From Pont-Saint-Martin to Entrèves
The road from Turin, S.S. 26 (also the A5 motorway), enters the autonomous region of the Aosta valley at Pont-Saint-Martin (345m/1,139ft; Roman bridge from the first century B.C.), where the River Lys, coming from the north, flows into the Dora Baltea.
From Pont-Saint-Martin an attractive detour (34km/21mi) can be made up the Valle di Gressoney, following the deeply indented and regularly dammed course of the Lys, via the village of Issime (14km/9mi; 960m/3,168ft), which was founded by German-speaking settlers from the Valais in the 13th century, and the little holiday resort of Gressoney St-Jean (14km/9mi; 1,385m/4,571ft) to Gressoney-La-Trinité (1,635m/5,396ft); from which a chair-lift leads to Punta Jolanda (2,333m/7,699ft; upper station 2,247m/7,415ft) and also a cabin cableway to Lago Gabiet (2,367m/7,811ft; upper station 2,342m/7,729ft).
Monte Rosa, Italy
Gressoney-La-Trinité is known as a base for many interesting climbing excursions in the Monte Rosa range, particularly for the ascent (6-7 hours, guide required) of the Pointe Dufour (4,634m/15,292ft), the highest peak in the Monte Rosa group. A chair-lift goes from Staval up to the Colle Bettaforca. The Aosta valley road continues from Pont-Saint-Martin up the valley, which becomes steadily narrower. Beyond Donnaz (322m/1,063ft) the massive Fort Bard (391m/1,290ft; 11th century) stands on a hill on the right.
Castle of Issogne, Arnad, Italy
Arnad (412m/1,360ft) has a ruined castle high above it (634m/2,092ft); beyond this, on the right bank of the Dora, is the castle of Issogne, built in 1480, with an interesting interior.
Verrès (391m/1,290ft) with an old castle, the Rocca (1390), is picturesquely situated on a rocky hill.
Brusson & Champoluc, Italy
From Verrès there is a rewarding excursion (27km/17mi north) up the valley of the River Evançon, the Valle di Challand. The route goes via the summer holiday resort of Brusson (16km/10mi; 1,338m/4,415ft) in the lower part of the valley to Champoluc (11km/7mi; 1,570m/5,181ft), the principal place in the upper part of the valley, known as the Val d'Ayas. This is also a popular summer and winter holiday resort with views of the twin mountains Castor (4,230m/13,950ft) and Pollux (4,094m/13,510ft) and the Breithorn (4,171m/13,764ft), all of them south of the Matterhorn. A cabin cableway leads up to the Crest (1,974m/6,514ft), then a chair-lift continues to 2,500m/8,250ft. Beyond Verrès the Aosta valley road passes the castle of Montjovet, then runs through the picturesque Montjovet defile, beyond which there is a first glimpse of Mont Blanc.
Saint-Vincent (575m/1,898ft), is a popular summer holiday resort with mineral springs (recommended for liver and stomach disorders). Beyond this, perched on the left, is the castle of Ussel (c. 1350).
Châtillon (549m/1,812ft; population 4,700), is a charming village with a fine castle.
From Chaptillon there is a rewarding drive (27km/17mi north) up the Valtournenche, through which the River Matmoire (in Italian Marmore) flows down from the Matterhorn. The road runs through Antey St André (7km/4mi; 1,074m/3,544ft), beyond which the Matterhorn comes into sight, and Buisson (4km/2.5mi; 1,128m/3,722ft; cableway east to the Chamois, 1,815m/5,997ft: from there a chair-lift to Lago di Lod; 2,015m/6,650ft) and comes to Valtournenche (7km/4mi; 1,528m/5,042ft), which is popular both with summer visitors and winter sports enthusiasts (chair-lift east to the Alpe Chanlève; 1,850m/6,105ft; cableway to Monte Molar, 2,484m/8,197ft-2,244m/7,405ft).
Breuil, or Cervinia, is a popular ski resort located at the base of the Matterhorn. The skiing is primarily beginner to intermediate compared to the Swiss side (Zermatt) which is more advanced.
Castle of Fénis
Beyond Chaptillon the Aosta valley road affords open views of the fertile valley and the mountains around Aosta, with the three-peaked Rutor in the background. Farther on, above the mouth of the Val de Clavalité or Val de Fénis, in which the snowy peak of the Tersiva can be seen, stands the mighty castle of Fénis on the left (1330, with later additions) with a beautiful courtyard (15th century) and wall paintings; inside there are 15th century frescoes.
Nus (529m/1,746ft), a village at the mouth of the Vallée de St Barthélemy, with a ruined castle. On the slope above, to the left, the village of St Marcel (631m/2,082ft), at the mouth of the valley of the same name, comes into sight. Beyond Aosta the road to the Mont Blanc Tunnel leads further up into the valley of the Dora Baltea.
Sarre & Val de Cogne, Italy
Sarre (631m/2,082ft), is a village with a castle of 1710. This is a good base for a pleasant detour (28km/17mi south), up the Val de Cogne, past the castle of Aymavilles with its four towers (16th-17th century; restored) and up the monotonous valley high above the ravine of the roaring Grand'Eyvie. Far below can be seen the Pont d'El, with a Roman aqueduct of the Augustan period, 120m/396ft above the stream. The road then continues to Cogne (1,534m/5,062ft), the chief town in the valley which is popular both as a summer and a winter holiday resort (iron mine; tunnel 6km/3.5mi long on a mine rairoad to Aosta). From here there is a beautiful view to the south of Gran Paradiso (4,061m/13,401ft; the climb by way of Valsavarenche takes 17 hours with guide) and to the northwest of Mont Blanc. Lift to Mont Cuc (2,075m/6,848ft).
Cogne - Gran Paradiso National Park
Cogne is a good base for climbing expeditions, particularly in the fascinating Gran Paradiso National Park (Parco Nazionale de Gran Paradiso; 600 sq.km/231 sq.mi; perimeter 180km/112mi; many ibexes and other animals), which occupies the northern part of the Graian Alps.
Beyond Sarre the road continues past the castles of Saint-Pierre (17th century; inside is the Scientific Museum with records of animals and plants, found in the Aosta valley), Sarriod de La Tour (14th century) and the Tour Colin (13th century). It then passes the junctions of the Val de Rhêmes and the Val Grisanche which run south to the French frontier, and enters the wild defile of Pierre Taillée (waterfalls); beyond this, on the hillside to the right, is the village of La Salle (1,001m/3,303ft), with the castle of Chaptelard (1,171m/3,864ft; 13th century); ahead the towering mass of Mont Blanc can be seen.
Pré-Saint-Didier (1,004m/3,313ft), a picturesquely situated village, has an arsenical chalybeate spring (36 °C) at the point where the Thuile forces its way through precipitous cliffs into the Dora valley.
La Thuile & Rutor
At Pré-Saint-Didier S.S. 26 leaves the Aosta valley and runs southwest to La Thuile (1,441m/4,755ft), the starting point for climbing the glaciated Rutor (3,486m/11,504ft; 7-8 hours, with guide), passing the Rutor Falls (1,934m/6,382ft). From Gollette (1,496m/4,937ft) there is a cableway southwest to Les Suches (2,180m/7,194ft; mountain hut) and then a chair-lift to Mont Chaz Dura (2,581m/8,517ft).
Little St Bernard
From Gollette the road continues for another 13km/8mi, with many bends and magnificent retrospective views to reach the Italian-French frontier at the little Lac Verney and the Little St Bernard Pass (2,188m/7,220ft). Until 1947 the frontier was 2km/1mi farther south. Beyond Pré-Saint-Didier the Aosta valley road passes below the village of Verrand (1,263m/4,168ft), with fine panoramic views.
Courmayeur (1,224m/4,039ft), a major tourist center (particularly for winter sports enthusiasts), with mineral springs (chalybeate; spa establishments) lies at the foot of the Mont Blanc massif (Alpine Museum). A chain of cableways leads from here first up to the Plan Chécrouit (1,704m/5,623ft), from there to the Lago Chécrouit (2,256m/7,445ft), then to the Cresta de Youla (2,624m/8,659ft) and finally to the Cresta d'Arp (2,755m/9,092ft); there is also a cableway to the Pré de Pascal (1,912m/6,310ft) and a cabin cableway to the Val Vény.The Italian side of Mont Blanc, in the beautiful Aosta Valley Courmayeur, is linked by aerial tram to the famous French ski resort of Chamonix. About two hours from Geneva and two and a half hours from Milan, Courmayeur is ideal for intermediate skiers but has limited beginner terrain. Experts can find good off-piste skiing, most of which requires a guide.With 30 lifts and a vertical drop of nearly a mile, Courmayeur offers two major ski areas - the Checrouit runs which are linked with Val Veny and Mont Blanc where a cable car takes skiers up to almost 11,000 feet.
4km/2.5mi beyond Courmayeur is Entrèves (1,306m/4,310ft), a magnificently situated village with open views of Mont Blanc to the northwest and the Dent du Géant (4,014m/13,246ft) and the Grandes Jorasses (4,206m/13,880ft) to the northeast; there is an even finer prospect 2km/1mi west from the pilgrimage church of Notre-Dame de la Guérison (1,486m/4,901ft; striking close view of the Brenva glacier). From La Palud (1km/0.75mi northeast) there is a very attractive drive (15km/9mi) with three cableways (1.5 hours) by way of the Pavillon du Mont Fréty (2,130m/7,029ft) and the Rifugio Torino (3,322m/10,963ft; view!), below the Col du Géant (3,354m/11,068ft), then by the Punta Helbronner (3,462m/11,425ft; passport control) to the Gros Rognon (3,448m/11,378ft) and to the Aiguille du Midi (3,842m/12,679ft; view!) and so on to Chamonix.
Mont Blanc (in Italian: Monte Bianco, 4,810m/15,873ft), the highest peak in the Alps, over which the Italian-French frontier runs was first climbed in 1786 by Jacques Balmat of Chamonix and the village doctor, Michel Paccard; then in 1787 again by the Geneva scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, accompanied by Balmat and 16 porters. The best starting point for the climb (10-12 hours, with guide) is Les Houches, a village 10km/6mi southwest of Chamonix.
Mont Blanc Tunnel
The construction of the Mont Blanc Tunnel (Galleria del Monte Bianco; boring completed 1962; opened to traffic July 16th 1965) is very important, particularly for tourist traffic. The tunnel begins at Entrèves (altitude 1,381m/4,557ft) above sea-level, and ends 11.6km/7.25mi farther on at an altitude of 1,274m/4,204ft above the hamlet of Les Pèlerins, a suburb of Chamonix. The tunnel (toll), which is open throughout the year, shortens the journey from Italy to western Switzerland and central and northern France by several hundred kilometers during the period from October to June when the high Alpine passes are closed.
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