Northern Italy is surrounded by the Alps, which are dotted with stunning ski resorts. For most Italians skiing is a habitual sport during the colder months. There are other mountain destinations beyond the Dolomites, like Abruzzo or the Apennines, where families with children visit from Rome and other central regions during the “settimana bianca”or winter school break. I’m writing about an Alpine region of Italy that is not necessarily in the guide books: Valle d’Aosta.

Casa Mia_Valle d'Aosta in Italy

Valle d’Aosta is known for its snow-capped mountains, Roman-era monuments and medieval castles. Some of the highest Alpine peaks in Italy are valdostan, like the Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, the Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso, where the first ever Italian National Park was founded in 1922. Ski resort areas such as Courmayeur and Cervinia offer skiing in winter, hiking and panoramic cable-car rides year-round. On the border of France and Switzerland, this is where all kinds of sports are enjoyed with great food at the many rifugi or baite (mountain lodges that cook and serve food plus have hot chocolate or alcoholic beverages available).

Fontina cheese from Val d'Aosta

Being in the mountains, cheese takes a primary place on the menu. Fontina is the best known of the local chesses and can be served melted into rice as risotto or mixed in polenta, which is a staple of northern Italian cuisine. Hearty soups with oats, barley and root vegetables are also abundant. Tartiflette, which is a rustic cheese and potato dish from the nearby Savoy region, is another local delicacy: a decadent baked Reblochon cheese mixed with boiled potatoes, bacon and onions. Fondue is also present on many menus. Yummy!

Other dishes you’ll find during your alpine activities in Valle d’Aosta are gnocchi alla bava made with flour and buckwheat covered with the everpresent melted Fontina. Pair this typical dish with either a white Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle or a red Enfer d’Anvier (some of which are organic). There’s also more polenta as well as crêpes. Then after all that cheese there are tegole dolci made with the famous Piedmont hazlenuts and almonds for a sweet kick.

Here are some suggestions as to where you can eat: “Pam Pam” Trattoria degli Artisti in Aosta; Ristorante Baita Ermitage in Courmayeur; Brasserie Les Pertzes in Cogne; Ristorante Alpage in Cervinia.

The best way to get to Val d’Aosta is via Turin but you also can arrive from Milan or Geneva. Make sure you have a sturdy 4-wheel drive to get through the snow if you’re driving. Another option is taking the train. If you want, stay in Turin for a while as it’s known for its fabulous cuisine, wine, museums: it has one of the most important museums of Egyptian artifacts outside Cairo and was the host of the 2006 Winter Olympics. Grab a bicerin, a luscious hot drink made with espresso, chocolate and cream or milk, then get your ski gear ready and head for the mountains. It’s time to get on the slopes, which are breathtakingly beautiful.

Fresh mountain air, sports and fortifying foods make the experience a perfect way to spend the winter in Italy.

Val d'Aosta Skiing poster 1950