Head west for two and a half hours from Milan's Malpensa Airport, and you will find yourself between mountains towering tens of thousands of feet above you in the Aoste valley. At the far end of the gorge, below the imposing peak of Mt. Blanc, is the village and ski area of Courmayeur. Not the most challenging or largest of the world's major ski areas, Courmayeur's claim to fame is a setting of unrivaled grandeur, surrounded by rugged peaks including the towering Mt. Blanc. While Aspen may have a Disneyfied Victorian-style district surrounding a tiny historic core, Courmayeur is far more authentic. The existing town dates from the middle ages, and offers an enjoyable place for wandering the streets after a day at the slopes.
Because it is fairly close to Malpensa Airport, it is possible to make a decent trip out of a four day weekend from the American east coast, including two days of skiing and one day of sightseeing. (United Airlines often has weekend websavers in the winter for about $300 including all taxes.) Making a quick trip is very atypical, however. Most people go on package tours for one week. In my mind, the ski area is far too small to be enjoyable for that length of time. Renting a room or going out to dinner on your own will get you some strange looks. Besides, given the high romance vs. adrenaline rush ratio of the ski area, it's best to take a date.
The Courmayeur area includes several villages along the highway in the valley. Resort development starts at Morgex (pronounced More-zhay), and continues through Courmayeur to Entreves and La Palud. All of these areas are no more than five minutes by car from the town center, where there is a free parking lot at the entrance off the highway. For those without a car, there is a ski-friendly local bus service.
The base of the ski area is actually several thousand feet above the valley. At times, there will be no snow in the valley, but ample coverage at the ski area. To get there, you take one of two gondolas. The first starts two blocks south of the Courmayeur town center, and the second starts a few blocks down the hill toward Entreves from La Palud. Daily lift tickets covering the gondola rides and all the lifts at the ski area (about $25) can be purchased at either departure point. A third gondola at La Palud takes you near the top of Mt. Blanc. There are no maintained ski areas there, but there is a stunning view, and people constantly take skis to the top and then ski down over the French side of the border to the town of Chamoix. If you buy a Courmayeur lift ticket of two days or more, it will include the use of the Mt. Blanc Gondola. Otherwise, the trip up Mt. Blanc costs about $25.
Despite the large number of lifts, the ski area is quite small. There are four main sections, two of which are just above the main base. Up to the left, there is a wide open bowl that offers decent intermediate skiing. Up to the right are a few short runs along tree-covered trails that are largely used by the ski school. The third area is at the highest point of the mountain, accessible by a second series of lifts above the bowl. (This advanced area was closed for lack of snow on my visit.) The fourth area is on the tree-covered side of the mountain facing Mt. Blanc. Its base is reached from the Gondola from Entreves, but it is also accessible from other lifts. This area has a handful of slopes at all levels, with stunning views of Mt. Blanc.
Restaurants and Bars
A pedestrian street in the center of Courmayeur hosts about ten restaurants, and at least a dozen more are found scattered a few blocks from the center of town and along the highway. There are a few as well in both Morgex and La Palud. Pizzerias are the most common type of restaurant, usually serving pizzas, homemade pasta, and meat dishes in the traditional multi-course Italian style. Many restaurants tend toward the Germanic Alpine, with cold meats and such. A two-course meal with beer or wine at a mid-range restaurant will typically run just over $20. Several bars also exist along the pedestrian strip, and an Internet cafe (5 Euro for 45 min.) can be found just to the east of the center along a cobbled alley.
Pizzeria Du Tunnel, Via Circonvallazione
Great homemade pasta and wood fired pizzas can be found in this very popular spot, just down the hill from Courmayeur town center. The single dining room includes an attractive wooden loft just below the ceiling (watch your head) to give the restaurant some semblance of a second floor. A meal of pasta, salad, tiramisu, and beer cost 20.30 Euro.
Mont Frety Ristorante, Rue Roma
This very popular spot is on the main street, one block south of the start of the pedestrian restrictions. Great food and fair atmosphere, with a menu featuring local cuisine. Veal stew with polenta, a mixed salad and two drinks cost 23 Euro.
Cordon Solare Restaurant, Rue Roma
This extremely popular place is on the pedestrian street, and has a crowded bar separated from a more formal dining room. Don't know how the food was -- they turned this single diner away, saying they were full despite ample empty tables in the dining room.
Ristorante Leone Rosso
Although it has a cozy dining room with stone walls and antique maps, its atmosphere was ruined by playing a loud Italian radio station that featured obnoxiously distracting commercials, but virtually no music. Mediocre food. Lamb chops with polenta, salad, beer cost 28.80 Euro.
Pizza Al Taglo
A great takeout pizza place near the parking lot at the entrance to town. A takeout slice and a soda will cost about 3 Euro.
Cafe des Guides, Rue Roma
Good watering hole for a beer after skiing, with high-backed wooden benches great for lounging.
Zillo's Bar Birreria
An attractive, no-nonsense bar on the pedestrian strip.
During the week, half the people in the area appear to be British package tourists, so hotel reservations are often made well in advance. There is a hotel board, however, at the entrance to Courmayeur town across the street from the parking lot. The airport-style board features red and green lights showing what hotels have vacancy, the number of stars for each hotel, and a phone to contact each hotel.
Hotel Valle D'Aoste - La Palud
Hotel Vallee Blanche - A very attractive two star hotel right at the base of the Mt. Blanc Gondola at La Palud. It's run by a
very pleasant couple who speak Italian, French, and English. My room cost 42 Euros per night for a single, but the maximum rate posted for the room was 96 Euros. Rooms feature simple and clean private baths with hot showers, satellite TV, and private phone. Parking is available, but may cost extra at peak times, as the lot is shared by the Gondola.
The Vallee D'Aoste is filled with middle-ages castles, all of
which can be seen from the sides of the highway. Well-marked signs lead you
to them, where you can usually pay a small fee (about $3) to go in and explore.
A great choice is the Fine Castle, just east of Aoste town.
Aoste town hosts some Roman ruins and tourist shopping on its pedestrian street. The ruins, however, are not that spectacular. There is a gondola that takes you to a small ski area in the mountains above the town.
Turino is a little under two hours away, where you can see the famous Shroud of Turin nestled in the corner of the city's cathedral. The Italians have the thing stuffed between pieces of plexiglass and hanging in front of a big fluorescent lightbulb to give you a good view.
David G. Young went skiing in Courmayeur over MLK weekend in January 2002.
See the complete set of photos from this trip.