A night in Pleiney

If you go to the Aosta Valley and follow the signs for the Great Saint Bernard’s Pass, you’ll get to one of the region’s lesser-frequented valleys, the Great Saint Bernard Valley. It’s the valley where the wind known as the coumba freida in the local dialect blows cold in winter, and the temperature remains cool and fresh in summer, always welcome when you’re arriving from the summer heat Milan. The pass above links Italy with Switzerland. It’s on the route of the Via Francigena, the pilgrims’ way which starts in Canterbury in the UK and finishes in Rome. The Great Saint Bernard’s Hospice up there on the Swiss side was originally begun by Augustine monks to provide food and shelter for the pilgrims. They also started to breed the famous Saint Bernard dogs. The dogs were used to carry loads, and later to help in mountain rescues. It’s quite possible that you’ll see one if you go up to the pass.

Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses is the last village before you go through the tunnel or over the pass and into Switzerland, and famous for its local ham known as Jambon de Bosses. We stayed there in a bed and breakfast called Nuit à Pleiney. It’s past the town hall and church, at the end of the road through the valley. Saint-Rhèmy-en-Bosses is split into various hamlets, each a group of houses where people used to keep live and keep their animals. Nuit à Pleiney offers a night in the hamlet of Pleiney. I suggest you stay for more, and give yourself chance to unwind, far from the crowds of more popular tourist destinations.

Sara Clerici and her husband Marco were familiar with the area as they’d spent many years holidaying there. Then they bought an old rural house and spent seven years renovating it. It was a labour of love, where authenticity and respect for the past was key. The whole building has the original thick stone walls and wooden features, and even the marks from the bread oven in the breakfast room can still be seen on one of the walls. The builders wanted to clean them off, but Sara refused. Each corner of the building tells a part of the building’s history, and Sara didn’t want to erase any of it.

The result is that the bed and breakfast fits beautifully within its original context, both in relation to its neighbouring houses and the mountains. There are five rooms each with their own private bathroom, including two family rooms where one has the option of adding a fifth bed. The accommodation is bed and breakfast with jams and cakes all made by Sara. An evening aperitivo with local products and wines is available upon request.

There’s also an apartment that sleeps four, and where we stayed. The open plan downstairs bedroom and living room has a bed settee which functions as extra sleeping space. Upstairs is the kitchen under the eaves, while outside at the back there’s an outdoor eating area. It’s the early mornings I remember, waking up and going up into the kitchen to make coffee, throwing open the windows and hearing the sound of the river and the birds. If there was anything I needed post-lockdown, it was this.

The garden offers space for outside relaxation. Whether you choose to take your morning coffee outside or enjoy a herbal tea whilst watching the stars shining in the blackest of nights, Nuit offers the peace and quiet to re-connect with nature. There’s also a sauna, relaxation room and hot tub in the garden to enhance your experience.

Sara works with Carlotta and Gerard of Rimedi Noa, a holistic health service which is offered on site. Whilst other such facilities might take place in spa or beauty complexes, this is all done outside in the garden, which adds to its charm. I met them one afternoon. I had a chat with Carlotta about food, health and general well-being. Of course I was being assessed but it felt like a chat as I was sitting there in my deck chair in the garden and was able to relax into the whole experience. The same thing happened when Gerard gave me cranio sacral therapy in the wooden relaxation room in the garden. I felt like I floated through the rest of the day.

The fact that Nuit is on a main route means that it’s a very convenient base from which to explore the surrounding area, but also to visit other areas within the Aosta Valley. There’s no driving up and down winding mountain roads every time you want to go anywhere, and yet you still get all the benefits of being up in the mountains at just over 1600 m above sea level. Saint Oyen and Etroubles are both neighbouring villages, each of which deserve a visit. Saint Oyen produces delicious cooked ham of the same name, and Etroubles was voted one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Don’t worry about taking your car there if you don’t want to. The beauty of the visit lies in walking through the valley from Nuit to get there, although you’d probably want to drive to one of the restaurants in the evening.

This was the first place we visited post-lockdown and I was curious to know what it would be like in our new age of social distancing. It was surprisingly easy, at least for the visitor. Masks are obligatory indoors along with the rest of Italy, and when you enter the breakfast room to go indoors, there’s a no-touch hand gel dispenser outside. Breakfast is served either indoors at the required distance or outside in the garden. Generally wherever we went, we found people just following the rules and getting on with it. And of course, being in the mountains, it’s difficult to feel crowded. If you’re nervous about getting out there for whatever reason, this is certainly one of the quieter mountain locations.

The mountains have the ability to nourish and regenerate, providing a contact with nature like no other, or at least that’s what I’ve always felt personally. If you’re looking for a place to get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature and peace, Nuit à Pleiney could be exactly what you need.

Nuit à Pleiney, http://www.pleiney.it You can also find them on Facebook @nuitapleiney and on Instagram @nuit_a_pleiney.

Photos: Rachael Martin

Montespluga

“Go there today,” the woman in the café tells me. “You don’t get many days like today.”

“No?” I ask her.

“Not up the Spluga. You probably get about five clear days every summer, really clear days.”

I’d set off that morning, passport at the ready, with the intention of going up the border into Soglio in Switzerland, what was once voted the most beautiful village in Italy. And it would have been beautiful, perfectly Alpine, picture postcard, and I would have sat in a bar and drank coffee and eaten a brioche or whatever else was on offer and thought I was in some earthly paradise.

She mentioned Spluga and I was off. I’d forgotten the road or rather I remembered it as far as Campodolcino and had forgotten about the sharp bends on the stretch afterwards up to Madesimo. The part where you literally traverse up the mountain pass and if my husband were driving, he’d have been belting his way up there, and I’ve have been shouting (possibly screaming) SLOW DOWN. Just SLOW DOWN. It never had that effect when I first met him. We’d be up and down mountain passes at all times of the night, on icy roads and with thick snow falling, and I don’t remember screaming at him. Then I got a bit older, and I’d met mortality. And that made me want to slow him down.

Anyway, today I was in control.

There’s something about travelling alone that makes me ever more convinced it really is the perfect way to travel. I don’t think I could ever do group holidays. It’s not that I don’t like the people who I could have a group holiday with, I just don’t like the idea of it. It’s the whole idea of getting up in the morning and deciding where to go. It’s a no go from the start.

Then after I’d driven up the few hair-raising bends, the whole landscape opened out. I’d left the trees behind. It was late March and the snow was still on the ground, although not as much as some years. Where it had melted, the mountains were brown and in need of more days of sunshine before they would take on the colours of summer.

It was strange being up there in the snow. It gave the whole place a sense of false calm, as if the snow was covering its true nature. I’d expected it to feel wilder, more remote. Whereas it felt crisp and beautiful and slightly too perfect. Maybe that was the effect of the clear blue skies.

I remember coming up here to go walking one spring. It had seemed like a good day.

After a couple of hours we were huddled by the side of the mountain refuge, trying to protect ourselves from the sleet.

Mountain refuge

Yesterday I was sitting in a mountain refuge with my oldest Italian friends. It’s the thing I like doing best. Walking up a mountain, taking in the views of the said mountain and then sitting in a mountain refuge and eating mountain food. It was an early birthday celebration, a day with friends and their teenage son who I remember being born and have known all his life. It happens when you live in a place for a while. You make history here.

“I’ve just realised I’ll be twenty years older than the age I was when I first came here,” I said as I finished off the polenta and wild mushroom stew.

And in twenty years nothing much has changed. I’m still sitting in mountain refuges, older, with two children and an Italian husband.

Conversation in the car with my elder son.

“But mum,” he began, “could you not speak ANY Italian when you came here?”

“No, I learned it when I got here.”

“But how long did it take you to learn it?”

“I can’t remember. A few years. I learned most of it in the mountains, when dad and I used to go skiing every weekend.”

Silence, which means he’s thinking.

“You know what I once did. I once needed a stamp and I didn’t know the word. So I made it up. I kept saying to the guy, timbra, timbra. I thought, well it’s timbre in French so it could be something similar.”

Elder son starts laughing.

“Anyway, so he said francobollo. So, I thought right, it must be a shop called Franco Bollo.”

“Francobollo?”

“Yeah, you know, Franco. Franco Bollo. So off I went to look for a shop called Franco Bollo.”

“Oh, muuuum…”

Once there was a young woman who went round a shopping centre for a good half hour looking for a shop called Franco Bollo.

She’d arrived in Italy only a month before liked some kind of 90s Lucy Honeychurch with a bright orange puffer jacket and a vague desire to travel. She stood out like an amber traffic light. Very few Northern Italian woman wore bright orange puffers jackets and certainly not in provincial lakeside towns. She got on and off trains and went up and down a lake and looked at the mountains and wanted to go. She loved all of it: the food, the scenery, the places, the people. Which is what Italy is all about, all that, and never judging a book by its cover.

That’s the bit you learn later, when the dream becomes reality.