The alps!

June 13, 2013 - Aosta, Italy

(by clicking on the pictures you can see a larger image)

Ceresole Reale - The view from the Aquila AlpinaAlthough I loved being near the sea and the unspoiled natural beauty of Sicily, I loved just as much northern Italy and the snow capped Alps.  After picking up David and Laura at the airport in Torino, we headed for Ceresole Reale, a small town in the Piemonte side of the Alps, in the Grand Paradiso National Park where David and Laura planned to do some climbing.  We arrived at Albergo Aquila Alpina in the late afternoon and the minute we got out of the car, I could not help but notice the contrast to Rome… the only noises heard were the bells on the cattle grazing across the road.  That Friday evening we walked down to a nearby trattoria and stuffed ourselves with the local typical antipasti, pizza and panna cotta for dessert.

IbexSaturday morning, after having a leisurely Italian style breakfast, Luigi wanted to drive up to a higher elevation where Ibex (similar to Bighorn sheep) had been recently spotted.  David knew that there was a climbing area there too… perfect!… we could get some Ibex sightings AND stay safely on firm ground while watching David and Laura rock climb.  It was not long before we spotted Ibex grazing above the road. Road carved in 3 m snow BUT, as we drove on to higher elevations on a car wide, paved road, David started to be a bit concerned when we started to see lots of white stuff … snow… and the further we went the small drifts turned into a landscape of white…  The views were amazing, especially the view across the snowy valley leading to the climbing rock.

Making snowmen at 6,000 ft on June 8Plan A was not working out very well as it appeared David and Laura would need snowshoes to get to the rock.  Plan B was just as much fun… we walked up the remainder of the now slush covered road to the walkway of a second dam, stopping once in awhile to make the odd snowball or mini snowman (David's creation).  We even managed to sneak in a picnic before we were rained on and forced into Plan C (reading and relaxing by the fire in the hotel).

Supper at a small family run trattoria in Ceresole was an experience. There was no menu… the young server rattled off the day's choices in rapid Italian… after a few rapid repeats of the choices we thought we had ordered two orders of their special polenta and two orders of pasta. When we were served only pasta and no polenta we knew the Italian to English and back to Italian order got confused. The funny part of this whole episode is… the chef KNEW we wanted polenta because the owner of the hotel had called ahead for us to make sure there was polenta on the menu!  We heard later… the chef called the hotel and asked why we never ordered polenta! After we devoured all four orders of pasta we did manage to get an order of Polenta Concha (a local specialty) which we also devoured.

We woke up to more rain Sunday morning, but David was still hoping to find a dry rock so they could at least get one quick climb in before heading to the airport. The weather did not cooperate.  We had to settle for lunch on the way to the airport at the only restaurant we could find open on a rainy Sunday, in a tiny hamlet on the way to the Airport. This time there was a menu but NO prices on the menu… I gather they like to keep the surprise until the end of your meal.

Regardless of the weather, we had a wonderful time with David and Laura and were sad to return them to the Torino Airport on Sunday afternoon.

Aosta with a beautiful backdrop of tall mountainsWhen we were planning this trip we both decided that we would love to see not only the Alps, but also to see Monte Bianco (Mount Blanc), the highest mountain in the Alps and in Europe (4,801 m or 15,871 ft).  There is no mountain in the NA Rockies that high. From Torino Luigi pointed the car in the direction of Aosta. He had booked an apartment style hotel in Aosta called La Roche. It was perfect. After our mini apartment in Rome, we were excited to see the size of our apartment and the view of the Alps outside our window.

Our first day was spent exploring the historic centre of Aosta, and even Roman Theatrethough it was a Monday and most stores had their "chiuso" (closed) signs displayed, we were able to see a Roman Theatre with an amazing backdrop, a beautifully restored Roman Cryptoportico and a Roman bridge from the first century, ending our day with a present day gelato and supper in our not so mini apartment.

Fenis castleThe previous day, on our way to Aosta, we saw many castles perched on top of rock cliffs overlooking the valley. We had Ussel Castleto spend one day exploring at least a couple of the 150 or so castles in the region, from massive buildings built around year 1000, to the primitive castles of XII-XIII sec., to the complex fortifications of the XIII-XIV century, up to the refined residences of beginning of 1500.

The most well restored and furnished castle was that once belonging to a former King of Italy (when Italy was a monarchy).  King Vittorio Emanuele II used the castle as his "hunting" residence in the 1800s, and from the disgusting number of Ibex and Chamoix horns displayed in his "trophy" room and reception hall (3,600 animals!), he seemed to spend lots of time on hunting business.


Funivia Monte BiancoThe highlight of our time in Aosta has to be our trip on the Funivia (chair lift) up Mount Blanc (or close to it). Since I have an almost paralyzing fear of heights, The view from 2,170 mI was almost relieved to read (before we went) that only the first leg of the chair lift was operating since a new lift was being built. My relief was short lived as the information was wrong… we were able to go ALL the way up (almost) to the top… yay!  Gulp.  Thankfully we did it in stages… the first level which was at 2,170 m up (up from 1,370 m in Courmayeur) had a nice terrace and picnic area where we had our picnic lunch and took tons of pictures.

Rifugio Torino at 3,329 m (10,921 ft)My first photos were taken 10 feet away from the (very sturdy) terrace railing, but eventually the urge to take a decent picture (sans railing) forced me to deal with my fear of heights. We then took the cable car to the next level up at 3,340 m where the views were even more amazing. Once again I had to take some time The 220 steps in thin air! before I would venture close to the railing. At this level, the mountain was blanketed in snow and the air was much cooler. Wait… we didn't stop there… we decided to walk up some (cool) enclosed stairs.  220 steps to get to the next The sign at the entrance to the Rifugio TorinoRifugio at  at 3,375 m of elevation (11,000 ft!).  We felt the thinner air so we had to stop and "catch our breath" a few times on the way up. At that height the view was even more amazing.  There were a number of mountaineers returning from their climb. I admire or rather envy their fortitude (and apparent lack of paralyzing Monte bianco (4,810 m) in the background!height fears). We celebrated our day at the very top with a cup of Vin Brule (hot mulled wine) and a cake before taking the very last cable car ride to level ground.

Taking pictures of Lillaz waterfall (150 m. drop)

There was much more to explore in the Aosta Valley than we ever imagined… we ended up staying an extra two days and still were wishingThe view from Lillaz waterfalls we had more time there. On our final day, we drove to Lillax, to hike, and to photograph a number of waterfalls (and try to find a few of the Chamoix ancestors left after King Emanuele had his fun!).

Our next and last stop on our five weeks through Italy will be Tuscany to regroup, repack and fly home.

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Ceresole Reale - The view from the Aquila Alpina
Road carved in 3 m snow
Making snowmen at 6,000 ft on June 8
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