Introducing Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso
Italy's oldest national park is also one of its most diverse – and aptly named. Gran Paradiso, formed in 1922 after Vittorio Emanuele II gave his hunting reserve to the state (ostensibly to protect the endangered ibex), is a veritable 'grand paradise'. What makes it special is a tangible wilderness feel (rare in Italy). The park's early establishment preceded the rise of the modern ski resort; as a result, the area has (so far) resisted the lucrative lure of the tourist trade with all its chairlifts, dodgy architecture and après-ski clubs.
Gran Paradiso incorporates the valleys around the eponymous 4061m peak (Italy's 7th highest), three of which are in the Valle d'Aosta: the Valsavarenche, Val di Rhêmes and the beautiful Valle di Cogne. On the Piedmont side of the mountain, the park includes the valleys of Soana and Orco.
The main stepping stone into the park is tranquil Cogne (population 1481, elevation 1534m), a refreshing antidote to overdeveloped Breuil-Cervinia on the opposite side of the Valle d'Aosta. Aside from its plethora of outdoor opportunities, Cogne is known for its lace-making; you can buy the local fabrics at a charming craft and antique shop, Le Marché Aux Puces.