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The many towers of Fénis Castle in the Aosta Valley of northern Italy.

Exploring the Past in Aosta Valley

Aosta Valley is a small Alpine region in the north-west of Italy. Popular with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter, and cultural travellers all year round. The region shares its international border with France and Switzerland. The highest mountain here, in the very north-west corner, is Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc). Valle d’Aosta is the smallest and least populous region in Italy. Valle d’Aosta means ‘Valley of Augustus’, after the Roman Emperor Augustus who seized the area for its strategic mountain passes from the local Celtic Salassi tribe in about 25 BC and established Augusta Prætoria Salassorum (modern-day Aosta). As Italy’s smallest region, it is not further subdivided into provinces. The official names, in Italian is Valle d’Aosta and Vallée d’Aoste in French.

Fénis Castle
Fénis Castle, Aosta Valley in Italy © Redmarkviolinist - Wikipedia This Medieval castle is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Aosta Valley. The castle has a typical defensive layout, which includes a pentagonal keep with towers at each corner. The keep is surrounded by a double wall complete with battlements, watchtowers and walkways. Built on top of a small hill and contrary to first impressions, the castle did not have a military or defensive purpose. Rather, it was a prestigious family residence. What visitors see today dates to the early 15th century.

Pont d’Aël
Pont d'Aël, Aosta Valley © Wolfgang Sauber - Wikipedia Today the Roman bridge is part of a popular hiking trail in a side valley of the Aosta Valley. In 3 BC this bridge was part of a six kilometre aqueduct that carried water to present-day Aosta for agricultural purposes in the then colony of Augusta Prætoria Salassorum. The top of the bridge is 66 metres above the valley floor, and when built there would have been a roofed control corridor. A Latin inscription on the bridge records that it was constructed by Caius Avillius Caimus from Padova using private funds.

The Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley in Italy © dacolje - Wikipedia When the Romans defeated the Salassi tribe, it was the strategic mountain passes that they sought to control. In securing the mountainous routes they built a number of roads and bridges. The remains of some of these ancient roads are still visible in many places along the valley, and even the modern railway line follows these ancient routes. The single segmental arch bridge over the Lys River in Saint-Martin is one such Roman bridge. The bridge has a span of 35 metres, and a width of 4.5 metres.

Roman Aosta – Augusta Prætoria Salassorum
The Arch of Augustus in Aosta, Italy © Geobia - Wikipedia Once the centre of the Salassi Celtic tribe, Augusta Prætoria Salassorum was prized for its strategic position and became an important military post. In fact Aosta’s layout still resembles that of a Roman military camp. Many architectural features from the town’s Roman times have survived and some are quite well preserved. The city walls, for example, are all but complete, and six of the original 20 towers are still standing. The remains of the theatre, amphitheatre and forum can be visited, while a triumphal arch to Augustus still has pride of place.

Saint-Pierre Castle
The last 12th century Saint-Pierre Castle, Aosta Valley. The first castle on this spot is thought to have been built towards the end of the 12th century. then it would have been a very simple structure of basic walls and a few towers. Over the years, and as it changed hands, the castle was added to, renovated and modernised until it looked like it does today – sometime towards the end of the 19th century. The stucco white church at the foot of the castle is the parish church of Saint-Pierre. The castle is now home to the Regional Museum of Natural Sciences.