The plains meet the Alps head-on in the Valle d’Aosta, with its craggy mountains, rugged mountain folk, and year-round skiing at resorts such as Courmayeur and Entrèves in the shadow of Mont Blanc.
The storybook Valle d'Aosta is a tiny, semi-autonomous region of northwestern Italy tucked up north of Piemonte into a wide valley hemmed in to the south by national parks (great hiking and skiing in the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso), to the north by Switzerland, and to the west by France. (In fact, the local dialect is a variant of medieval French, not Italian.)
The Valle d'Aosta really is just one big valley, guarded by a castel-topped hill at its eastern entrance and by some of the mightiest peaks of the Alps all around. In fact, the two most famous mountains in all of Europe are in the Valle d'Aosta—which makes you wonder why the region isn't better known.
The mountains of the Valle d'Aosta
You'd think you would have heard of the Italian region with the two most famous mountains in Europe, right? Problem is, the Valle d'Aosta shares those mountains with its neighbors, with which the peaks are more traditionally associated.
See, big mountains often make for natural naitonal borders, so while most folks call the highest mountain in Europe by its French name, Mont Blanc, half of it is actually in Italy and known as Monte Bianco.
One of the most thrilling days in European travel is simply to ride the series of cable cars and gondolas from the village of Entrèves on the Italian side (outside the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur) up and over Monte Bianco/Mont Blanc and down to Chamonix in France—sailing over the Mer de Glace glacier and gliding past the Aiguile du Midi spire. (You can then take the faster, less scenic route back: by bus through the longest tunnel in Europe, 7.3 miles of world record darkness.)
The other major Valle d'Aosta mountain? Monte Cervino. Come on, surely you've heard of Monte Cervino? Of perhaps you know it by its Swiss name, The Matterhorn, a hooked-nose profile much more famous as the backdrop to Zermatt on the Switzerland than from the Italian side (which has its own very nice ski slopes, thank you very much, just above the Italian town of Breuil-Cervinia.)
Medeival castles and Roman ruins
Less famous—but nearly as intriguing—are the classic castles of the Valle d'Aosta (Castello di Fénis with its frescoed courtyard is my favorite), and the only (small) city in the region, the capital of Aosta, which still retains some ruins from its Roman foundation—a large marble city gate, a bridge, and bits of the Roman theater and amphitheater—alongside Dark Ages and early medeival decorations in its churches (particularly the choir floor mosaics and treasury ivories in the Duomo, and the 11th century frescoes in the Collegiata dei Santi Pietro e Orso church).
Sorry. Nothing fits that criteria.