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By wendy lynn from California USA, Summer 2012

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Page 6 of 21: Valle D'Aosta: Castles and Local Food

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Alex and Margaret at Fenis Castle in Valle d'Aosta, Italy

This is our last full day in Valle D'Aosta and we are looking forward to exploring some castles, something the valley is known for. Valle D'Aosta boasts a number of interesting castles, all in close proximity. Again, the valley has always been a strategic area between Italy and France, which explains the proliferation of castles.

First to Fenis castle. We are a bit slow this morning and don't make it there until 11am. It's beautiful from the outside, but we have to go on an official tour in order to enter the courtyard and castle; there is no leisurely wandering here. The tour is in French and Italian; Julia catches some of it but we miss a lot. We gather that Fenis Castle began in the 10th century under the jurisdiction of the Lord of Challant, viscount of Aosta. The Challants are a major family in this area connected to the House of Savoy. The castle boasts a number of frescoes and presents a lot of photo ops for our family. Still, it was disappointing to not be able to explore more freely.

Next we leave for nearby Saint Germain which is a cool, ruined castle we've often seen from a distance, high up on a hill over looking the main road. Unfortunately, it's completely closed because of it's dangerous, deteriorated condition. Drat. Another bust!

Next, off to Verres Castle, another large castle visible from the main road going through the Aosta Valley. The castle is situated on top of a precipitous crag overlooking the mountains and dominating the village of Verres. Verres Castle has been in existence in some form since the late 11th Century, again with many connections to the Challant family. We park in a small lot and take the ten minute walk up to the top of the hill. There's not really anybody here.

Although it's open, most of Verres Castle is closed off. Argh. A guy lets us pay the tour price (€5/adult) to wander, if we agree to whisper while the guided Italian tour goes on. We agree, but again, much of the castle isn't even accessible so although we don't have to stick with a group, there's not too much to see. Dad and Alex are frustrated. They want to explore the nooks and crannies. On the way down, Alex wants to buy a crossbow souvenir but gets a sword that promptly breaks. Margaret gets a fairy unicorn trinket. We're not feeling it.

Now we are off to the town of Arnad. We've decided to forgo Italian castles and shift to Italian food. A colleague's food blog directed us to Bertolin Salumini, renowned for Lardo and other local meat products. But the restaurant is closed, although the store is open. Joe buys some donkey salami among other products. The Bertolin people direct us to Rouge et Noir, a restaurant in town that will be open despite the fact that this is siesta time.

Rouge et Noir is open, but the chef is on vacation! Nonetheless, the lady there offers us a salami and cheese plate. We accept, thinking this will be an economic and simple way to tide our hunger. She brings lots of salami, cheese, and local pane nero (black bread). She also brings a special potato and meat sausage, a large portion of great tasting boiled potatoes, and some lardo and pastrami with a fresh herb and olive oil marinade. Very good. We think we've hit the jackpot. We end with gelato and espressos. We thought this would be an economical and local way to eat lunch, but the bill turns out to be just over $100, which is more than expected and really more than the meal merited.

We leave feeling like today has not been the best use of our resources, but we try to use the rest of the day wisely. Joe and Julia go off to do our first load of laundry while the others stay home and relax. Laundry was €8 although it cost Joe €11 as he made a few mistakes while figuring out the system. Italian washers automatically put soap into the machine. That's new.

After laundry, everyone but Julia walks our B&B's neighborhood called Grand Vert. The church and cemetery are closed, We walk up the road which is deserted, into the hills, and follow a small river to a small waterfall where the kids put their feet in and catch a frog. There are occasional houses, all stone of course. Joe takes Alex and Margaret exploring a seemingly deserted house, despite Wendy's protestations. Along the road, the kids pick wildflowers. Despite the quiet natural setting, we encounter quite a few signs telling us we're being surveilled on camera and that things are private. Mom feels a little uncomfortable. The bugs start to come out so we decide to head back. It's already about 9pm but the sun is just starting to set. Love the long summer days! In SF at this time of night, it would be dark already, even in summer. Interesting. We try to figure out the scientific reasons for this.

We get home and still have to think about dinner. Lea, who has been a bit more standoffish than expected given Internet raves of her availability and helpfulness (Joe thinks it's the language barrier) suggests a nearby restaurant in Isogne that serves the local cheese soup Joe has been searching for.

Lea calls ahead to Al Maniero Ristorante who agree to stay open. We leave immediately and get there fairly easily in 15 or 20 minutes. It's down a small, side road -- the kind of place we'd never find on our own. Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, it promises a cozy ambiance where most of the few diners eating al fresco. Local and usual smokers nearby.

The meal at Al Maniero is excellent! Julia has gnocchi with red sauce. Alex has ribbon (egg) pasta with porcini. Margaret has plain fusilli. But the kids don't know what they're missing. Wendy and Joe know what to order, and although they aren't starving they do want to sample some of that local food we've been craving.

We order two of the cheese soups called Zuppa alla Valpellinentze. It's a little like French onion soup but includes cabbage, bread, meats and topped with Fontina before baking in an earthenware bowl. Really heavy but great. We can't finish it but feel compelled to order more items. The quality of food is excellent and they did keep the place open for us.

We order a sampler of local cheeses, served with cherry jam on the side. The fontina is the best, but Wendy particularly enjoys the blue. Joe has a stew like meat dish, served on polenta while drinking a reserve Belgian beer. The waiter is friendly and attentive with decent English. He's an artist who has lived in NYC but dreams of moving with his Norwegian girlfriend to Norway.

Wendy has another good glass of local, red wine. (The hills of Valle D'Aosta are covered with wine grapes.) The entire meal was €92.20. By far the best meal we've had so far and well worth the visit. Plus, it was a good value to boot! There is a sense in this valley that it takes time to uncover its treasures. A shame that we will be moving on soon. We got home and pack up in anticipation of moving to France the next day.

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