Aosta is a small town in northwestern Italy at the mouth of the Buthiera and Dora Baltee rivers. The city is located at the crossroads of roads leading to the alpine passages of Little and Great Saint Bernard and the Mont Blanc tunnel. Near the city are the highest mountain peaks in Europe: Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and Monte Roza.
It is almost impossible to visit this part of the Alps without passing Aosta. But, definitely, because it is located at the intersection of very important roads, Aosta is very rarely a destination. Most often it is just a waypoint on the way to some of the many famous places in this part of the world.
That was my story for a long time, too. I have been passing this town for years and never had enough time to visit it. The usual comment ‘Aosta – we are near the tunnel below Mont Blanc’ has already become a usual phrase when traveling through this part of Italy. And then, on one April morning, I corrected that mistake and finally visited Aosta.
That day, unlike my previous visits to this area, the road took me through the city on the way to the legendary Grand Sant Bernard Pass. Looking at the streets of Aosta, I felt a slight sense of guilt that I never stopped in this city, but the real reason to actually stop was that I was simply dying for a good cup of coffee.
Over the years, my taste changed with the new experiences I was encountering. Customs and habits evolved, almost all but one – an absolute love for Italian espresso. I realized long ago that Italians are serious about their coffee even more than about their food. There are a couple ways to offend an Italian, but one of the worst is to serve him bad coffee. That is why you can be sure that the coffee you will get in an Italian cafe can be only epic.
The previous evening, I arrived in Italy and spent the night at a near campsite. Although I started the morning with a hearty breakfast and a cup of strong coffee, there is a serious limit to what kind of coffee you can brew in front of a camper tent. When I packed up the camp and got ready to continue my trip in the direction of Switzerland, I realized that I really missing a traditional cup of Italian espresso. Without much hesitation, instead of just waving Aosta this time, I decided to walk through her streets and visit a couple of cafes.
To immediately remove the feeling of uncertainty that has probably completely overwhelmed you at this point: the coffee was great. For that matter, Aosta is a true Italian town with mathematically precisely arranged cafes (aka at every turn) packed with the best Italian coffee you can imagine. But it turns out Aosta is much more.
In the year 25 BC, the Romans founded the colony of Augusta Praetoria Salassorum, housing 3,000 retired veterans. After 11 BC Aosta became the capital of the Alpes Graies (“Gray Alps”) province of the Empire. Considering such a beginning of the history of the city, it is not surprising that the central part of the city is the Porta Preatoria – the gate of the former Roman garrison. Roman Empire landmarks pass by as you walk through the streets of this beautiful Italian town. You won’t even notice some of them, as they are typically embedded in much more recent structures in a charmingly relaxed Italian way.
Another interesting story about this city is that it was chosen by some Hollywood genius on experimental drugs to represent Sokovia – the typical Eastern European city in Marvel’s movie Avengers II. For that movie, Aosta was reorganized into an Eastern European City with the change of all boards, advertisements, and signs in the city with new boards written in pure Serbian Cyrillic. In the end, Sokovia in that movie was Roman-Serbian town in an Alpine environment. I know, I know, I said at the beginning that the movie was the work of a ‘genius’. But it was interesting to see, at least in the movie, how this town would look teleported into Serbia.
Locals will often call their customs, language, and cuisine Valdostan culture. It takes a while to understand that Valdostan originated from the French Val d’Aosta – the Aosta Valley. Is it strange that one Italian province is named after a French name? Not in the least. One of the experiences you can have in Aosta is trying to talk to autochthonous people in their language. The local language is called Valdôtainand. It is a dialect of Arpitan, language spoken in the areas around Mont Blanc peak. For me, this language is a confusing mix of French and Italian. With my mediocre knowledge of French, basic understanding of Italian, and almost non-existent knowledge of Latin, I could understand locals when they speak, but realistically I could not translate a single word spoken separately.
In the end, Aosta turned out to be a beautiful small town. Tucked away in a green valley, surrounded by mountain peaks that rip the sky, home to two alpine rivers and full of Roman ruins, it is a place that deserves to be a destination, too. I’m glad that after many years, I finally corrected the injustice done to Aosta and spent one beautiful day in her charming streets.