‘It sounds like you’re having an Ann Summers party up there,’ a male traveller called, as our group erupted into girlish hysterics on the viewing terrace of Punta Helbronner, a mountain in the Mont Blanc massif. Unfortunately for him there was no lingerie in sight; instead our shrieks had been brought on by the threat of a lightning storm hitting us at 3,462 metres up. As my hair stood on end and my phone crackled, a guide ushered us back to the cable car, part of the new Mont Blanc skyway which offers the idler Alpine adventurer an easy way to get close to Europe’s largest peak.
Still, there’s something alluring about a storm in the Alps, especially when the lightning-lit mountain peaks can be viewed from the safe confines of a rotating carriage. After a descent over ragged rocks, glimpses of greenery and patches of snow back to the base, we embarked on the final leg of our journey to La Thuile, deep in the Aosta Valley.
This area, Italy’s smallest region, boasts some of the Alps’ highest peaks and is steeped in Roman history with the Arco di Augusto and the remains of a Roman theatre lying in Aosta’s 2,000-year-old centre. Our destination, La Thuile, is a sleepy old mining village that has been redeveloped as a ski resort, sharing the Espace San Bernardo ski area with France’s La Rosière. Yet despite the area’s assets, the valley can be overlooked by skiers in favour of neighbouring Courmayeur or the nearby Swiss resorts, which offer more when it comes to après-ski. With the arrival of La Thuile’s first five-star hotel Nira Montana in December, they hope to show that as well as top slopes they can offer a degree of refinery too.
The wood lodge certainly offered us a chic place to sit out a thunderstorm, as I dried out in the spa’s sauna. The hotel manager Giuseppe then aided our mountain recovery further with an apéritif in the wine cellar ahead of dinner. One thing is for sure about an Italian mountain holiday: you will be well fed. Four courses in, as our waiter brought out chocolates and coffee, I began to feel like a goose being fattened for the festive season.
Once the rain had cleared the next day we had a chance to see La Thuile more clearly. The storm had wiped out the whole area’s internet, but with the sun out and the mountains beckoning us, the solitude felt like a blessing. The trip the day before had shown us that the environment can be a hostile one, so handily we had the local man of the mountains Mauro to lead us. Mauro has climbed Mont Blanc many times and true to his craft lives in a hut in the mountains. His hair turned white after he survived an avalanche, but despite this he goes walking in flip-flops come snow or shine. While I lagged behind in trainers, with Mauro occasionally shouting what I could only take to be Italian words of encouragement in my direction, we were led up the valley to a magnificent waterfall.
Our efforts were rewarded with a barbecue on the return journey. As we enjoyed our grilled chicken washed down with white wine, a helicopter flew over and a mountain rescue ensued, as a rope was thrown down to hitch an injured hiker back to safety.
There was time for some more eating and drinking before our return. The valley is the home of Fontina Val d’Aosta, a cheese made from the unpasteurised milk of the Valdaostan Red Spotted cows. Farmers are very competitive about the cheese, meaning that you are never far away from a sample. Having tried out the area’s best supplies, we were treated to yet even more cheese with a hefty portion of raclette at local favourite Lo Riondet. Cheese and potatoes were followed by veal, beef, chicken, pork, venison, polenta and a healthy dose of tiramisu, all finished off with ‘Grolla’ — a local drink that combines coffee and génépi and is served in a carved wooden bowl.
In high spirits, a group of veteran soldiers from the Alpina (Italy’s mountain infantry, founded in 1872), dressed in their uniforms complete with raven-feathered hats, invited us to join them in a toast. Nightclubs may be absent in the Aosta Valley, but the golden oldies play on.