Italy & France – The Southern Alps
Leaving Switzerland we drove up and over the St Bernard pass to get to Italy. It doesn’t seem like there is any easy way to cross this border, yet for centuries people have been braving these mountain passes. At the top we saw an impressive statue of St Bernard, as well as a few of the lovely dogs sharing his name.
Winding our way down into Italy we passed by quaint little villages with stone shingle roofs. We stopped to wander around one and have a closer look. It was a Sunday and the place felt deserted, except for one old lady coming out of the church.
Driving down into the Aosta valley we were not immediately impressed, but we found a free parking lot just outside the city centre so things were looking up. At the info centre the very helpful lady gave us a detailed map of all the hiking trails in the area as well as told us that to see all the main attractions in town there was a combination ticket for €7 each. The town was full of ancient Roman ruins so we decided to have a look around, and it was well worth it.
The next day we headed west up the valley hoping to see Mount Blanc on the French border. From the beautiful Lago d’Arpy we got some nice reflections of the mountain range and saw the mountain in its impressive glory from another viewpoint.
Traveling to the eastern side of the valley we drove towards the Matterhorn, on the Swiss border, and were lucky to get a glimpse of Europe’s other great mountain through the clouds. The iconic view of the Matterhorn is obviously from the Swiss side, but we thought it looked pretty good.
Three days was probably not enough in the Aosta valley but we moved on to Gran Paradiso National Park. Again we found ourselves surrounded by stunning mountains and beautiful blue lakes. The Alps truly are incredible.
Gran Paradiso was pretty cold though, and we hiked through a bit of snow to get to a trail that led us along a ridge where we saw a few Ibex who were not at all afraid of us. We also saw a lot of marmots, who were also not very afraid of us!
Before heading up and over the mountains into France we stopped in the little town of Vernant, famous for its murals of the Pinocchio story. There were not just a couple paintings; the whole town is covered in colourful murals. And a lot of them show a story that I was not totally familiar with only being exposed to the Disney version.
The Park4Night app had shown us that there was a fort we could camp at for free on the Italy/France border. Not knowing what to expect we drove up the windy road, past ski lifts, to find a huge ruined fort perched at the top. We explored around, finding all sorts of stairs and tunnels that probably should have been closed off for safety (and people like Luke who see and dark scary tunnel and don’t think twice about going in).
There are a series of forts spread across the top of the mountain range, originally built by the Italians in the 1800’s. The French took them not long after from what I read, and it sounds like there was a lot of dispute over this particular border. The forts were used again by the French in WW2 but are now abandoned. We were so intrigued by the area that we spent a second full day checking out 2 of the other forts. It also helped that it was one of the best free campsites we have ever come across, amazing views and even a visit by a friendly little fox.
Driving down into France we stopped in Tende after seeing signs for ancient rock carvings. We found the local museum, which was free, and had a great exhibit on the carvings as well as a history of the area. We hiked around the area in the afternoon and then decided we should try and find somewhere to swim. Near the tiny town of Saorge we found the most amazing river, deep blue and crystal clear.
We had come down this way to visit our friends Matt and Mary in Sospel, a little village about an hour north of Monaco. Luke and Matt spent some time on bikes and we had a good visit. Luke and I caught a ride down to Monaco with Mary to check out the tiny country. While made out to be very glamorous and exciting in reality it was hot and busy and just a big seaside town with fancy restaurants and casinos. I could probably blame it on the heat, because it was a nice looking city in a beautiful spot, but we didn’t stay long.
Up next, Cinque Terre and the magnificent Italian Dolomites!