Nestled deep in the midst of the Alpine peaks that dominate the northwest border of Italy, Aosta is a small picturesque town located in the centre of the Aosta valley, a fertile zone of breathtaking landscape, walking trails and tiny charming villages steeped in history. Aosta’s appeal stems primarily from its legacy of medieval remains that still prevail in the city centre; its secondary appeal originates from its excellent geographical setting characterized by impressive glacier-covered mountains, steep-sided valleys, gentle green meadows, alpine lakes and fresh unadulterated air.
Exploring Aosta’s centre and its environs is tantamount to digging into important pages of history while enjoying all the surprises nature offers along the way. Breathing with appeal and excitement, Aosta and its surroundings ought to be on the itinerary of any Torino visitors who loiter in the Piemonte capital for more than a week. Aosta does not fit in a one-day excursion from Torino but demands an overnight stay, particularly if one desires to venture into the adjoining valley towns and mountain resorts that dot the region. Consider staying more if you want to explore Italy’s largest national park. Known as the Gran Paradiso, it is a fabulous region of snow-capped peaks, striking waterfalls, deep ravines and endless stretches of wine-making vineyards. Meeting a flock of wild goats wallowing in the vicinity of a waterfall or wading on the shore of a lake is as commonplace as running into a mountain hut (called rifugio) where one can rest before resuming along the marked footpaths.
Reaching this staggering place of history and natural beauty from Torino involves just an easy two-hour train ride. A couple of years back, a regular bus service operated from Torino airport directly to Aosta, giving passengers the opportunity to reach the Alpine towns of the northwest without even stepping on Torino ground. Alas, no more… the service was discontinued due to lack of passengers; however, the airport information desk at Torino was hopeful that the service would be relaunched by another operator in the near future. Currently, the only way to reach Aosta is by train. Northbound hourly trains from Stazione Porta Nuova call at Stazione Porta Susa before they continue to the graceful town of Ivrea where a change of train is required. One never waits more than twenty minutes at Ivrea for the Aosta-bound train. Unlike the first half-hour section of the trip that for the most part runs along built-up areas, the second section makes its way through scenic countryside, particularly as the train enters the Valle d’Aosta region. Here, the railway tracks cut across the outskirts of small picturesque valley towns and at times pass close enough to the banks of the Dora Baltea River to offer panoramic views of reedy watersides, winding canals and marshy meadows. The final twenty minutes of the trip as the train wends its way through the hamlets of Fenis and Nus are particularly pleasant. Keep an eye out for the soaring towers of Fenis Castle and the crumbling hillside Castle of the Lords of Nus, both visible, albeit only partly, through the train’s window.
Aosta train station on Piazza Manzetti is the first place one runs into as soon as one steps down the train. The building is small and the facilities inside are limited to a ticket-sales office and a newspaper stand from where one can buy a town map that may be useful for first-hand orientation on arrival. On exiting the station, cross Piazza Manzetti and look at the right where on Via Carrel lies Aosta bus station. Invisible due to the thick foliage of the woody perennials that permeate the area unless one looks closely through, Aosta bus station is an essential spot one has to turn up to if one wishes to visit the valley towns in the neighbourhood or the villages that dot the Gran Paradiso Park.
Via Conseil des Commis, lined with trees on both sides is the street one needs to take to reach the city centre. A five-minute walk along this primary avenue brings one right on Piazza Chanoux, Aosta’s graceful principal square that marks as well the town’s geographical centre. Grand not only by reason of its huge proportions but also on account of the imposing buildings and elegant cafes that grace its perimeter, Piazza Chanoux is a car-free space reserved for leisure. Aosta’s main hotspot of activity, it is unquestionably a great place to linger in, particularly when organized events like open-air summer concerts and specialized markets are held. The entire north side of the square is taken up by only one building: the Municipio or Town Hall, a lengthy neo-classical palace with a majestic façade and an equally majestic interior. Visiting the Town Hall’s salon is equivalent to getting familiar with Aosta’s most prominent long-gone citizens whose labelled marble busts are exposed here with pride. The grand monument outside the portico in front of the main doorway comprises two allegorical bronze casts, representative of the two waterways that wend their way through the region.
Piazza Chanoux unfolds westwards through a sizable maze of narrow atmospheric streets that collectively shape up the medieval town. Via de Tillier and its lopsided continuation Via Aubert are Aosta’s most cherished walkways, a nonpareil of old-world charm, tradition and charisma. Filled up with tiny shopping niches that deal in wooden souvenirs, collector’s items, vintage jewellery and exclusive Aosta pastries, these demand a succession of visits if one wants to become familiar as well with what’s under wraps in the side alleyways that dot the centre, Via Aubert in particular. Not to be missed are two awfully narrow back lanes (Rue Guillaume Maillet and Rue d’Avise) that lead from Via Aubert to a labyrinthine network of unrestored worn-out streets flanked with crumbling ruins.
Crisscrossing the eastern edge of Via Aubert is Via Croce di Citta, another graceful street, wider than the rest but similarly haunted with a line-up of exclusive individual shops. The legendary memorial cross midway on the street commemorates the expulsion of the Lutherans from Aosta in the sixteenth century; at least that’s what the inscription on the supporting pedestal reveals. A few steps further down the street from the memorial, an unpredictable byway on the right leads straight to Cathedral Square, inappropriately named instead Piazza Giovanni XXIII. Aosta’s majestic cathedral flanks the major part of the square, its neo-classical remodelled façade watching with poise over the surroundings. Take a close look at the colourful frescoes that adorn the tympanum above the central doorway and the terracotta statues that grace the porch with their whimsical uniqueness. For fine old-world frescoes that date back to the Romanesque church that stood here prior to the cathedral, take one of the several daily tours to the attic where a whole array of impressive tenth-century ceiling paintings are kept treasured under the hat.
Steps near the cathedral climb down to the Roman Cripto-portico, an underground labyrinth of corridors with massive vaults supported on thickset pillars. Was this underworld habitat a burial chamber, a hideaway for the cathedral’s treasures or merely the substructure for a grand Roman construction? Nobody is certain; what is certain is that the place is a matchless example of an underground world, a well-preserved specimen of a subterranean refuge from a bygone age.
Spreading out east of Piazza Chanoux is Via Porta Praetoria, a car-free walkway where Aosta’s best choice of eateries and bars are queued up side by side. On the easternmost edge of Via Porta Praetoria stands the Praetorian Gate, two parallel triple-arched gateways dating back to 25 BC. Whole sections of the structure are still in ruins while others are covered with a mesh of scaffolding that renders viewing painful. What can be seen is however grand, authentic and architecturally insightful. Housed in the side building that fills up the space between the parallel rows of gateways is a specialized information office that has at hand all the transport data needed to travel in the region. Just behind the gateways in an old-world building is Aosta’s most characterful restaurant. Give it a try: the food is as characterful as the ambience.
Further east beyond the Praetorian Gate is Via Sant’Anselmo, a narrow walkway that leads straight to Piazza Arco d’Augusto. The massive arch one sees dominating the centre of a traffic-infested roundabout is neither spectacular nor graceful but its historical importance as a symbol of Aosta’s Roman origin cannot be underestimated.
Midway on Via Sant’Anselmo is a short walkway that leads to what is perhaps Aosta’s prime historical sight, the eleventh-century Church of Saint Orso. The wooden choir stalls, the lofty medieval bell tower and the adjoining cloister are particularly impressive. Take a close look at the ornamental decorations that fill up the timeworn capitals of the supporting columns around the cloister. Each capital was hand-carved out of a single marble block; stucco work at those times was still unheard of.