Trip to Courmayeur and Milan - March 2013
Aosta valley, great food in beautiful ski slopes, view to Monte Bianco or Mont Blanc as it is called on the other side of the border, gondolas with a stunning view, thermal spa with outdoor pools with a mountain view, the incredible cathedral know as "the duomo", the beautiful arcade Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, making of parma ham and parmeggiano reggiano, gelato, Castello Sforzesco – this is a trip report from a short ski trip to Courmayeur in the Aosta valley in northern Italy. In addition we also stopped by Milano (Milan) for a couple of days and took a day trip to Parma to see how the amazing Parma ham is made.
Please get in touch if you have any questions or comments. All pictures are taken by Nikki and Gard with our Panasonic Lumix camera and note there is a copyright sign on them.
Prelude and planning
So I knew that I wanted a skiing and a city destination within Europe and it was maybe not that surprising that I thought of Italy. As you can see from our homepage we have been to Rome, Bologna, Florence, Tuscany, Venice etc. (click on the cities to read the trip reports) and I have to admit it: I love Italy. The food is great, the language sounds great, they have a lot of interesting history and they can also provide some pretty good skiing in the Alps. I first came across an article about Courmayeur in 2010 and ever since it has been on my wish list to visit. I decided to make it into a surprise trip for Nikki and I told her that the trip would include a ski destination and a city destination. I sorted out the plane tickets online on the SAS homepage and it was a round trip to Milan. I also sorted out the bus from Milan to Courmayeur in the Aosta valley on the Savda homepage and the tickets were 33.5 € each. And in the end I booked hotels in Courmayeur and in Milan. You have to love the internet – it is so easy to make all the bookings yourself online these days!
The trip begins
The bus ride to Courmayeur was not that exciting to start with as we were just driving on the highway so it was convenient to bring out the iPad and play...dare I say it?...CandyCrush. But soon the landscape changed and it was a bit like driving in the western part of Norway. We were driving in deep valleys with scattered houses and we were surrounded by majestic, snow clad mountains. It seems like this has also been a hydropower production area in the past as there were old pipes leading water down from the mountains to the power plants. There were also a few castles along the way so this region has a long history. We made a short stop in Aosta and changed to the Courmayeur bus and at this point Nikki got to know the final destination. The bus ride from Aosta to Courmayeur takes about 1 hour and the mountains seems to get even more majestic. So finally at 6 pm we arrived at the small town of Courmayeur and we walked over the Hotel Berthod that I had booked in advance. I have posted a hotel review on TripAdvisor.
Arriving in Courmayeur
We were dropped off in Courmayeur at Piazzale de Monte Bianca. Courmayeur is practically on the border to France as you can drive through a tunnel and end up in Chamonix. And just for the record: Monte Bianco is the Italian name for Mont Blanc and it sounds a lot better in Italian. The mountain is the highest peak in western Europe with a top at 4808 meter (15775 feet). As I had taken a virtual walk in the city center on Google maps it was not a problem to walk to our accommodation for the next few days: Hotel Berthod. The location of the hotel is great – located just about 600 meters walk from cable car station that takes you to the skiing area at Plan Checrouit and also within meters from restaurants and bars.
After a long trip that included planes, train and buses it was time to sit back and relax and we decided to have dinner at Aria located just 1 minute down the road from the hotel (have a look at the Courmayeur Google map that I have made). I had of course done my homework and mapped out a few restaurants that could be a good option for us. We came to Aria at about 8.30 PM and the place was totally deserted – it shows that Italians prefer to have their dinner a bit later than we are used too ;-) We got a glass of complimentary prosecco to start with and maybe that is why we decided to go all in with antipasti, primi and secondi ;-) Nikki went for boned rabbit as a starter while I went for a taste of cold cuts from the Aosta region. I love tasting the regional hams and cheese and the products from the region were excellent and Nikki enjoyed the rabbit. My primi was gnocci in a local blue cheese blend which was good but Nikki’s homemade spaghetti with goose ragu was a lot better. And as a main dish we both had veal cheek which was really juicy and tender and it was served on a celery puree that was delicious. In the end we were pretty full so we decided to share a chocolate soufflé with a saffron sauce – I don’t think I have had that combination before. All in all I think this was our best meal in Courmayeur and the service was great. The only “problem” that I can think of was that our waitress forgot to serve me the dessert wine that I ordered. I even reminded her and then she seemed a bit annoyed and told me that she would serve it together with the dessert. But she forgot it and it was first served after I had finished the dessert – and at that point I just sent it back. The meal was about 90 € for the two of us (115 USD) excluding wine.
Good morning Courmayeur – organizing skis and hit the slopes
When we got up the next morning and looked out the window we were a bit disappointed as it was drizzling and it was quite cloudy. But after a breakfast at the hotel we walked over to the cable car station (see the Courmayeur Google map). There is a ski shop next to the cable car station called Noleggio Courmayeur and we rented downhill skis and boots for about 100 € for the both of us for three days – the receptionist at Hotel Berthod gave us a card and it seemed like we got a bit of discount due to this. The great thing about this ski shop was that we could suite up and just leave our shoes in a locker in the shop and then just walk across the street to the cable car. We also stored our skis/boots in the shop at night. We also bought ski passes for the Courmayeur area (but you can also buy a ski pass that covers Chamonix, Verbier etc) and then we got into the large 120 person gondola that took us to Plan Checrouit at about 1700 meters (5580 feet).
At Plan Checrouit you can take a number of lifts to various altitudes and there are also facilities like toilets, ski rental, a hotel (if you want to hit the slopes early) and restaurants. We kept to the longer blue slopes as the visibility was not that great due to snow in the air. But it was great to see that there were no lines to get into the lifts. One of the treats here is that you can also get great food in the slopes. There are skiing areas here in Norway as well but the restaurants in the slopes in Norway seems to be more focused on serving junk food. So it was great to stop at La Chaumière and have a great lunch. Again I had some cold cuts and the “lardo” is excellent (even if it seems to be more or less pure fat!) and served on a platter made from a tree stem it was quite rustic. I also went for some Aosta valley cheese and that was also great even if they seem to lack a bit of variation. Nikki went for pasta ragu again while I tried the polenta with cheese. It seems like polenta is a trademark in the area and you can get it everywhere. The polenta that I had was drowning in cheese and it was not that great – but the tiramisu for dessert was excellent. The lunch was 65€ (84 USD) to give you an idea of the cost. It is not easy hitting the slopes after a big lunch but we tried our best.
I also tried out one of the red slopes and I took the gondola to Lac Checrouit at about 2100 meters. When I took the gondola up the fog was getting thicker and thicker and in the end I could really see much at all. When I started on the slope I could not see a thing and I ended up in an off-piste area instead of in the prepared slope. So that was a bit on the exciting side for me but I did make it down without breaking anything.
The Terme Pré-Saint-Didier has a number of rooms with various functions. You can find saunas, Turkish baths, ice cold pools, relaxing rooms etc. Outside there is a big garden where you can find a number of pools and waterfalls where you can relax. The water that comes out of the hot springs has a temperature of about 37 degrees Celsius (about 98 degrees Fahrenheit) and it was lovely to soak into the pools and just enjoy the breathtaking mountain scenery that was surrounding us. There was still a bit of snow left in the garden so it was a bit cold outside but that didn’t really matter when we were soaked into the pools.
We stayed at the thermal baths for a few hours and it was great to loosen up sore muscles after the skiing. The facilities are quite good as you get a locker to place you things, you get the robe and towel and there are places to hang the robe and towel when you enter the various rooms. We had a bit of trouble finding the right bus to catch to go back to Courmayeur but a bus driver stopped to pick us up when he saw our confused look. It is only a 10 minute drive from Courmayeur to Pré-Saint-Didier.
tripadvisor for restaurant suggestions
Again we did not make a reservation but they did have a table for us when we got there. I decided to try out a platter of cold cut and cheese (again) and it seems like I never get sick of it. This time we got something that looks liked pancetta, lardo, ham, some sort of breasola and also some lovely salami. The one salami was dark red and it has a looser consistency than I’m used to. We also got some bread on the side that was amazing – it looked like an Italian style pizza but it only has a bit of herbs sprinkled on top of it. Served fresh out of the oven it was a perfect companion to the cold cuts on the table. The restaurant had an extensive pizza menu as well but it would be too much to have a whole pizza as a primi. So instead we ordered one pizza and shared it – and we also got it modified. So we ended up having a mozzarella , prosciutto and rocket pizza! The pizza was good but there was a bit too much rocket topping in my opinion.
When I saw that they had beef in balsamic vinegar on the menu I had to try that (I have good memories from a similar dish in Florence). But the meat was a bit too rare for my likings and the balsamic sauce was too salty. The restaurant seems to be more authentic Italian than some of the others we went to. Note that in traditional restaurant the meat is served with nothing on the side and if you want a side dish you have to order “contorni” .
Towards the end of the meal we saw that a couple of the table next to us got a shot of some sort of black liquid. I’m always curious so I asked the waiter what it was and she was like “Would you like to try it?”. How could I say no to that? ;-) It turned out that it was some sort of licorice liqueur and it was not that great – I think I will stick to limoncello. All in all it was a good meal and the service was good. The meal was 100 € including 5 € coperto (this is an Italian restaurant "cover charge").
Last day in the slopes
Our stay in Courmayeur was coming to an end but we still had one last day to hit the slopes. The weather had improved and we could enjoy breakfast with a great view to the skiing area at Courmayeur from our hotel. As the weather has improved we decided to check out one of the highest peaks in the network of ski lifts at Courmayeur. We took the gondola to Youla at 2624 meters first and it was totally packed with people and then in a tiny gondola to Creste D’Arp at 2755 meters (9040 ft). Creste D’Arp was pretty deserted and we just walked the steps to get to the platform at the top of the station to enjoy the view. A few off-piste skiers walked towards their starting point and it was funny to hear their guide (a South African guy based on the accent) saying “keep to the left”. From our view it was easy to see that they were not far from the edge on the right hand side. As we were coming down it was impressive to see them come down the steep face of the mountain in the loose snow.
The weather was on and off this day – one moment it was sunny and blue skies and then all of a sudden it was snowing. We even had moments when we had both sunny weather and snow at the same time! We kept on skiing until lunch but I was getting colder and colder in my feet for some reason – so it was really nice to finally stop for lunch at Ristorante Chateau Branlant located in the slopes. When I got there they just had one table left and I sat down by the window and enjoyed the view of the area. I also removed my ski boots to try to get some warmth back in my frozen toes. The restaurant is like an old cabin and was really cozy with lots of guests and lots of memorabilia on the walls. The food was not that great unfortunately – my onion soup was a bit lukewarm and really drowning in cheese, Nikki’s pork shank was pretty dry and my porcini pasta was just OK. But the tiramisu for dessert was pretty good. The meal was about 65 €.
We took the gondola down to Courmayeur at 5 pm in beautiful spring weather. After we handed in skis and equipment, we used the opportunity to enjoy the last rays of sun as it was setting behind the mountains to have a glass of Aperol Spritz. I have fond memories when it comes to this aperitivo from our trip to Bologna. We had our last dinner in Courmayeur at Ristorante Pierre Alexis 1877 (who was he by the way?). Again we had not booked a table but they had a table for us. The restaurant had heavy vaulted ceilings and memorabilia on the walls. Due to the vaulted ceilings the sounds travels differently – it was weird as in some cases it sounded like the people at the next table were sitting right next to us at our table. The menu was only in Italian but the waitress (or owner) translated the bits that we didn’t understand and I ordered gnocchi as a starter. When it was served I was surprised to find that they were much larger than usual but filled with pumpkin they were quite good. Nikki got a giant portion of foie gras that also worked like a charm. I had veal as my main dish and even if it was pretty tender it was quite bland. The highlight of the meal was the chocolate fondant that I had for dessert. When I put my spoon into it I was expecting it to have a liquid center of chocolate but this contained a center of creme anglaise that oozed out – a great combination. The meal at Pierre Alexis 1877 was about 90 € for both of us.
Time to head to Milano
On the morning of March 27th we checked out of the hotel and walked over to take the bus to Milan. The weather had improved a lot and all of a sudden we could see the surrounding mountains in all its splendor. We could also see that constructions were taking place on the cable car stations on the mountain tops. You can take a cable car from Courmayeur to Pointe Helbronner on the border between Italy and France and the view is supposedly stunning. With a guide I also think that you can ski from this top to Chamonix. We did not check it out as it seemed like it was closed due to construction activities but you can read about the cable car on Skyway Monte Bianco.
We had a great stay in Courmayeur – the slopes were good but they might not be for beginners. The small town of Courmayeur is not a party place from what we could tell. It was very quiet even if we were there during Easter week. We did not book tables at the various restaurant but we were still able to get a table on all the places that we wanted to visit. As you would expect from Italy, the food was great and it was amazing to experience some decent food even in the middle of the slopes. The weather was not perfect when we went there but we still managed to enjoy the slopes – but I hope to go back and try the cable car to Pointe Helbronner.
We took the Savda bus from Courmayeur at 10:30 am and as this were still a bit of a surprise trip, Nikki did not know exactly where we were heading. We took the bus to Lampugnano bus station again and took the metro to Repubblica station. From there it was only a few minutes walk to our hotel. As we were walking over to the hotel Nikki was like “hey, this looks familiar” and she was right. As a walk down memory lane I had book a room at the same hotel as we had when we went to Milan 10 years back (see trip report here). So 5 hours after taking the bus from Courmayeur we were checked into the hotel in Milano. Hotel Marconi had not changed that much but you can read my review here.
As I have written about Milan before I will make this fairly short. If you go to Milan make sure to see The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, check out the amazing Duomo, enjoy gelato, make sure to eat risotto alla Milanese etc.
The Duomo di Milano
When we went to Milan the last time I was so disappointed to walk out of the subway and see that the entire façade of the duomo was covered due to restoration work. This time in Milan we started by going to Piazza del Duomo and this time I got to see the façade in all its glory! The piazza was filled with tourists taking photos but also filled with guys trying to hustle the tourists. Some were trying to give food for the pigeons to tourist and some were trying to hand out friendship bracelets for free – I wonder what the scam is all about. The Duomo is still very impressive as it is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. It is impressive inside, outside and on top. You can enter the duomo for free but it is 2 € if you want to take photos inside. You can also get on top of it and it was 6 € to take the staircase to the top. They are still not done with the restoration work – part of it is still covered up just like 10 years ago! The weather is March can be cold and I was glad that I brought along my warm Norrøna down jacket.
Walk down memory lane continues – ristorante Limone
To continue the walk down memory lane we decided to have a dinner at Ristorante Limone right next to the hotel. When we visited 10 years back I didn’t get an impression that this was a nice restaurant but this time it was actually very good. We had some freshly cut culatello di zibello which is the best part of the parma ham it seems like. Served with some fresh mozzarella it was just heavenly. Once again there were so much tempting on the menu and I decided to have tortellini with stilton cheese sauce and I like the combination of the blue cheese and pasta. Nikki’s tagliatelle vongole was also a great starter. For my main I chose to have risotto alla Milanese (what else?) and it had a great saffron taste but it was maybe not as rich as I hoped it would be. Nikki had ossobuco served on risotto and that was also great – in the end we were so full that we had to skip dessert which is a shame as all the stuff on the menu had been so great. The dinner including service charge, coperto and a 30 € bottle of wine was 130 €.
Home of the Parma ham!
When we went to Bologna a few years back we had a great food tour with Aleassandro in Italiandays.it. But we don’t like to repeat stuff (even if we loved the tour with Alessandro) so we did a bit of Googling and found Laura at foodtours.it and we called her up to arrange for a tour the following day. At 6.30 am we got up to catch the train to Parma – luckily the hotel was not that far from the main Milan train station (Milano Centrale) and after 10 minutes we were there. The Milano Centrale is a huge and beautiful train station and it is worth a visit just to check out the enormous façade even if the area can be a bit shady. When we got there it turned out that our train had been cancelled and we had to upgrade to a faster train. It cost 23 € instead of 10 € and it would take only 1 hour and 10 minutes. I guess everyone had the same idea about upgrading to the fast train as the train was pretty much packed. Due to this we had to stand around by the coffee shop – at least it gave us easy access to a doppio and a croissant for breakfast.
We arrived in Parma at about 9 am and it was only about 5 degrees Celsius (41 F) and light rain. Remember to wear a good jacket if you get to this place early in the year as it can be quite cold. We were picked up by Laura in a tiny Fiat and we headed straight to Langhirano. Langhirano is a small town located about 20 km outside of Parma in Emilia-Romagna and it is best known for the production of Prosciutto di Parma – or just parma ham. It was fascinating to see the process of how the legendary parma ham is made. I guess it all starts with the hams of pigs in the area and we got to see how the hams are massaged with salt, how they are stored in huge rooms and cured by air drying and how they are sealed for storage later on. They are air dried in both winter and summer and it seems like there can be quite hot in summer and quite cold in winter. In fact there were still a bit of snow in the area when we were there! We got to get up close and personal with lots of ham but we did not actually get to taste any of it towards the end of the tour which was a bit of a disappointment. On the way back we stopped at a local butcher where we could buy some of the amazing stuff that they make in the region – e.g. Felino salami and Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese). Laura took us back to Parma center and we were finished with the tour of 11.30 am.
We were happy that Laura was able to do the tour on such short notice but we didn’t feel that we got a lot out of the tour with her. We felt that we had to drag information out of her and even when we felt asked for recommendation on where to eat lunch in Parma, we didn’t get a proper answer. So if I were in the region again I would recommend that you go for a tour with Aleassandro in Italiandays.it and not with Laura. The tour with Laura was 65€ per person.
Walk around Parma
As it was Easter there were quite a lot of places that were closed in Parma. But we had an amazing lunch at Gallo d’Oro (the Golden rooster). We enjoyed torta fritta that came out fresh from the kitchen (it was still hot) and freshly sliced parma ham (or was it Culatello di Zibello?). We followed up with fresh ravioli and lasagna – so simple and yet so tasty. Parma was cold and misty but we got to visit the beautiful Teatro Farnese – a Baroque theatre at the Palazzo della Pilotta. The theater was built around 1600 but it was damaged by bombs during World War II. But the reconstruction was good so it is possible to see what it was like back then. We took the train back to Milan at about 4 pm. I hope to return to Parma one day – hopefully in the summer time when I can enjoy food and drinks in the sun.
In the past we have walked past and around the Castello Sforzesco (or Sforza Castle as it is known in English) but we never really explored inside. This time we decided to stop by and if you like a bit of history you can spend a few hours here. The castle dates back to 1368 and was initially a fortress before it was turned into a palace. We bought a ticket for 8 € each and explored the castle that was restored and saved from demolition in the beginning of the 20th century. It is now turned into a museum and in the various halls you can see everything from beautiful frescos, ancient tapestries, beautiful statues etc. Outside the palace you will find the peaceful garden of Parco Sempione.
Dinner at Antica Trattoria della Pesa
With a lot of exploring you need good food (and wine) to function. We decided to check out Antica Trattoria della Pesa one evening as it is a restaurant that focus on serving food based on traditions from Milan and Lombardy. The restaurant has a 140 year history and it seem to have stuck to the concept. It is home cozy with white table cloths, flowers on the table and with a good menu that focus on hearty Milanese food and nothing fancy pants innovative stuff. We had a good caprese salad, we tasted pasta, we enjoyed the risotto Milanese of course, the ossobuco, Cotoletta alla Milanese and desserts. In the end we were tipsy and full and saw the sign by our table “Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib, und Gesang, Der bleibt ein Narr sein Lebenlang» which is German and translates into something like “He who doesn’t love Wine, Women and Song will remains a fool the whole life”. I guess that is a slogan to live by. The meal was about 120 € excluding drinks.
From Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio to Teatro alla Scala
As we were visiting in March it was wet and cool and we decided to try to keep it to indoor activities. We started at Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio which was built in 380 AD! A lot has happened since then but it is now a church with some stunning pieces including the golden altar from the 9th century, mosaics that dates back to the same period, a sarcophagus from the 4th century and so on. The basilica was damaged by bombing during world war II but it has been restored to its former glory.
Teatro alla Scala is world famous as an classic opera house with a great acoustic. We took a short walk in the opera house – I think we also checked to see if there were seats from shows but either there was nothing showing or it was sold out. The walk gave us the opportunity to take a look at the great hall with a 2000 seat capacity and the large stage. I would love to see a performance here one day. I don’t think it was allowed to take photos during the tour but I did take a couple anyway – don’t tell anyone ;-) Entry costs 6 € per person but make sure to read the information to see when the main hall is open for viewing.
If you need to replace the traditional Italian lunch with something else, I can recommend paying a visit to Ham Holy burger. When we walked in we got an iPad where we could place the order – choose what you wanted on the burger, how you wanted it done etc. Soon the burgers were saved and they were grilled to perfection. Nikki still dreams about the burgers that we got at this place so make sure to stop by them if you like your meat.
If you want a simpler Italian lunch stop by Parma & Co. Here you can get fresh cut parma and culatello, parmesan cheese and all the other good stuff. And the place also has a shop where you can buy the products.
Last night in Milano
All good things come to an end – we had our final dinner at Ristorante Settembrini 18. The restaurant had gotten good reviews on the places that we checked out but we were not that impressed by the place. The restaurant was pretty busy and it seemed like the waiters were a bit stressed so the service was not that great. But the food was decent and the highlight of the meal was the really black squid ink risotto! The bill came hand written on a small piece of paper – I don’t think that ever happens back home in Norway anymore. The meal was about 60 € excluding wine and included a pizza, pasta, risotto, some buffalo mozzarella to start with and dessert for one.
Time to go home – conclusion
On Sunday March 31st 2013 it was time for us to wrap it up. We checked out of the hotel and finally the weather was decent so that we could take a last stroll around Milano and enjoy some gelato in the spring sun. When it was time we just walked over to the Milano centrale station and took the train out to Malpensa to fly home to Stavanger. Skiing in Courmayeur was great! The weather was not great in any way but we got some nice moments in the slopes anyway. What I think is the best part of the skiing in Courmayeur is that you have great slopes combined with good restaurant in both the town center and the slopes. If something can be called “La Dolce Vita” it must be to ski and breathe fresh air during the day and be able to sit down and enjoy good food and wine at night. If you want to ski in Italy, Courmayeur should be on your list.