Follow the Swiss; they know the best places to stay for a holiday and they do not have to go far; within sight of Mont Blanc is Conge in Italy’s Aosta Valley. They jointly account for the most visitors to this idyllic village of some 1,500 inhabitants.
Conge is just over 1,500 metres above sea level on a plateau at the confluence of four valleys. From our second hotel’s suite we could steal a glimpse of the snow covered summit of Mont Blanc between the mountains and from the other window; we had an uninterrupted view across the National Park to the Paradis glacier.
Our visit was to attend the ‘Devétéya é Féra de Cogne’. That is the festival to celebrate the return to the village of the cows from their summer alpine pastures a further 200, or so metres higher where they stay for three months. The festival takes place on the Saturday nearest St. Michael’s day each year. It is well attended by both villagers and visitors as it is very entertaining.
The cows are paraded along the village’s two main streets, there are several such parades during the day as the cows from further pastures arrive at different times. These parades were led by the farming fraternity together with children and musicians mostly in traditional costume, a few goats joined in the parades! Many of the cows wore bells, the sound of which was extraordinarily loud but they did add an extra dimension to the atmosphere.
At the time of each parade, the street was lined with people, the local policeman did not have to do anything as no one wanted to get in the cows’ way. Some cows were bedecked in flowers (surely one wore a decorated Christmas tree), there were prizes for some cows; the best milk producers and the best fighter, quite how they were chosen remains a mystery. I gather that pregnant cows can be a bit bad tempered. However, they were all fairly docile despite looking more than substantial although their short legs seemed to lessen the perceived threat. There was a bit of excitement when one stopped just by me to the indignation of the cow behind which then stuck its horn in a delicate place on the backside of the stopped cow. The assaulted cow turned to remonstrate whilst the farmer managed to wrestle it back into line. Between parades, people retreated to the numerous café/bars plus, there was also a food and craft fair in the small square. A good time was enjoyed by all.
On the Sunday, there was church mass with three choirs attending. It was followed by a blessing of the cows in the square. The priest tried the patience of the cows with a rather long blessing which provided us all with a bit of a diversion, and maybe shortened his preaching.
Wherever you go around here, the views are really eye-catching and that included the hotel for our first night in the family run Miramonti Hotel. It was such fun with a theatrical, sumptuous Italian style in its furnishings and textiles. One could call the décor typically Italian in its stereotypical extrovert approach s but in mountainous regions, the local people have a much quieter Alpine demeanour. They are really friendly, approachable and terrific hosts.
The rooms and suites at the Miramonti are all individually furnished with the rooms and suites varying in size from 19 sq.m. to 95 sq.m. Italy is obviously famed for its marble and ceramic tiles; there is no shortage here whether it is the indoor swimming pool, or the bathrooms. The latter have had a lot of attention as, for many of us; they assume a particular importance in the success of a room or suite.
We moved on to the Bellevue Hotel, the position of which could also not be better, however, the exterior of the hotel hides the treats of a highly individual interior for which the credit has to be given to Laura’s father; the fourth generation of the family to manage the hotel. Her father collected many architectural artefacts and antiques when both religious buildings and farm houses were regarded as redundant. The result is a living museum with pieces dating from the 1300’s.
There is no dumbing down to ‘Disney’ style as there are many quirky pieces plus a few ambitious modern elements. The new principal suite features two bathrooms; we were shown what was certainly the optional bathroom. It seemed to have a mirror but there were two identical baths, push a button and both baths are propelled forwards sailing high above the ground into open air; not quite what anyone could anticipate. The bath (and the suite’s) views are to both Mont Blanc and the Paradiso glacier, surely unique on several fronts. No one can see the bathers, what better for a late night glass of champagne in the bath under the stars?
The 28 en suite bedrooms and suites are all individually furnished. Sounds simple but they really are very individual; an underground passage takes you across the lane to three classic chalet apartments. All the living rooms have open fireplaces that are used on a daily basis. Going underground again, the very knowledgeable sommelier will give you a guided tour of the large wine cellar, he is rightly proud of his treasure chest of wines. Another cellar houses a big selection of cheeses (appropriately next to the ski boot store).
Whether or not you enjoy spas, you have to check out the incredibly elaborate, vast spa and wellness complex. I could write a separate article about all the different aspects from ultra-modern pools and other facilities to a rebuilt 18th-century mountain chalet. No wonder it has won multiple awards.
A delightful addition to the hotel is the separate chalet deep in the National Park where barbeques and picnics are organised. Whilst the walk is quite long, the scenery compensates. However, you do have the option of being driven in the hotel’s Land Rover.
We wandered through a couple of local hamlets and viewed some waterfalls amongst the breath taking countryside. I have seen these waterfalls in winter which were then even more spectacular; the ice climber seemed so small on this great ice wall. Unfortunately, we lost track of time and so missed our planned lunch at the Bellevue’s Michelin starred restaurant. On my earlier visit, ironically it proved to be a meal not to be missed. However, we were on time the next day for lunch at the La Madonnina del Gran Paradiso’s restaurant where we ate the best Italian food we have had since the German chef Heinz Beck (3*in Rome, lots elsewhere) cooked for us in London. That lunch was definitely an unexpected highlight of our visit to Conge and very much not to be missed if you are ever in the region.
We drank local wines of the Aosta Valley which certainly exceeded their reputation. In the UK we could wake up most of the wine trade by following the example of the very individual ‘La Cave De Cogne’ run by the charming sommelier Sabina. Her shop has hundreds of wines, mostly local, ranging in price quite widely. For me, the key to success is that you can buy by the glass on a good range of wines, or for 30% of the cost of any bottle; you can buy a glass for tasting. There are also on offer locally produced cheeses, meats and other delicacies, which can be eaten in the shop or outside on a delightful terrace. In addition the kitchen prepares dishes available until about 21.00 hrs.
The festival is great fun for all the family and the village is popular throughout the summer for its great location with stunning natural beauty; walking and cycling is very popular and for those less energetic, you can easily lose a couple of hours in one of a small number of bars and restaurants. I have also visited in winter. For me, the snow adds even more to the landscape’s attraction but it not really a dedicated Alpine ski resort, although the village has its own four ski lifts and nine kilometres of pistes. Intrepid cross country skiers have 80 kilometres whilst the annual 45km Marciagranparadiso' international cross-country ski race is an even bigger challenge for others to tackle. Courmayeur and other famous ski resorts are easily accessible for day trips.
Transfers from Geneva are about two and a quarter hours which is fine as the countryside is delightful en route whilst Turin is a bit shorter. Let us just hope that these precious communities like Cogne are appreciated but not over run in decades to come.
Cogne Tourist Office: www.cogneturismo.it
Bellevue Hotel and Spa: www.hotelbellevue.it
Miramonti Hotel: www.miramonticogne.com
La Madonnina del Gran Paradiso: www.lamadonnina.com
Taxi firm: www.aostavalleytransfer.com