Visiting the Aosta Valley in Italy

Fénis Castle – A Highlight of the Aosta Valley

If you can’t visit all 72 castles (who could?) in the Aosta Valley of Italy then at least visit one–Fénis Castle. Dating back to the 12th century, Fénis is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a medieval viscount stronghold, with crenellated walls, towers and frescoed rooms and courtyard in a dramatic setting in a valley surrounded by tall mountains.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Exterior view of Fénis Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The inner courtyard of Fénis Castle. The frescoes date from the first quarter of the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another view of the inner courtyard.

The only way to visit the castle is to join a group tour offered at specific times throughout the day. Our tour was in Italian, but lucky for us the castle’s main rooms had explanatory information in English.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A dining room on the castle’s ground floor.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A room believed to be the kitchen on the ground floor.

The castle was built by the Challant family and much of the structure we see today is the result of additional construction work early in the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A bedroom in the castle. The Challant’s living quarters were on the 1st floor (one floor up from the ground floor).

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The 1st floor Great Hall, also frescoed.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

15th century religious frescoes adorn the 1st floor chapel.

The castle was used as a hay barn, stables and granary in the 19th century until significant restoration started at the end of the 19th century and continued through the 1940’s.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the inner walls of the Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The corbelled dovecote tower on the castle’s western side.

Fénis Castle is about 15 km (9 miles) east of the town of Aosta. Don’t miss this great castle if you visit the magical Aosta Valley, one of Italy’s less visited regions.

 

The Town of Aosta – “Rome of the Alps”

Recently I’ve been sharing posts on the beautiful Aosta Valley in northern Italy. The town of Aosta is also quite lovely, sitting in a spectacular setting at the foot of the Alps. The town’s Roman ruins remind us of the importance of the route through the Alps and this valley in ancient times. The town was founded by the Salassian Gauls, whose lands covered the nearby Little and Great St. Bernard passes over the Alps. In 25 BCE Caesar Augusts (Octavian)  defeated these Gauls and built up a grand city which became known as Aosta.

Arch of Augustus, Aosta, Italy

Arch of Augustus, erected in 25 BCE stands at the eastern edge of the old city (the roof was added in the 18th century).

Porta Pretoria, Aosta, Italy

The Porta Pretoria, near the Arch of Augustus, also dates back to 25 BCE.

The flagship sight in Aosta is the Roman Theater, with one tall exterior section of wall remaining. Medieval buildings once stood around the wall, and they were removed during restorations.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Roman Theater in Aosta, built sometime after 25 BCE. The wall is 65 ft. high.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Seating area inside the Roman Theater.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Another view of the area around the Theater.

Cryptoporticus, Aosta, Italy

Some of Aosta’s Roman ruins are underground. This is the cryptoporticus, which sits underneath the Forum (marketplace), now occupied by Aosta’s Cathedral. Its function is unknown – storage, shops, or something else?

Aosta Valley Day 3

There are numerous Roman, pre-medieval and medieval tombs and ruins underneath Aosta, and some are accessible through the churches built on top of these sites. You can buy a pass and map to direct you to the sites.

Aosta, Italy

Part of a Roman chariot. Various interesting artifacts have been unearthed and are on display in the underground museums.

Aosta, Italy

Aosta’s piazza (town square). The setting reminded us a bit of a Colorado ski town, nestled in the mountains.

Aosta, Italy

Another street scene in Aosta.

Aosta makes a good base for exploring the Valley, we stayed in a small hotel just outside the city and enjoyed the quiet and scenic location.

La Bicoque hotel, Aosta, Italy

We stayed at a little boutique hotel, La Bicoque, just north of the town of Aosta.

Aosta Valley – Visiting Savoia Castle

Savoia Castle is another wonderful sight in the Aosta Valley of Italy, it’s actually up a narrow side valley not far (33 km or 20 miles) from Bard Fortress. While this “modern” Italian castle does not have the ancient history of typical European castles, it evokes the past by having been built in the 15th century Lombard style. It’s worth seeing for its lovely interior, the mountain setting and to gain some insight into the personality of its builder, Queen Margherita.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

An exterior side view of Savoia Castle.

This castle was the project of the queen of Italy (Queen Margherita, widow of King Umberto I) and completed in 1904. She could escape the summer heat of Rome here in this gorgeous setting at the foot of the Italian Alps.

Queen Margherita, Aosta Valley, Italy

Photo of Queen Margherita (1851-1926). She was a smart, powerful figure who dealt with tremendous political turmoil in Italy at the time. Her husband, King Umberto I, was assassinated in 1900. Legend has it that the margherita pizza is named after her!

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The castle’s entry way leads to this beautiful staircase. Note the fine wood ceiling displaying the royal coat of arms (detail below).

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the castle’s first floor ceiling detail showing the coat of arms and other royal symbolism.

Savioa Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The outstanding woodwork and artwork of the railings, walls and ceiling above the staircase.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Billiard room in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Formal dining area of Savoia Castle. The preparation area is behind the wooden screens. The actual kitchens were separate from the main residence.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A reading alcove in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bedchamber in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bath. The castle had many conveniences not yet in wide use at the time (hot water, heating, electricity, plumbing).

The queen would spend her summers at the castle. She entertained guests here and even took them on sleigh rides in the winter in her unique sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The sleigh the queen used where riders would sit “side saddle” and could have a great conversation! There is a photo in the castle of her with guests on a mountain pass in the sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

This photo shows the dramatic mountain scenery and setting of Savoia Castle. Queen Margherita knew how to choose a location!

To visit the castle you must take a guided tour and they are offered in English only at certain times. However, when we visited, we were the only guests (it was a very rainy day) and even though an English tour was not scheduled at the time, the very kind guide was able to give us a tour and did her best to explain things in English–we were most appreciative. Photos are allowed without flash. There are also Botanical Gardens on the castle grounds, but given the wet weather we did not take the time to visit them.

Aosta Valley – The Mighty Bard Fortress

One of the great attractions in the Aosta Valley, Italy (see my overview of Aosta Valley here) is Bard Fortress. Named for the lords of Bard, it is a massive, stern-looking fortress complex sitting atop of a rocky outcropping in the narrow Aosta Valley along side the Dora Baltea river. It demands attention as you drive by.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Bard Fortress complex. You take a series of trams to the top, known as Opera Carlo Alberto Headquarters, which in its military capacity housed a church, hospital, barracks and storage rooms.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Taking a tram up to the fortress – it’s worth the ride just for the views.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress is built right on top of the rock – it must have taken some effort to get the foundation secured!

This strategic spot has been a defensive outpost since the 5th century CE and Bard Fortress sits atop ruins of past castles. It was a perfect place to control traffic passing through the Valley from Switzerland or France into Italy. There have been numerous conflicts here over the centuries ranging from the Goths and Burgunds, to the Lombards and Franks trying to seize control of this route and territory.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress commands an impressive view of the Aosta Valley, this view is looking north.

Control of the passes through the Alps was critical to protecting pilgrims working their way south to Rome and the passage of goods flowing from southern to northern Europe as well as marking geographic boundaries for numerous kingdoms.

Napoleon, who became Emperor of France and conqueror of most of Europe, laid siege to the Fort on the 19th of May, 1800. Four hundred soldiers at the fort held back his army of 40,000 for nearly two weeks.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Covered passageway in the fortress to move soldiers and goods from one level to the next.

It wasn’t until Napoleon was able to get a 12 inch cannon blasting away on the 29th of May that the fort finally was destroyed and the small defending force surrendered on June 1st, a few days later. The fortress was rebuilt in 1830.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Some of the prison cells located in Bard Fortress.

Thousands were imprisoned here at Bard Fortress in World War I. More recently it was used as a movie set in Marvel’s Avengers – Age of Ultron and the buildings now house exhibits, museums and music performances throughout the year.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

A sign commemorating Bard Fortress as a movie set location.

Bard Medieval Village      

As interesting as the Fortress is, the little medieval village (Bard village) nestled below it is fun to explore too – many of the buildings date back to the 14th century and have signs providing historical information.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

A street in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

An old stairway in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Pockmarks remain from past battles in the streets of Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Remnants of 14th century decorative paintings on a building in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

One more street scene in Bard Village.

Bard Fortress and the medieval village should be on your list if you visit the Aosta Valley!

 

 

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Magical Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley)

In the northwest corner of Italy (north of Turin) lies a magical region that receives few tourists. The natural beauty of the Aosta Valley along its historical treasures makes it one of my (many) favorite spots in Italy.

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the Aosta Valley from Pont-Saint-Martin, near the southern end of the Valley.

The snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, numerous waterfalls, castles and ancient Roman ruins all combine to make the Aosta Valley magical. The Valley leads north to the St. Bernard Pass and into Switzerland, an ancient route through the Alps that has been used since Roman times as a trade route and for invading forces (including Napoleon) to conquer the Italian peninsula. (Going west leads to Mount Blanc and into France).

Roman road, Aosta Valley, Italy

First century CE Roman road and tunnel in the Aosta Valley. Ruts from chariots in the road are still visible.

Roman road, Aosta Valley, Italy

Stairway leading up to the Roman road, with a carved column on the opposite rock wall.

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another relic of ancient Roman times, Pont-Saint-Martin, gives the town its name.

Verrès, Aosta Valley, Italy

The town of Verrès, a beautiful small town that has a castle overlooking the town and valley.

Verrès Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Verrès Castle, a 14th century castle open to the public, sits on a rock outcropping above the town of Verrès (note the slate roofs on the right). Unfortunately I lost my camera here with its pictures of the castle’s interior! Luckily all my other pictures of Italy were backed up on a computer.

Because the Valley was such a popular thoroughfare for centuries, medieval lords built numerous castles in the Valley to protect their domains from invaders. Some of these castles are open for visitors while others are inaccessible due to their locations. As you drive through the Valley you’ll see castles on the surrounding hillsides.

Aosta Valley, Italy

There are castle ruins almost at every turn, overlooking the Aosta Valley.

Saint-Pierre Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Saint-Pierre Castle, near the northern end of the Valley. It is currently not open to the public.

Aosta Valley, Italy

Another old castle (I don’t know its name) in the Aosta Valley. There are about 70 castles surviving in the Valley, some of which are open to the public.

Sarre Royal Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another view of Aosta Valley with Sarre Royal Castle (18th century) on the left.

La Bicoque hotel, Aosta, Italy

We stayed at a little boutique hotel, La Bicoque, just north of the town of Aosta. Not a bad setting for our continental breakfast!

More to come on this magical area. I will write separate posts on the town of Aosta, Bard Fortress, Fènis Castle and Savoia Castle. Stay tuned!