Today I had a special treat – a day out with Cesco’s family to the alpine resort town of Chamois. This isolated village of 96 souls is tucked away on a plateau overlooking the Val d’Aosta. At an altitude of 1800 metres (or in Dunedin terms, three Mount Cargills) it’s probably officially the highest place I’ve ever been (not counting aircraft, of course!).
To get there, we would head west from Biella into the neighbouring region of Val d’Aosta (or Aosta Valley). Here the forested valley walls rise up steeply, giving way to rocky pinnacles. It seems every other hill is capped by a castle, remnants of when this was a narrow and fortified passage through the alps. Below the watchful towers villages and terraced vinyards dot the valley through which runs a grey and glacial River.
If only I had more time, I lamented as I passed yet another intriguing ruin or pinnacle. But I had to be content to look from afar, as we headed up into the Cervino Valley and parked in the village of Buisson. As I left the car, my attention was directed to the striking Mount Cervino, which apparently can only be rarely seen without an obscuring cover of cloud. Assured it was an important mountain, I obligingly admired and photographed it. Only later did I learn its English name: the Matterhorn, one of the highest and most iconic peaks of the Alps.
Chamois is the only village in Italy not accessible by road, and can only be reached by gondola or by a foot track. We were to take the gondola, a nerve-wracking prospect as I gazed up at the spindly little cables stretching up and out of sight over the sheer cliff. But we packed into the little cab and the ascent began, a lot more smoothly than I’d anticipated. I kept my eyes peeled for any real chamois, the deer-like creature for which the our destination is named, but was not so lucky.
With only a little shake we ascended over the lip of the plateau and gently docked with the upper station for the gondola. Piling off, we entered the picturesque resort of Chamois.
But we weren’t finished yet, we had another ascent to go – this time in a ski lift, seeming a little out of place on this snowless summery day. This was my first time on a ski lift and I was worried I’d mess up and face plant, but I managed to get my butt in the moving chair without mishap and rose slowly over the hillside, thumbing my nose at those who had chosen to walk up one of the scenic paths that wound up the slope.
Reaching the summit I managed to disembark without incident, and was met by the stunning sight of the still waters of Lago Lod, the small alpine lake cupped in the hollow of this upper plateau. Reflected on its mirror-like surface was the forest beyond, the snowy alps beyond that, and the blue sky.
Having circuited the lake, it was time for lunch and we chose the lakeside establishment of Da Bruna on the strength of having the most delicious-sounding menu. The focus was on local specialities like fontina cheese, polenta (slightly different from Piedmont-style polenta), and lard. I chose tomino wrapped in ham and baked in honey to start with, because I could not resist my new favourite cheese. When it came however I was surprised to find it more closely resembled brie than the sharp fresh cheese I was expecting. Apparently, sometimes tomino is a rinded cheese for cooking.
Oh well, I was still perfectly happy to clean my plate, especially since I’d been doubting how well the honey flavour would work with the cheese I was expecting.
And then for main, I decided on…more cheese! I chose the crespelle alla valdostana, a savoury crepe filled with melted fontina cheese and ham. It was divine.
But what do we need to complete this lovely meal? A tasting platter of cheeses of course. In the end I waddled away from the table, only to be greeted by a suggestion that we take a walk higher up the mountain. Well that sounds like a good way to burn off a small fraction of the calories I just consumed. So I tackled the slope with determination.
Heading upwards through the blooming alpine meadow raising flights of butterflies with every step, I was having a serious “hills are alive” moment. The only thing preventing me from breaking into song and dance was the need to keep my hosts convinced that I am sane. I may have skipped just a little though.
I pulled up short when suddenly told to look over near a small cottage. Peering at the grass, I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “Marmota!” My hosts insisted.
It turned out the slopes around us were absolutely crawling with marmots, a type of large burrowing squirrel that inhabits the Alps, but they were next to invisible in the grass until they moved. At one point we counted five at once, and then quickly lost track of them all as they blended back into the scenery.
I’d been seeing some…er, evidence…of cows for some time, but hadn’t managed to locate the herd until I heard the clonking of cow bells above me. And there on the ridge above I spotted the possible source of some of the cheese I was currently digesting.
On my opposite side the ground plunged away into the valley below.
We decided to call it a day at this point and slowly wandered back down the hill. Then I farewelled the beautiful Lago Lod as I caught the ski lift for the second time in my life and returned to the gondola arrival point. Soon we left the proudly isolated mountain village and rejoined civilisation.
Goodbye Chamois, I certainly hope I shall see you again!