TRAVERSING THE MOUNTAIN TRAILS OF NORTHERN ITALY

It’s that time of year when social media newsfeeds are taken over by images of European summer: scooters, beaches, Aperol spritz and antipasti platters. So instead of letting my mouth water one moment longer, I decided to do something productive with my nostalgia, and reflect back on a wonderful trip to Italy my fiancé and I had in August last year.

The little mountain village of Champoluc, nestled in the Ayas Valley (Val d’Ayas) in the region of Aosta in northern Italy, is just two hours’ drive north west of Milan. The town is only home to around 500 locals but this number swells to more than triple during the winter ski season. We visited in the ‘off season’, swapping the snow and skis for long hikes through endless mountain trails, fields of wildflowers, dinging goat bells and around turquoise glacial lakes. By the time we arrived in the last week of August, autumn was peeping its head around the corner, the summer holiday crowds were heading back home, and we felt as if we virtually had the place to ourselves.

The village of Champuloc itself straddles a river which is direct glacial run off from the mountains, giving it a striking milky blue colour. It’s got the typical feeling of an Italian village – think cobbled roads, an old church in the village square, local markets selling seasonal produce and scooters. But what makes Champoluc quite spectacular, are the vistas of the mountain peaks that circulate the village. From every point in the village the snow-capped mountain peaks jut above the rooftops, framing the church spire and the numerous wooden cabins that provide a bed for winter time tourists. In summer these cabins are adorned with baskets of colourful geraniums spilling out from each and every windowsill.

Champuloc in bloom: the snowy streets of Champoluc come to life with flowers in summer when tourists come to the village to explore the mountain trails in the Ayas Valley.

Local produce: a family run store where we would buy prosciutto, cheese and fresh baguettes to make picnic lunch feasts.

We started our days with a glutinous spread of almond and chocolate croissants and espressos in a local patisserie, with a huge map spread out on our small table, running our fingers over the mountain trails we wanted to explore that day. The trails in the Val d’Ayas that crisscross the mountain sides are connected with refugios – small wooden guesthouses with restaurants perched at various intervals along the route. Usually family run, refugios fuel hikers with hot soup and fresh bread, a spread of local cheese and charcuterie cuts and cold drinks. Maps of the mountain trails can be bought in the village before setting off, and hikes can be planned according to distance, intensity and viewpoints along the way. Or like us, routes can also be chosen based on location of refugios with reputations for serving the most delicious food. There are different trails for different levels of fitness, but the longer ones can be tough, gravelly in points, steep and often require scrambling over rocky outcrops, especially to get to the best view points. The stand out hike for me was a long walk from a tiny village called Saint Jacques in the north of the valley. Leaving behind the village continuing northwards at a steep incline, the hike takes you across grassy plateaus, winds you through mountain forests, past remote wooden cabins, across scree slopes and finally spits you out at the turquoise paradise of Lago Blu, a crystal clear, untouched glacial lake hidden between two mountains.

Each day we arrived back into town in the late afternoon with aching muscles, the sound of the wind still whistling through our ears, prickles stubbornly stuck in our socks and in my case, a whole faceful of new freckles. The promise of an icy cold Aperol and fresh cut prosciutto is what kept me going, and so just as we started our day with a glutinous spread of food we ended it in much the same way, fuelling our bodies for another day of exploring new trails.

Lago Blu: Pondering on a glacial lake

High above Champoluc: a solitary moment appreciating the view in between refugios

Upside down smile: The grassy plateaus that sit below the glacier provide some respite from steep uphill walking to Lago Blu.

Travellers tips:

  • Milan Malpensa airport is the closest international airport, taking around 2 hours by car directly to Champoluc

  • There are a variety of accommodation options in Champoluc ranging from budget to upmarket, booking ahead is advised

  • For those looking to relax sore muscles after days of rambling on the mountainside, the Monterosa Spa Centre is located in the village itself, with heated swimming pools, ice baths and massages.


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