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Aosta: 113km (70 miles) NW of Turin, 184km (114 miles) NW of Milan; Courmayeur-Entrèves: 35km (22 miles) W of Aosta, 148km (92 miles) NW of Turin

Skiers, hikers, and fresh-air and scenery enthusiasts, eager to enjoy one of Italy's favorite Alpine playgrounds, flock to this tiny mountainous region 1 hour by car northwest of Turin (and 2 hr. by train). At its best, the Valle d'Aosta fulfills its promise: Snowcapped peaks, among them the Matterhorn (Monte Cervino in Italian) and Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco), rise above the valley's verdant pastures and forests; waterfalls cascade into mountain streams; romantic castles cling to wooded hillsides.

Also plentiful in the Valle d'Aosta are crowds -- especially in August, when the region welcomes hordes of vacationing Italians, and January through March, the height of the winter ski season -- and one too many overdeveloped tourist centers to accommodate them. You would be best off coming at one of the nonpeak times, when you can enjoy the valley's beauty in relative peace and quiet.

Whenever you happen to find yourself in the Valle d'Aosta, three must-sees are the town of Aosta itself, with its Roman and medieval monuments set dramatically against the backdrop of the Alps (and a fine place to begin a tour of the surrounding mountains and valleys), and the natural wonders of Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso. The third, more dramatic to-do is the thrilling cable-car ride from fashionable ski resort Courmayeur-Entrèves over the shoulder of Mont Blanc to France. While much of the Valle d'Aosta is accessible by train or bus, you'll probably want a car to ease your exploration of the quieter reaches of the region.

Of course, recreation, not sightseeing, is what draws many people to the Valle d'Aosta. Some of the best downhill skiing, accompanied by the best facilities, is on the runs at Courmayeur and Breuil-Cervinia (the Italian side and name of the Matterhorn). The Valle D'Aosta is also excellent for cross-country skiing and hiking.