Aosta Valley, Italy
An overlooked Roman taste of the Italian Alps
Aosta is distinct from the gas-lit streets and skiing families of the alpine French towns just minutes away. Rather, once you arrive here, fresh from a drive that includes a seven-mile tunnel drive beneath Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco, you'll notice the mix of cozy chalets and austere medieval ruins on the narrow streets. This is where modern France, modern Italy, and the Roman Empire collide in the mountains and then serve you dinner.
This region of Italy is known for its spectacular meats which gave rise to the local specialty, carbonada: a hearty, wine-based stew of chopped beef and pancetta cooked in butter and served over creamy polenta. Fontina cheese also hails from the valley; try fonduta valdostana, a velvety volcanic fontina best served with fresh bread. The valley also produces excellent red wines, but the drink is genepì: a sweet, herbal liqueur made from alpine wormwood (warning: it's a cousin to absinthe).
When (if ever) you're done feasting, walk it off in the verdant Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso or explore the ruins within the city limits. Among the pervasive carved wood sculptures, crumbling Teatro Romano (Roman Theatre), Arco di Augusto (Arch of Augustus), and remnants of the old city wall, the coolest site is the 1,500-year-old Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, with its stunningly ornate, Hagrid-sized doors and explorable catacombs.
If you're here at the end of January, enjoy the Fiera di Sant'Orso (Saint Ursus Fair), which began more than 1,000 years ago, a celebration of Aosta's history with local artisans and traditional cuisine, music, and folklore. Because in Italian orso means bear, the locals pun gently on the saint's name with a saying: If the weather's nice on Sant'Orso Day (Saint Ursus Day), hibernating bears will sleep another 40 days. Bears. -- Gabrielle Van Tassel, Thrillist contributor
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