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Introducing Valle d'Aosta

While its Dolomite cousins exhibit notable German tendencies, Aosta's nuances are French. The result is a curious hybrid culture known as Valdostan, a historical mix of French Provençal and northern Italian that has infiltrated the food (polenta, spicy sausages and the famous fontina cheese) and ensured the survival of an esoteric local language, Franco-Provençal or Valdôtain, a dialect still used by approximately 55% of the population.

Comprising one large glacial valley running east–west, which is bisected by several smaller valleys, the semi-autonomous Val d'Aosta is overlooked by some of Europe's highest peaks, including Mont Blanc (4810m), the Matterhorn (Monte Cervino; 4478m), Monte Rosa (4633m) and Gran Paradiso (4061m). Not surprisingly, the region offers some of the best snow facilities on the continent, with opportunities for skiers to descend hair-raisingly into France and Switzerland over lofty glaciers or traverse them in equally spectacular cable cars.

When the snow melts, the hiking is even more sublime, with access to the 165km Tour du Mont Blanc, Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, and Aosta's two blue-riband, high-altitude trails: the Alte Vie 1 and 2.

Aosta's roots are Roman – the eponymous town guards some significant ruins – while annexation by the House of Savoy in the 11th century led to the building of numerous medieval castles. In the 12th and 13th centuries, German-speaking Walsers from Switzerland migrated into the Val di Gressoney, and a handful of villages still preserve the vernacular language and architecture.