Counting castles

The castle of Fenis, from a webcam image on Saturday.

Most of the time, living in Italy isn’t a vacation. We’re here because Bob invented a job, and between that and Sarie’s junior year with online classes and conservatory, we haven’t gone on many adventures.

So I was delighted when Bob said, “Let’s go driving up into the Valle d’Aosta next Saturday.”  The original idea was to go hiking, but I didn’t even mind when all-day rain washed out that plan.  We were still going exploring.

Our rain-modified plan was to drive to Ivrea, a sort of far suburb of Torino, and then proceed to Aosta, between the mountains and near the Italian/French/Swiss borders.  For those of you from Georgia, I might as well say it:  This is the original Valdosta.  But other than that, there are no similarities.

Top: A geological map of Ivrea, posted in a shop window. (The Valle d’Aosta is the narrow valley off to the top left.) Bottom:  Ivrea’s main street.

Our first stop was Ivrea.  We stopped there because someone who works at Bob’s office lives there and said it was an attractive town.  (Some Italian suburbs are just outlying areas of cities with ugly new apartment buildings.) Ivrea had one main pedestrian thoroughfare, a Saturday market, a river running alongside it, and up the hill, a cathedral and a fort.  We got some coffee and walked along the main street, then bought some cookies at the market.  When the seller heard me explaining to Bob in English what was in all the types of cookies, he asked, “Are you German?”  Which means he didn’t speak any English at all.

Then, curious about what was further up into the mountains, we kept driving. Just outside of Ivrea, we saw a large storybook castle.

Terraced grape arbors on the sides of the mountains.

As we started to drive into the valley between the Alps, we saw more castles. Some looked ruined; others looked well-preserved.  We also saw grape arbors all up and down the sides of the mountains, many of them made of stacked stone.  And eventually we saw a sign saying that we had left Piemonte and were entering the Valle d’Aosta.  Signs were in Italian and French.  Roofs went from tile to slate.  All the place names were French.  We were obviously in a border region.

Aosta had a cobbled main pedestrian street similar to that in Ivrea.  We walked along it until we found a restaurant that looked traditional, but not ridiculously touristy.  We are aware as we walked in, however, that there was something about this town that drew tourists, because we sat between a French family and a Chinese couple, and our waiter spoke English.  Excited to be in a different region, we tried items from the menu that didn’t look familiar.  We found out that Valdostan cuisine means cheese, especially Fontina.  I had ham and cheese crepes and Bob had polenta with cheese.  Bob couldn’t finish his polenta, which says a lot.

Thus armed with calories, we continued to explore the town.  We knew that it had some extant Roman walls.  Those, in fact, were right next to the restaurant, with apartments built between them (above).  But then we saw a map with an amphitheater.  After walking down a couple of dead ends, we found it.  In retrospect, it would have been hard not to.  It took up most of the town!


Most of the houses in these photos are either the back side of the main thoroughfare or one block back. The third photo from the bottom shows the Tour Frommage.

The amphitheater was well-preserved, and there were medieval buildings built into it all around the edges. Some were still lived in, like the ones between the walls in the photo above, and others, mostly the towers, were now preserved as monuments.  Our favorite was the Tour Frommage, or Cheese Tower.  It was so named because the family who built it was named Casei, which sounds like casein, Spanish queso, etc.  Even though the Italians and French say formaggio and frommage respectively, the association wasn’t lost on them.  Nor on our family, who quickly invented a family tree using feminine-sounding cheese names like Velveeta.

By time we finished walking through the amphitheater, it was too late to explore any longer, so we started back home.  On the way back, Sarie decided to try to count and photograph all the castles. There seemed to be one on every semi-independent rock in the valley.  The photography was of mixed success, since we were now on the autostrada and opening the car windows resulted in tons of noise and a wet lens.  But she counted eleven castles. Below is Bard, a Savoy castle, one of the largest, and one of the closest to the road:

Of course, all these castles and ruins got us wondering what the story was behind them, so I did a bit of Googling when I got home.

One thing I found was that every Roman colony town had a main road, a decumanus, running from east to west.  This is why both Ivrea and Aosta were split right down the middle by a wide  (pedestrian) thoroughfare. And the walls we had seen in Aosta were its Porta Praetoria, or military gate, facing the direction of barbarian invasion (the Alps).  And then I realized that Torino’s main pedestrian shopping street,Via Garabaldi, was once its decumanus.  Via Garibaldi runs straight west towards the Alps from the Palazzo Madama, which is built around the original Roman east gate.  And Via Palatina, which is one of my favorite streets in Torino, was probably its main north/south road, or cardo.

It’s a little harder to tell about the castles.  Border regions usually get left out of the sort of history you study in school.  Everyone learns about the Holy Roman Empire and Italian Unification under the Savoys.  But The History of the Medieval World annoyingly leaves Torino off every map until almost the last chapter of the book, so it’s hard to tell where it belonged when.

After the Celts, Romans, Ostrogoths, Franks and Lombards, it was ruled in the late 900s by Arduin of Ivrea, who took it after the Saracens were expelled. The Saracens?  What were they doing in the Alps?  Then the Burgundians. Then the Savoys.  No wonder they needed castles.

And thus ended our little reconnaissance mission into the mountains. I didn’t even mind the rain, because the clouds made the landscape look mysterious and fairy-tale like. But I can’t wait to go back and see the insides of the castles.


2 thoughts on “Counting castles

  1. What an amazing day trip you all had! Both the photos and the history detailing them are really fascinating. Such rich history! I recall bits and pieces from reading Story of the World with the kids several years ago, but it has become fuzzy. The ancient walls, especially the arches with the keystone, as well as that first photo of the castle are really wonderful. And yes, the rainy, cloudy backdrop seems appropriate.

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