This historic Italian valley is home to 21 ski resorts, interlinks with France and Switzerland, and even offers a back door to the famous Vallee Blanche to Chamonix. So in the tradition of ‘My year in Tuscany’ Dave Windsor took the family and went native to bring us back the book on this tasty chunk of Italian skiing.
Valle d’Aosta, Italy’s smallest region, is chock full of ski resorts, 21 to be precise – from Pila to Courmayeur, La Thuile to Breuil-Cervinia, the amazing Monte Rosa, and national treasure the Gran Paradiso National Park, all accessible on a single valley ski pass. You may as well add La Rosière in France (accessible via La Thuile), Chamonix (via road tunnel or the Vallee Blanche on skis), Zermatt (from Breuil-Cervinia) and Alagna (in Piemonte).
The peaks of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) 4807m, Monte Rosa 4634m, Monte Cervino (The Matterhorn) 4478m and Gran Paradiso 4061m create a pristine snow covered cul-de-sac just a couple of hours from international airports at Milan, Turin & Geneva.
In 25BC Emperor Augustus conquered the Salassi (a Celtic/Liqurian crew) and established a garrison in the valley at 580m, Augustus Prætoria, now known as Aosta, to defend the empire from the Gauls, Barbarians and delusional outfits with elephants. In the 12th century the House of Savoy took control; in 1800 Napoleon came through, and today VDA remains one of the 5 ‘semi autonomous’ regions of Italy.
We rented an apartment in the historical centre of Aosta, from a charming gentlemen, Signor Dino Carlino, who typifies the warmth, humour and hospitality that has drawn me to Italy on 3 prior occasions. He welcomed us, showed us the apartment, navigated us through town, made a dinner reservation, shouted us a welcome drink at an outstanding enoteca (wine bar/shop), then took us skiing at Pila on day 2. It simply comes naturally to the Italians to welcome and take care of guests. Dino is now ‘zio’ (uncle) to my 7 year old, Porshia.
I skied with Dino at Pila, Courmayeur, La Thuile & La Rosière. He introduced me to his fabulous friends and family, extensive network and the rich culture of the valley. Perhaps as his first Australian guests he was as excited as us to experience something new. Regardless, it was brilliant sharing a ride in his Subaru ‘tractor’ up and down the valley.
Aosta is a perfectly placed hub in the centre of the valley with easy access to the vast range of ski fields both large and small. While there, you can take in the culture, heritage, castles, forts, chateaus, Roman ruins and more.
How’s the skiing? In a word – Italian. Immaculate pistes, powder caches, tree runs, high fashion, long lunches, vino rosso, chilled prosecco, hot espresso, chocolate fondue, acqua frizzante, fast skiers, no crowds, lifts everywhere, cold mornings, sunny days, dolce vita, border crossings, tiramisu, pizza, pasta, polenta. Here’s a brief look at the main areas.
A ten minute walk from the centre of Aosta is the Pila ticket office, rental shop, massive free car park, ski lockers complete with individual boot warmers and telecabines that shuttle us from 580m to 1,800m in 17 minutes. The resort offers genuine ski-in ski-out accommodation and a plethora of restaurants serving mostly Italian and British guests, testament to successful marketing and evidenced by the extensive use of English in the valley. From Pila’s unique vantage point you can take in the big three – Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa. It’s north facing so the snow remains perfect, though it’s possible to ski in a sunny spot all day.
It’s the smallest of the big ski areas, but still has 70km of piste, 14 lifts and a large array of runs to ski up to 8km from top to bottom.
A stop at Hermitage for hot chocolate is an indulgence that shouldn’t be missed (at least once a day). They also make a mean panini.
Take the seriously challenging Platta de Grevon run down to Société for lunch of succulent polenta with deboned shin meat (not unlike osso bucco), plus the mandatory bottle of red.
For a memorable dinner experience a snow cat shuttled us up to La Châtelaine restaurant at 2,200 metres, where the host is 1979 double luge world champion Damiano Lugon.
As Aosta was our base we skied Pila several times. To Porshia’s delight instructors spoke English, and to my delight it was only €27 for a 3 hour group lesson with 3-4 other kids. They took her off piste, into the valley’s largest terrain park, through the trees, down lift lines and into powder.
Later I shared a lift with local alpinist Piero Bessone who, after a massive snow fall overnight, invited me to come for a ski in the woods in search of fresh. We found untracked knee deep in every forest, some tighter than others, some steeper than others, some more obvious – though all entering and exiting off the piste. You just gotta know where to enter and exit.
Every Saturday there’s a free ski shuttle from Aosta to La Thuile, so I trundled down to the bus station and met the bus driver Liliano, along with a Genovese snowboarder Gianni. Upon our 8.30 departure Liliano’s first rhetorical question is, “We stop for coffee, ok? Beautiful girl works there”. And he stops, insisting on shouting, we are his guests! By arrival 45 minutes later we know his life story.
I spent the day skiing with Gianni in boot deep fresh on-piste and knee deep off-piste. What a day. It’s not often I do laps with a boarder, but Gianni was great fun and the empty slopes beckoned us to keep going. It was the first time that I noticed people skiing in the afternoon. Typically the crowds really thin out after lunch, but not today.
“The slopes today are like a round, soft beautiful woman” Gianni pointed out, “why wouldn’t you be skiing?”
La Thuile is a big resort at 1400m with 20,000 beds in hotels, B&Bs, pensiones and apartments. The village has medieval roots, but it’s the city of chocolate now as I found out at the delightful chocolateria aptly named Chocolat, enjoying a rich velvety chocolate fondue for lunch. Many restaurants offer chocolate menus in addition to their dessert menus.
It’s easy to burn it off with 160kms of piste to choose from (in combination with La Rosière) and massive off piste as well. La Thuile also has heli skiing.
They claim La Thuile’s north facing slopes are 2-3 degrees colder than other resorts in the Valley and the massive central plateau is blanketed in dry white where a myriad of lifts and runs intersect. Again, red runs dominate, however as a Europa Cup Downhill venue and vying for World Cup inclusion it’s worth smashing down pistes 2 and 3. Ripping the fall line as fast as I could I realise, a) the pros are amazing athletes & b) I’m not. But the chocolate loading helps.
Back on the mini bus, Liliano’s last rhetorical question is, “We stop for prosecco, ok?”
La Rosière, France
La Rosière is easily accessed from La Thuile over Belvedere (2,641m), and excellently signed in both directions and in both languages – with both blue and red courses delivering you into and out of France since 1984. Fortunately we had a cold clear morning to cross over.
La Ros, as it’s affectionately known amongst the UK nanny set, is south facing and despite a lack of precipitation the snow was brilliant – light, fluffy and plentiful. Not as meticulously groomed as say Pila, though that might be the way they like it in France, a bit wilder and freer and softer from the sun.
There are acres upon acres of off trail, knee deep powder super dry and light from the dump several days earlier. The highlight was piste #1, a 3km red run through 735m vertical winding through a verdant forest blanketed in snow. Turning around and repeating the experience down piste #2, a long challenging black bumps course was a must, screaming down for smoko at Le Vieux Chalet – champers in a teepee with fur covered bench seats was most fitting.
A leisurely lunch in the village followed – escargots, steak tartare, steak & frites and a bottle of Beaujolais.
After lunch we headed back towards the border. Porshia couldn’t quite make it to the end of the 2 km surface lift. Then half way back to the start we were picked up by a caring liftie in a skidoo for an express trip to the top and our onward journey, service par excellence.
The shuss back to La Thuile is a 9km home trail along the snow covered SS26, a summer road link between Italy and France, then a final thigh burner into the village for après.
Champoluc – Monte Rosa ski area
Up and down the Valley everyone sang the praises of Champoluc and the legendary Monte Rosa ski region. So again we took advantage of the free winter shuttle bus from Aosta, past historic castles and forts, that delivered us right to the door of the lift station. The half hour climb up the Val d’Ayas is painless and pretty through a handful of villages famed for their cheese production. Champoluc’s village at 1,579m is both quaint and inviting. Two telecabines & a chair whip us up to 2,702m where the adventure begins. The Monte Rosa Massif boasts an impressive interconnected trio – Champoluc, Gresseney-La-Trinité and Alagna Valsesia, plus 3 satellite areas of Antagnod, Estoul & Gressoney-Saint-Jean, for a total of 180kms on 69 pistes accessed via 37 lifts.
As with all Italian resorts, the uncrowded slopes are groomed to perfection, making for super stable top to bottom skiing. At Monte Rosa you can ski from peak to peak, similar to skiing France’s Trois Vallee from Val Thoren to Courchevel and back, or perhaps Gerlos in Austria, though with decidedly less crowds and no lift queues.
The runs are carved through daunting rocky gorges that open out to masses of terrain and funnel down to a lift that invites you to progress further. The overall feel of the area is that of a peaceful, barren expanse that goes on and on. I felt the runs here are consistently the longest and steepest in the valley, and the sense of solitude and serenity couldn’t be surpassed.
Despite the lack of crowds, every lift was turning and every mountain restaurant open and welcoming. Coffee, hot chocolate & ciambella (Italian doughnut) at Du Soleil di Frogetti kept us going till lunch at Ristoro Sitten, a delicious rabbit stew, cheese plate and glass of red, followed by a Calimero (coffee, vov & cognac), whilst Porshia played fusball with a local kid.
The little local resort of Crévacol – 2 lifts, 20 kms across 11 runs, €22 for a day pass, is 34 km north of Aosta towards the Gran San Bernado tunnel into Switzerland.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon I found a full car park right next to the bottom double chair, lots of families, some sightseers and a hearty lunch.
This little gem is a locals favourite. It’s affordable, there are no tourists and its south facing slopes fashion an organic solarium. The double and triple chairs ascend 810m to a respectable 2,450m.
I let Porshia lead the way as all the runs converge at the same spot. As with the rest of VDA and like NZ, most of the skiing is above tree line so in addition to the immaculate pistes, there are vast amounts of safe in bounds terrain. It reminded me of Porters, understated and making the most of what they’ve got.
Monte Cervino / The Matterhorn looms grey, dominant and omnipresent from every run and every lift. Breuill-Cervinia is clearly a very popular resort with the most people that I experienced in the entire Valle d’Aosta region. For the first time in three weeks I couldn’t get a seat at lunch. I bumped into Americans, Argentinians, Brazilians, Brits, Germans, Italians & Swiss – predominantly of older vintage, or with kids, and there didn’t seem to be too many free-riders around.
Depsite the ‘crowds’ there were no queues, no doubt due to the sheer volume of lifts, gondolas and telecabines that despatch punters from low to very high – the Plateau Rosa peaks out at 3,480m on the Italian side, on the Zermatt side it’s possible to reach 3,899m.
The majority of the skiable terrain is contained within a massive plateau with a plethora of runs that gently wind their way down, down, down. This would be a tremendous resort for the kids, beginners, or the cruisy carver types. Most, if not all of the trails, converge and become blues – which I would classify as greens. Whilst the reds, which dominate the trail map, are by and large blue by Aussie standards.
Being up close and personal to the Matterhorn/Cervino is an obvious drawcard and certainly worth a day trip or two. An extended stay would be fine if you like ski in/lift out accommodation and an easier ski holiday.
Highlight is the steep, fast and empty #59 – Pista Nera del Cervino. It’s as close to the Matterhorn/Cervino that you can get, one of the few blacks, and is very well served by an ultra modern detachable six.
In the North East there’s Cortina d’Ampezzo. In the North West there’s Courmayeur. Two luxury bookends bounding a library of great skiing across Northern Italy from the Dolomiti to Valle d’Aosta. Courmayeur, like Pila, La Thuile & Monterosa, requires at least 2 days and a week or more to be truly appreciated.Having previously skied Courmayeur on a day trip from Chamonix I was looking forward to re-acquainting myself. If you’re in Cham jump on the tunnel bus and check it out. Great food, great mountain, great coffee and the best view of Mont Blanc – it might officially be in France, but the Italians get the better view.
A quick walk through town for a spot of window shopping before catching the Emporio Armani sponsored gondola made me thank my lucky stars that we weren’t staying here wearing out our credit cards at the boutiques. It’s easily accessible from Aosta by car or bus, so our retirement plans are still on track.
On-piste the skiing is fast, lively, active, steep and uncluttered. This I discovered with my local amico Dino Carlino and viticulturist Massimo Penna from Alba, Piemonte. From Cresta Youla at 2,624m it’s all down hill. The Ferrari red runs beg to be raced down – get some good carvers and power through the curves like Felipe Massa – you’ll be in good company as the tracks round here are high octane wide straights, sweeping bends and screaming finish lines into any one of the high speed lifts so that you can do it all again.
Dinner with a view on the mountain is available as the Courmayeur gondola operates until 11:30pm. We celebrated Australia day in style at the sophisticated, stylish, sublime La Chaumière ristorante at 1,704m.
As for the off piste, the World Freeride Tour was in town at the same time. My wild card entry didn’t arrive, but I did score an awesome freeride day with local alpinist Piero Bessone, who I met on a lift at Pila. We started from the Funivie Monte-Bianco in La Palud (5 minutes west of Courmayeur village). Twenty minutes later we’re at Pavilion du Mont Frety at 2,173m and we start hiking right. Having skied fresh with me through the woods of Pila for half a day Piero seems confident in my abilities, though truth be told, I’m apprehensive. It’s windy, cold and not a soul in sight. Doppelmayr are building a new funivie and they’ve installed a massive construction crane on the side of the mountain that’d make Grollo proud.
The snow’s perfect, 6cm of fresh, talcum dry. It’s cold. What more could one want. Crazy arcs taking turns at first tracks, snaking our way down until we reach the first serious challenge, a steep narrow 100 metre couloir as wide as my Dynastars at the narrowest point. Keeping cool I take some snaps with my iPhone 5 whilst Piero assures me that it’s safe. I make it, even managing a couple of decent turns. I’m awash with confidence now, and the 800m vertical descent back down to the funivie is a serene dream through the Mont Fréty forest.
Let’s do it again says Piero, this time on the other side. We hike about 350m, heading left into the wind. What’s with all the hiking? Finally we arrive and I see why – fresh as far as the eye can see. Monte Bianco, Mont Maudit, Mont Blanc du Tacul all looking down on you and in the distant distance Courmayeur looking up. Piero proceeds with caution, ever conscious of avalanche danger. He heads right and arcs left. He’s not happy, and tells me to stay right and we head for a ridge line that’s ripe for the picking before heading into the woods.
Powder stashes abound as we weave in and out and through the trees before taking a circuitous southbound route to stay in the snow line. One wrong turn saw us hiking back up for 15 minutes. The gentle cruise down to the carpark and Italian entry/exit of the Mont Blanc tunnel again had us with skis off for the 2 km walk back to the car along the roadside, with trucks and cars screaming past with curious looks on their faces. Ah, the joys of skiing.
Valle D’Aosta [The Ticket]
For all your Ski Italy bookings ex-Australia www.skiitaly.com.au
Space precludes adding the 21 Valle D’Aosta resort’s details. Find them at:
Champoluc – Monte Rosa www.monterosa-ski.com