Shropshire Star

Travel review: An alpine piece of paradise in Aosta Valley

We were looking out on a truly spectacular landscape. In the heart of the astonishing Gran Paradiso National Park a huge and beautiful glacier hung thousands of metres above the valley floor.

The Aosta Valley

Our guide, Raffaele, looked sad and I asked him why.

“Because when I was a boy, the glacier was so much bigger,” he said.

It was a stark reminder of how fragile our precious and beautiful world is.

The national park in the Aosta Valley, part of the Italian Alps, is way ahead of many other areas across the world in protecting the environment and the wildlife that lives there.

The Aosta Valley
The Aosta Valley
Bath with a view at Belle Vue
the suite at the Belle Vue Hotel

The result is a stunning area in which to spend time touring, enjoying a wealth of activities or simply relaxing and enjoying the scenery.

You can fly to Turin or Milan for a one hour journey to our destination, Cogne. But we chose Geneva and a two hour trip through picture postcard scenery and the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Cogne, at 1,534 metres, is the gateway to the Gran Paradiso National park, and we enjoyed an incredible three days exploring on foot and electric assisted mountain bikes.

The area is known for having some of the best snow in Italy and throughout the winter attracts cross country skiers, snow shoe walkers and ice climbers. When the snow melts it becomes a playground for hikers, mountaineers and mountain bike enthusiasts.

But it is also an oasis for those who simply want to relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

The Aosta Valley

The hiking trails in the park are exceptionally well marked and we were lucky enough to have the help of a guide, Raffaele from VDA explorer.

His passion for the national park, its flora and fauna is infectious and during two full day hikes we learnt so much, from the traditions of the mountains, to the geology and the flora. Raffaele pointed out the absinthe plant, those that make gin and those that are deadly poisonous. He showed us where an avalanche had wiped out thousands of trees and told us why not to stand on the green rocks in a thunderstorm.

The park had its beginning in 1856 when King Vittorio Emanuele ll made it his royal hunting reserve, saving the over hunted Ibex from extinction.

Sadly we did not get to see them as we were there in a record breaking heatwave which saw them climb to the higher peaks to escape the temperatures.

But we did see chamois goats, red squirrels the Alpine cattle that feed on the rich pasture. And we heard the marmots, again taking cover from the heat.

The suite

One hike took us along the King’s mule track, through forests and up the U-shaped valley with views of glaciers and tumbling river to the Sella refuge, one of several across the Aosta Valley that walkers can overnight in.

We enjoyed an excellent lunch there – polenta and goat’s cheese for me, rabbit for hubby - before returning to Cogne and our hotel, the beautiful, Alpine style Madonnina. Time spent in the hotel’s wonderful spa was the perfect tonic for our tired muscles and the bonus of good weather was perfect for the outdoor hot tub with its view of the park.

A timber-framed restaurant served fabulous Italian dishes, many local such as the smoked trout from the local rivers, and a host of local wines.

Cogne has a wealth of places to stay to suit all budgets from top hotels to B&Bs and apartments – even campsites and motorhome parks.

Our second hike was to Lago Money an Alpine lake high up in the mountains. Even though it was June we encountered snow on our ascent and, after assessing the risks, Raffaele took us carefully over the stretches of snow showing us how to dig our heels in to stop us slipping.

The Aosta Valley

Lago Money was breathtaking. Snow on the mountain was mirrored in the perfectly clear water which ran to a second smaller lake fringed with tiny alpine flowers. It was time for our packed lunch from the hotel but not before I took a very quick and exhilarating swim in the icy water and yes I had taken a change of clothes – just in case!

We returned to Cogne and to our second hotel, the Belle Vue.

It was like stepping back in time with the staff in traditional costume, elegantly carved wood and local lace and high tea being served.

Yet amid the elegance the Belle Vue was completely laid back and friendly.

Laura and her husband are the fourth generation of her family to run the hotel and the extended family is very much involved.

The Aosta Valley

She is keen that her guests can relax and re-energise at the hotel and its wellness spa is one of the reasons guests return again and again, whether for the Himalayan salt room or the citrus sauna that the family invented using the waste orange peels from the breakfast orange juice.

Local artists were brought into the hotel to create gorgeous murals in the rooms and even the lifts while the two crafts that have always been traditional in Cogne, carving and lace making are used in the decor. The Belle Vue has 39 rooms and we were lucky enough to experience a night in a spectacular suite.

The corner suite has wall to floor windows giving the most incredible, panoramic view of the mountains. It marries the old and new. A four-poster bed was rescued from a castle in the valley and the sideboard is a beautiful old wooden work bench.

Mirrors become tv screens and one of the two baths at the flick of a switch, moves outside for a unique, alfresco experience, perfect for moonlit nights.

The Aosta Valley

Dining at the Belle Vue is another joy. There are four restaurants including a Michelin star restaurant, one specialising in traditional Italian food, another local dishes.

Laura is keen to use as much local produce as possible and even grows the herbs and salads for the restaurants in the hotel garden.

Our last day came too soon and it combined our first experience of E-mountain bikes with a visit en-route- to the Lillaz waterfalls which can just as easily be visited on foot or by bus.

The cross country ski routes make perfect summer mountain bike tracks and ….. in the centre of Cogne hires out both ordinary and e-mtb bikes, providing instruction, helmets and locks. More used to road bikes, we took one of the easier tracks heading for the waterfalls. The electric boost was very weird at first but what a delight, three different levels depending on the cyclist’s fitness and the steepness of the trail.

We locked the bikes up close to the falls and joined other tourist marvelling in these wonderful falls.

The Aosta Valley

You can stay at the foot craning your neck upwards to see it plummeting down or, like us walk up and up, pausing at different levels to take endless photos, feel the spray from the force of the water and see the rainbows made by that spray.

If you can climb to the top. The very last falls were for me the most spectacular and I stood, soaked by the spray, in a different world.

All too soon our long weekend was over. We both had different highlights but both agreed we could easily have spent a week in this most beautiful place. We still had the the iron mine and botanical gardens to visit and lace making to see. But above all we wanted more of the trekking and the pure relaxation.

Gran paradisio is a perfect name for a small piece of paradise.