Motorhome travel: An alpine paradise in Italy
Words and photos: Tim Griffiths
Towering mountains with glaciers glistening in the sunshine, alpine pastures bursting with flowers and butterflies and streams rushing from the bases of waterfalls. If this conjures up an image of Switzerland or Austria then that’s understandable, but there’s also a glorious area of northern Italy that has all of these.
We revisited the Cogne valley in Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park during the summer, seeking altitude to reduce the high temperature. This alpine area of exceptional beauty encompasses some of Europe’s highest peaks and is situated just southeast of Mont Blanc.
Not speaking much Italian, we were pleased that French is often spoken, with English too in many of the tourist outlets and in the tourist offices. The location is hugely welcoming, with most locals wishing you 'buon giorno' - meaning 'good morning'.
There are pretty mountain chalets and restaurants, bedecked with flowers and reminiscent of the best of Switzerland.
Overnight stops outbound were taken at Tournai and Thaon-les-Vosges. The aire at Thaon-les-Vosges, which has 12 places, is exceptional. Free and situated right on the banks of the Moselle, it has a children’s playground and pétanque arena nearby. During the evening it seemed that most of the population was out enjoying the sport and company. We woke to the sounds of ducks on the river and barges going past.
Once over the Vosges and across Switzerland on excellent toll motorways, we headed to Martigny and over the Great St Bernard Pass rather than the toll tunnel. This scenic road presents no difficulties to a modern motorhome, with the Swiss approach being excellent until the exit from the tunnel access point. Thereafter it’s steeper with relatively unguarded sections. Our Pilote cruised over it easily.
After a brief pause on the summit to admire the views, we descended on the Italian side. The road over is usually open from April to October, then it’s an easy drive across Aosta and up the Cogne valley into the Gran Paradiso National Park.
Cogne itself is a thriving little mountain town, with good facilities and a bustling Sunday morning market. We’d stayed there before on the huge dedicated motorhome area, complete with toilet block. It’s situated next to the river with access to the town via stairs or a free lift. Usefully, the bottom lift station has a video display giving the day’s activities and a weather forecast. Free local buses hub in and out from this spot, which is highly convenient.
The local information guide from the tourist office is most helpful, including a daily ‘what’s on’, bus timetables and a list of other attractions. Many free events happen in the town square next to the tourist office.
On the hill opposite Cogne is an area called the Miner’s Village. Now rebuilt with houses, this area used to service the iron mines which brought commerce to the area in the nineteenth century and brought road access from Aosta.
The mines are now being developed as a tourist attraction, with a mining museum a stiff walk up from Cogne and access to the mine itself set high above the valley floor. There are escorted visits three times a day. The mine workings are extensive, so it’s best to ask at the tourist office to confirm where the tour will commence.
On our latest trip we drove the additional few minutes up the valley from Cogne to Lillaz. The aire has spaces for 33 motorhomes, with half of the pitches looking out onto the river. All have a grassed area to sit out on. It’s more like a good campsite than an aire and one with wonderful views.
Someone comes round each evening for the fee and one night in 10 is free. There is a large commercial barbecue area in the trees opposite, where there’s also a small, well-stocked fishing pond for those who like to catch their own dinner. Barbecues are allowed on the grassy areas next to the river.
We were not alone in choosing to stay here for a lengthy period and met motorhomers who have been coming here every year. Down the valley there are great views of the Mont Blanc massif and we watched spectacular sunsets over it. To the south is a ring of peaks above 3,000m (9,843ft) with glaciers in full view.
Lillaz is famous for its dramatic waterfalls that cascade down from the Urtlier valley in two spectacular leaps, interlinked with emerald green plunge pools and lots of smooth rocks for sunbathing. The first of the falls is an easy stroll from the centre of the village, though you might find the distractions of a local artisan ice cream parlour difficult to resist on the way!
The upper of the falls requires a little more effort, with some steep footpaths to negotiate – it’s well worth it.
Lillaz has a small supermarket for essentials and a few restaurants, but its crowning glory is its location.
The extensive walking in the area was our main reason for coming here. The tourist office in Cogne in the town square sells a good range of walking maps. The one cable car working in the summer takes you up to the start of a superb viewpoint walk with views down into the Valnontey valley and across to Gran Paradiso.
The free bus takes you up to the elevated village of Gimillan, from which there is also excellent walking with the full panorama of the Gran Paradiso range. This village is quiet and almost completely traffic free. Keen walkers can access a path to a crest above Pila to take in the full 360-degree vista from Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn right round to the Gran Paradiso, including Mont Blanc itself.
The bus also takes you to Valnontey, arguably the prettiest of the villages and the starting point for numerous walks, both strenuous and easy. It has two sites, with Camping Gran Paradiso having the flattest pitches. Horse rides up the valley are available from the village. Both campsites are very well placed for walking. Particularly recommended is the ascent to Alp Money, which can be extended to become a long circular walk taking in most of the top of the valley; energetic, but rewarding.
All the walking in the area is well maintained and excellently signposted, with walking times and the height of the destination clearly marked. As only moderately fit 67-year-olds, we were pleased that we were able to walk fast enough for the times to be pretty accurate!
Perhaps the most impressive walk in the area is the ascent to the Rifugio Vittorio Sella, immediately above Valnontey. It’s a 2½-hour steep ascent with height gain of 900m (2,593ft), but the path is wonderfully graded with excellent views all the way.
Passing over an impressive waterfall, it ascends meadows and passes deserted settlements before reaching a large alpine bowl with refuge, restaurant and bar.
From Lillaz it is a pleasant hour’s walk or bike ride through the woods to Cogne if you choose to ignore the bus. Many mountain bikers seemed to be enjoying the area, though it was rather too steep for us.
For those fit enough, there’s a 5km (three mile) bike ride up the Urtlier valley to a mountain refuge at 2,500m (8,202ft). The road up is steep in places, with only very occasional local traffic. Metalled in part, there are also long sections of unmade track and it’s definitely not for motorhomes.
E-mountain bikes were available to hire in Cogne and there’s a system of electric bikes, which are amazingly good value. You pay a €10 (£7.99) deposit at the tourist office to have use of an electric suburban-type bike for half a day for free. If you want the bike for a whole day you lose your deposit (so a day costs €10/£7.99). There is a system of charging points (which double as return points) in the valley. As one of the charging points is at the museum of mining up a steep hill, this is a most attractive alternative to walking.
It’s very appealing to be able to walk straight from the motorhome and we did several great walks in this way. Particularly good is an excursion to the Lago Loie some 2½ hours’ walk and 750m (2,461ft) above Lillaz.
The walk takes you past the impressive waterfalls before winding through woods and pasture to a delightful glacial lake in a hollow. We really enjoyed the incredible profusion of flowers on the way. Once across the river in Lillaz you are in the national park (no dogs permitted, even on leads).
Continuing the walk to complete a big circular route, we crossed the meadows to Bardoney and followed the river down to Lillaz (a three-hour descent). On the way down, we had excellent views of young marmots quite close to our path. Their alarm calls are frequently heard, but you seldom get to see them as close up as this.
The Valeille valley leads southwards from Lillaz with a glacial bowl at the top. There’s great walking here; steep towards the end, but with views across the Arolla Glacier.
Butterflies are everywhere; swallowtails, small orange and pale blue ones, moths and a whole range of flying beetles. Lizards and occasional snakes are also found.
It’s best to check a rock when you are about to sit. I found myself next to a mass of writhing, mating vipers in a rocky cleft just inches away. Fortunately, they had their minds on other things! When walking through pastures, grasshoppers were so numerous than every step sent up a swarm.
This area is most strongly recommended for lovers of walking in the high mountains. We love Switzerland, but this part of Italy comes very close to its grandeur and at a fraction of the cost. We’ve never spent so long on an aire or spent so little on diesel, needing to move the motorhome only to fill up with (free) water and to empty out.
We’d planned a few days in Cogne and then time in Switzerland but we just stayed put and loved it, going into Switzerland only in transit. That’s the joy of motorhoming: the freedom to let holidays just evolve.