in a little restaurant near the castle, Casa Ciuca, and somehow summoned the energy to stand up afterwards, probably only spurred on by the fact that there was a café near to the car park, and the knowledge that we’d be able to take a halfway pit stop for approximately the 90th espresso of the day and not have to walk all 200 metres all in one burst.

Matt and Zena in our little meditation spot/secluded mountain lookout.

Anyway, we got back in the car to go to… well, we hadn’t really figured that one out yet. So we looked quickly at a map and decided that a fairly nearby green area that we’d done absolutely no research into would probably be just great.

After half an hour or so of steep, windy mountain roads (BTW, Enjoy cars charge you for the kilometres travelled, not the petrol used – so we were onto an absolute winner with this one), we arrived in a car park, double checked the 3G (wouldn’t want to be locked out of the car halfway up a mountain, after all) and started to walk.

The place we’d come to was the Parco Naturale del Mont Avic, and blimey, it is a stunner. We chose a path more or less at random, and strolled along for an hour or so, chatting and enjoying the fact that practically nobody else had had the same idea as us that weekend. We eventually stopped at a gorgeous little spot where we sat down to rest our legs. Semi-jokingly, Matt cracked out his meditation app (Headspace, which I have since downloaded and which is actually not bad once you get over the guy’s not-exactly-meditative way of talking) and we all closed our eyes. After a bit of initial giggling, mainly from me and Zena, we ended up having a very zen few minutes, and I have to say it was the perfect place for this kind of thing.

Onwards we went, a little further up the hill, before eventually turning around and coming back, pausing to see some adorable little mountain horses and to take some photos of the Sound of Music-esque landscape, and finally stopping at a restaurant at the end of the path for some much needed prosecco and cured meats: the only real way to wrap up a day out in Italy, I think you’ll agree.

Not easy to resist bursting out into “The hills are aliiiive” in a place like this, let me tell you.

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