At the foothill of the Alps’ tallest peaks -such as Mont Blanc, Great Paradise, Grandes Jorasses, and many more- Aosta Valley is a wonderful valley in the Italian Alps. The smallest Italian region is not only a gigantic playground for sports lovers to enjoy breathtaking mountainous scenery, but it will also appeal to culture and history lovers. Heritage in the entire region of Aosta Valley has left several footprints: Aosta, its largest town, is packed with Roman monuments, a well-preserved middle age center, and several historical buildings and churches. Villages and hamlets also hide several treasures. The castles and the fortified houses scattered in the central and lateral valleys are definitely worth a visit.
Over the centuries and till nowadays, Aosta Valley plays a strategic role in connecting the Italian peninsula with the rest of Europe. The very high western Alps can be crossed through the Great Saint Bernard Pass (2,473 m) between Italy and Switzerland, and the Little Saint Bernard Pass (2188 m) connecting France to Italy. The pre-existing prehistoric paths were upgraded by the Romans, who transformed them into proper infrastructures to help their expansion ambitions (the Consular road to Gaul). Hence the importance of the valley’s inhabitants to protect themselves from potential invaders. The Romans built several checkpoints across the main valley.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Aosta Valley was the object of all desires. Burgundians, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, Mores, and many others conquered the region. At the end of the Middle Ages, Aosta Valley was included in the domains of the House of Savoy. Initially based in Chambéry and then in Turin, the House of Savoy turned into becoming the Royal Family of Italy in 1861.
Like in most of Europe, feudalism was well implanted in the region. Several noble families administered the area: they erected castles and fortified houses, an outward expression of their wealth and power. During the 11th century, these first castles were often built over older fortifications. High on their rocky peaks, they controlled the main roads crossing the region. The layout of the older castles was composed of a dungeon or squared tower surrounded by ramparts. These were not only military fortresses but also the centre of political, social, and cultural life. The House de Challant was probably, at the time, the most powerful family of Aosta Valley; they possessed the title of lord and viscount of Aosta, and they were strongly connected with the House of Savoy.
The architecture of the castles of Aosta Valley gradually changed over the centuries. Medieval fortified castles meant to defend the valley from invaders turned into Renaissance-style palaces with increased emphasis on comfort and sophistication. Stationery stone bridges replaced drawbridges, large windows were added, new buildings were often added, or replaced the older.
A few castles of the Aosta Valley may look like medieval castles straight out of a fairytale; in fact, they are much younger than that. They date back to the 19th century, a time when Romanticism was at its best and when architects found their inspiration in the wild and hostile nature of the western Alps. Monuments were then designed to evoke a time that has long passed, especially the Medieval times and Gothic style- or at least what they imagined as the Gothic style, so not always historically accurate. Two great spots not to miss: the castle of the village of Saint-Pierre and the House of Savoy castle in Gressoney Saint-Jean.
There are indeed plenty of castles and monuments to be discovered in the Aosta Valley, so be sure to take the time to visit a few of them if you are in the region. A day trip can easily be combined with a ski trip in winter or hiking trips in summer.
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