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|Just twenty miles from Aosta, Saint-Vincent is set in a well-protected
and lush nook of the Mount Zerbion foothills. It is the quintessential vacation playground, because not only
does it offer mineral water spas and Europe's largest casino, it is also a great starting point for unforgettable
hikes up the slopes, drives through nearby Gran Paradiso National Park, and sightseeing excursions
to many local towns and churches. With an abundance of hotels in all price ranges, it makes a perfect base, even if it's a spur-of-the-moment decision.
One obligatory excursion from Saint-Vincent is a castle hunt. You won't have to look far. Driving west on A5, you'll soon pass the imposing bulk of Châtillon, built in 1343. About 5 miles farther on you'll come to Fénis, one of the greatest (and most picturesque) late feudal residences in the entire alpine area. Built in the 12th century, it was "acquired" and renovated during the 14th and 15th centuries by the Challant family, whom you must thank for the magnificent courtyard and frescoes of daily life, painted circa 1414. Gourmets will love the well-appointed kitchen.
An earlier member of the same noble family built the castle at Verrès, equally distant from Saint-Vincent (but in the opposite direction). Once described as "one of the most imposing manor houses which a sovereign has ever permitted a subject to build," the 30-cubic-meter monoblock defense structure is an astounding combination of mammoth size and severe architecture. It is considered one of the greatest examples of late Gothic military architecture in all Europe.
The bastion of Verrès was built to protect the family's nearby manor house, Issogne. It is just a short walk from the Verrès train station, and if you have the time (or inclination) for only one castle, this should probably be it. With origins dating back to the 12th century, the exquisite country manor doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it is an amazingly well-preserved masterpiece, mostly designed and furnished by Giorgio di Challant in the 16th century. Frescoes everywhere depict what daily life was like at that time. The gracious courtyard hosts an extraordinary pomegranate fountain that shows how delicate and whimsical wrought iron can be at the hands of a true artist, while the richly decorated rooms and halls make Issogne a fine example of the period when northern Gothic was slowly being replaced by the Renaissance from the south.
There are loads of other castles to visit in this area. The colorful Saint Pierre,
in the town of the same name and visible for miles around, is more fanciful than most of its local counterparts.
Probably influenced by the romantic fantasies of the Mad King Ludwig, it has turrets galore, as well as a
pretty little church. Cly (near the town of Saint-Denis), was built in the 11th to 13th centuries; it is much
more primitive and spectacular to see from afar, and features a beautiful chapel (open only by appointment).
Quart, a massive structure built between 1100 and 1600 by another important local family, is a great example
of the "fortified
home"; it is not open to the public yet, but a very well-marked path leads from it to the top of a nearby
promontory where you can get stunning views of the castle and the valley (and have a picnic!). On the road
to Cogne and all its wonderful nature hikes, you can't help but spot charming Aymavilles, a unique
structure that is half feudal manor house and half rococo family home. Last on our list (but by no means the
end of Valle D'Aosta's castles!) is lonely but valiant Bard, a foreboding 19th-century fortress that cascades down
an entire hillside into a gorge. There was another fortress on this spot, which guards the entrance to the
entire Valle D'Aosta region. In 1800, no less than 40,000 of Napoleon's troops swooped down across the Alps
and besieged the spot. The garrison held out for 15 days against this impossible assault, and when they finally
surrendered they were awarded honors by their victors. The local nobility, the House of Savoy, later built
the present fortress between 1830 and 1838. Since it was never actually attacked, it is in a beautiful state
of conservation and will remain indelible in a child's mind forever.