Arousing the interest and admiration of historians, archaeologists and architecture experts, Aosta’s legacy of Roman remains, medieval churches and quaint memorials constitutes the city’s prime crowd-pulling appeal. Outside the confines of the medieval quarter, Aosta seems to lack attractions and consequently, a number of visitors cut short their stay and leave the city without venturing beyond old Aosta. While it is true to say that outside the centre there are no significant historical attractions, it is utterly incorrect to suggest that Aosta’s environs embrace no attractions whatsoever. What the outskirts of medieval Aosta lack in historical appeal, they possess in landscape charm and natural beauty.
Aosta is a valley town nestled deep amidst a ring of high snow-capped peaks whose mighty conformation is clearly in view from most spots in the centre. The awesome mountain chain on the eastern edge of the city, visible from Piazza Chanoux consists of a concentration of jagged rock formations blanketed with pine and birch, the highest point of each formation touched up with a smattering of melting snow. More imposing and more zoomed in is the same view from Piazza Arco d’Augusto. This spot offers what is perhaps the best close-up view of Aosta’s eastern mountain chain. Never a substitute for reaching the peaks, this view is nonetheless inspiring, more inspiring perhaps than the arched colossus on the central roundabout. A short eastbound stroll from Piazza Arco d’Augusto in the direction of the mountains brings one on the verge of the Parco Fontaine de Saint Ours from where one can take the cable car to the top. Not really… the very top is accessible only via a second cable car that whisks commuters three-hundred metres further up. Once here, a whole world of hiking trails and skiing pistes unfolds for the admiration of those who content themselves merely with the spectacle of the mountain environment. Those more daring have a whole host of hiking or cross-country-skiing possibilities at their fingertips. As you climb down amidst the woody perennials of the mountain forest, expect to encounter picturesque alpine lakes, panoramic mountain pastures and endless stretches of magnificent landscape. Before making your mind to embark on a tour of the eastern mountains, check out carefully for any interruptions in the cable-car service which may be inoperative for maintenance or off-season. The specialized information office on Piazza Praetoria has all the details.
More imposing and spectacular than the eastern peaks is the chain of mountains that spread along the southern outskirts of Aosta. Reaching exorbitant heights in the range of three-thousand metres (Monte Grivola is almost four-thousand metres high), Aosta’s southern peaks amass a thicker layer of snow than their eastern counterparts. Lingering on until June, this vast quantity of snow renders the area ideal for cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snow-shoe trekking and ice climbing for at least nine months yearly. When I was here in the last week of May, mountain sides higher than eight-hundred metres were still carpeted in a skimpy layer of snow, the snow having become thicker and more substantial as the mountains gained height. At one-thousand metres, the snow holed up the entire undergrowth of shallow grasses; trees and buildings were partly concealed as the height surged up in excess of one-thousand-five-hundred metres.
From the extreme east edge of Piazza Chanoux, a short walk along Via Ribitel in the direction of the train station brings one near the city’s national archives. From here, one can delight in what is perhaps the best panoramic view of Aosta’s southern mountain chain.
Surprisingly, this world of tree-covered mountain sides and snowy peaks is within ready access from Aosta. A cable car, appropriately named the Pila Funicular Railway operates hourly trips from the Aosta station on Via Paravera to the top of Mount Pila. Lasting twenty minutes, the Aosta-Pila cable-car trip is itself a thrilling experience that leaves one breathless with excitement and expectations. Bridging over deep valley corridors and gushing streams, the Pila cable car offers unforgettable scenic views of glacier-covered peaks and straight-cut ridges that stretch out as far as the eye can see.
Leaving the Aosta station, the cable car travels over the Dora Baltea River, affording fine views of reedy sandbanks and marshy meadows before it resumes its steep climb to the intermediate station of Gressan. Stopping at Gressan for a couple of hours to explore the vast apple orchards that characterize the village and possibly venture into the Gargantua Reserve is an additional excursion anybody not constrained by time ought to indulge in. Departing from Gressan station after a brief halt, the cable car resumes the climb to Mount Pila in one go, rising a further altitude of one-thousand-two-hundred metres. Clearly visible from the cable-car’s windshield halfway up is the tiny hamlet of Les Fleurs, a remote place in the mountains consisting of a dozen or so terraced country huts befittingly decorated with pots of what seems to be colourful pelargoniums in bloom. Was the hamlet named by the residents themselves in an attempt to show off their flower-loving disposition or did they decorate their houses with flowers merely to render the place fit for the name?
Stepping down the cable car on arrival, one is faced with an endless chain of mighty side-by-side peaks that jut out of the surface topography along the whole southern edge of Pila. From Mount Blanc to Grand Combin, from the Matterhorn to Monte Rosa, the highest peaks of the Alpine chain are all delightfully in view. Several signboards scattered in the vicinity of the Pila cable-car station indicate the scores of hiking trails starting from here and give information about the level of difficulty and duration each hike entails. But before embarking on any mountain route in Pila, particularly in areas still covered with snow, it is wise to consult the Pila Information Centre, located in a wood-and-glass building next to the cable-car station. The centre is well-equipped with detailed hiking maps of the region and can offer advice on hiking gear, skiing possibilities and the best way to reach the various chairlifts scattered across the area. Close to the cable-car station, the street is lined with bars, restaurants and typical mountain shops that deal in skiing and mountain equipment. Facing the information centre and fifty metres or so up the mountain is Pila’s sole tourist resort, a three-star hotel that caters primarily for summer hikers and winter skiers, closing down in the off-season period of May and June as the carpet of snow in the area thins down.
No matter in which season one decides to visit Pila, there is always a mountain of activities one can embark on. Pila is not only a self-contained destination but is in addition the gateway to several peculiar Alpine villages, quaint backwoods and mountain peaks scattered in the region. Most excursions start with a short hike in the forest and so a hiking map is utterly essential. Also essential in all seasons except in the thick of summer are snow shoes, warm clothing and a waterproof jacket.
One easy half-day excursion that gives one the chance to enjoy an amazing panorama of crystal-clear lakes and mighty ridges starts with a ten-minute walk across a downhill mountain pasture that leads from Pila centre to Pila’s camping site. Within earshot of the camps is the lower station of the Chamole chairlift (Seggiovia Chamole) that whisks passengers up five-hundred metres to the Colle di Chamole. From here, several trailed footpaths lead up to the peaks (Punta Vallettaz, Cresta Nera, Punta Garin) or down to the forest. The restaurant La Baraka that adjoins the upper chairlift station is a prime source of information for anything one needs to know about hiking in the area. Walking along a tree-covered ridge for twenty minutes (and then returning to the chairlift station) to reach the Rifugio Arbolle is for those who do not deem exercising their feet too much. Otherwise, take the footpath to Lago Chamole, a picturesque conifer-girdled glacier lagoon where a wide range of forest animals like squirrels, marmots and wild geese thrive in profusion. A marked footpath in the forest wends its way from here to the mountain hut of Alpe Chamole (study carefully the hanging map that reveals in detail the footpaths radiating out of here) from where a one-hour-long path gets you back to Pila.
The cable-car station in Aosta is not the easiest place to locate. A proper bus service between the bus station and the cable-car station is apparently non-existent, although some local buses destined to neighbouring villages pass through Via Paravera on their way. Asking the driver to stop near the Pila Funicular solves the headache since the Paravera bus stop is within sniffing distance of the cable-car station. A better option is to walk from the train station to the end of Viale Carducci where an underpass leads to Via Paravera. Walking back on Via Paravera for five minutes brings you near the Ipermercato Gros Cidac. The cable-car station is in the adjoining parking space.