Castello Di Fenis (Castle Of Fenis)
Built by the Challants, viscounts of Aosta throughout much of the Middle Ages, this castle (tel. 0165-764-263), near the town of Fenis, is the most impressive and best preserved of the many castles perched on the hillsides above the Valle d'Aosta. From it, you can enjoy some fine views of the Alps and the valley below. One of the most appealing parts of a visit to Fenis is catching a glimpse into everyday life in a medieval castle -- you can climb up to wooden loggias overlooking the courtyard and visit the cavernous kitchens. Alas, you cannot scamper among the ramparts, turrets, towers, and dungeons, thanks to a new Italian safety law.
March through June and September, the castle is open daily from 9am to 6:30pm; July and August hours are daily from 9am to 7:30pm; October through February hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to noon and 1:30-4:30pm (to 5:30pm Sun). Requisite half-hour guided tours (Italian only) leave every 30 minutes. Come early; tours tend to fill up quickly in summer, and you can't book them in advance. Admission is 5€ for adults and 3.50€ for students. The castle is 30km (19 miles) east of Aosta on route S26; there are 13 buses a day (only one, at 6:20am, on Sun from Aosta; the ride takes 30 min.).
Breuil-Cervinia & the Matterhorn
You don't come to Breuil-Cervinia to see the town, a banal collection of tourist facilities -- the sight to see, and you can't miss it, is the Matterhorn (Monte Cervino in Italian). Its distinctive profile looms majestically above the valley, beckoning year-round skiers and those who simply want to savor a refreshing Alpine experience by ascending to its glaciers via cable car to the Plateau Rosa (26€ round-trip; closed Sept 10 to mid-Oct). An excellent trail also ascends from Breuil-Cervinia up the flank of the mountain. After a moderately strenuous uphill trek of 90 minutes, you come to a gorgeous mountain lake, Lac du Goillet, and from there, it's another 90 minutes to the Colle Superiore delle Cime Bianche, a plateau with heart-stopping views.
The tourist office, Via Carrel 29 (tel. 0166-949-136; www.montecervino.it, www.breuil-cervinia.net, or www.cervinia.it), can provide information on other hikes, ski packages, and serious ascents to the top of the Matterhorn. Breuil-Cervinia is 54km (33 miles) northeast of Aosta via routes A5 and S406. From Aosta, you can take one of the Turin-bound trains, get off at Chatillon (20 min.), and continue from there on one of the seven daily buses to Breuil-Cervinia (1 hr.).
It's well worth the trip up the winding road 16km (10 miles) south from Aosta to this resort, at 1,782m (5,845 ft.). The views are incredible. Aside from getting an eagle's-eye view of the valleys rolling away in all directions at your feet -- and access to over a dozen trails around and to the tops of the surrounding mountains -- you will glimpse the peaks of Europe's two most spectacular mountains, Mont Blanc on the far left and the Matterhorn peeking up to the far right. Directly in front of you, the Gran Combin rises over Aosta to 4,271m (14,009 ft.). The little information office in back of the Pila gondola station (tel. 0165-521-148; fax 0165-521-437; www.pila.it) has a good hiking map and is open Monday through Friday from 8am to noon and 1 to 5pm.
A gondola runs to Pila in 20 minutes (5€ round-trip) from Aosta, June 27 through July 17 and August 24 to September 7 daily from 8am to 12:15pm and 2 to 5pm (to 6pm July 18-Aug 23). It leaves from a large parking lot southwest of the train station (shortcut: Take the sottopassagio passage under the tracks at the station to Via Paravera, turn right then take your first left). To drive, follow Via Ponte Suaz -- next to the train station -- south out of town.
Parco Nazionale Del Gran Paradiso
The little town of Cogne is the most convenient gateway to one of Europe's finest parcels of unspoiled nature, the former hunting grounds of King Vittorio Emanuele that now make up this vast and lovely national park. The park encompasses five valleys and a total of 3,626 sq. km (1,414 sq. miles) of forests and pastureland where many Alpine beasts roam wild, including the ibex, a long-horned goat, and the chamois, a small antelope, both of which have hovered near extinction in recent years.
Humans can roam these wilds via a vast network of well-marked trails. Among the few places where the hand of man intrudes ever so gently on nature are a few scattered hamlets within the park borders and in the Giardino Alpino Paradiso (tel. 0165-74-147), a stunning collection of rare Alpine fauna near the village of Valnontey, just 1.5km (1 mile) south of Cogne. It's open mid-June through mid-September daily from 10am to 6:30pm (5:30pm June and Sept); admission is 3€ for adults and 1.50€ for ages 7 to 19 and those over 70.
Visitor Information -- Cogne also offers some downhill skiing, but it is better regarded for its many cross-country skiing trails. The tourist office in Cogne, Via Bourgeois (tel. 0165-74-040; www.cogne.org), provides a wealth of information on hiking and skiing trails and other outdoor activities in the park and elsewhere in the region; it's open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 12:30pm and daily from 3 to 6pm. You can also get info at www.pngp.it. Cogne is about 29km (18 miles) south of Aosta via S35 and S507; there are seven buses a day to and from Aosta.
High Mountain University
In the mountains that straddle Aosta's eastern border, you can take courses that prepare you to conquer the highest peaks in the world. At the base of Monte Rosa, the second-tallest massif in the Alps after Mont Blanc, Silvio Mondinelli, one of Italy's greatest living mountain climbers, will teach you all he has learned in 50 years of trekking. The school, High Mountain University (tel. 0163-922-970; www.himu.eu), is based in Alagna Valsesia, a mountain hamlet just across the border in Piedmont. The first courses were held in the summer of 2009, and the cost for a day-long class is about 150€.
Mondinelli (who goes by "Gnaro," which means "baby" in the dialect of the town where he was born) is convinced that the lessons that are learned in the mountains can also benefit people in their everyday lives. "This is a school that, among other things, will teach people how to better confront life and function as part of a team," said Mondinelli, who is one of a dozen people to have scaled the world's 14 8,000m (26,247 ft.) peaks without supplemental oxygen.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.