DRINK IN THE VIEW
GET YOUR FILL OF SNOW-CAPPED MOUNTAINS AND ALPINE SCENERY EXPLORING THE AOSTA VALLEY IN THE WESTERN ALPS
I’m standing in the middle of scenery so staggeringly beautiful, they should probably reshoot the opening scenes of The Sound of Music here. Picture-perfect pine forests, distant snowcapped mountains, even a gentle stream tinkling along in the background for good measure.
And yet, for all nature’s magnificence in the Aosta Valley, in the Western Alps, there is only one thought in my head: “I really, really want another hot chocolate”.
I know it’s wrong; being privileged enough to see this sort of view but barely acknowledging it because I’m obsessing over hot chocolate. And yes, of course, part of me is ashamed. But the other part doesn’t care. An hour earlier, in the equally quaint and “made-for-a-postcard” Italian alpine village of Gressoney-La-Trinite, we’d stopped off for an energising snack to fire us up for our two-day hike, and that snack was the most delectable hot chocolate you could ever imagine. Thick, treacle-like gloop – a fondant in a mug, basically – topped with cream and served with a chocolate on the side. And now, it’s all I can think about. “Sorry, no more until we get back tomorrow,” shrugs our guide, striking off along the alarmingly steep footpath. “But it doesn’t matter.”
At first, I’m slightly put out by this last comment. But over the rest of the day, his meaning becomes clear.
In reality at every corner, every path, every time you peer over a peak, it’s there: green, lush, tree-lined, meadow-dotted, flower-dusted Alpine perfection.
Even the grey rocks, randomly scattered from various winter avalanches and now standing stark and defiant against thick beds of grass and trees, have their own splendour.
The guide’s comment also soon rings true in another way. “It doesn’t matter” that I won’t be having another hot chocolate today, because far greater culinary pleasures are in store.
After seven hours of walking, we arrive at our accommodation, Chalet Hotel Breithorn, where we’re served a dinner that gives me a new obsession. A Walser version of macaroni cheese – made with local cheese and bits of salami – is the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s not your traditional Italian fare, but then this bottom corner of the Alps isn’t your traditional Italy.
Populated by the German Walser people, fleeing religious persecution in the 12th and 13th century, everything from the architecture, to the language (Walserdeutsch, a dialect that sounds similar to Flemish but is resolutely German) and the food (hearty, carb-fuelled dishes) is influenced by a certain Teutonic nuance.
This solid, German efficiency and refined Italian beauty isn’t a blend you see very much, but it works. Even our mountain guide somehow combines the two: bluntly ignoring my pleas for hot chocolate, insisting on a steady walking pace, delivering us to our hut at exactly the time he said he would (that’s the German bit), yet still finding the time to stop at all the pretty wildflowers and tell us (in zealous and flamboyant detail) their names and blossoming pattern, while extravagantly waving his arms and passionately urging us to “stop and take in that view” (the Italian bit).
On day two of our hike, to his delight, we do make a few more of these stops as we wend (mercifully) down the valley and back to Gressoney. Quads and glutes now aching, our pace becomes noticeably less urgent than the day before. The fact the sun is blazing also slows us down. It’s easy to forget just how hot the Alps can be in summer, as in the winter, this area, known as Monterosa, is a popular ski destination.
We cool off by filling our water bottles in mountain streams, then prepare to indulge in yet another guilty pleasure – wine tasting.
We find a small bar in Gressoney-La-Trinite, offering incredible food (all served to fine dining standards) and fantastic wine. There’s even a special wine-tasting course thrown in and, unless you’ve actually been to this modest corner of the Italian Alps, I can honestly say it’s like no wine you’ve ever tasted.
“It’s because we don’t export any of this,” our “master taster” explains – not even out of the Aosta Valley. “You can only buy or taste most of these vintages here, in the local vicinity.”
It’s a mystery why they’re not sending this wine out to the wider world. Perhaps it’s fairly obvious; they rightly want it all to themselves.
Thankfully, they’re a little less strict on the amount of local salami and cheeses you can take away and I pack my suitcase with pungent delicacies. To be honest, our mere two-day hike, however steep the gradient on the first day, doesn’t really justify all this wine, cheese and meat. The Aosta Valley features some of the greatest treks in the Alps, including the 10-day, ominously named Trail of Giants. Perhaps if we’d attempted some of those, we’d have really deserved the endless treats we keep indulging in.
But then again, not everything has to be a trade-off. You can have a bit of German influence and a bit of Italian influence.
You can have distant snow and blistering sunshine. You can have a small, rustic mountain hut and still enjoy fine dining. And you can think of hot chocolate and cheese 50 per cent of your time, yet still know you’re somewhere so magical, it’ll 100 per cent seep into your soul.
“... YOU CAN THINK OF HOT CHOCOLATE AND CHEESE 50 PER CENT OF YOUR TIME, YET STILL KNOW YOU’RE SOMEWHERE SO MAGICAL...”