Aosta was a lovely first introduction to Italy for me.
You can see and feel the difference as soon as you emerge from the tunnel through to the Italian side of the Alps: the sweeping fields and neat hillsides dotted with tiny, red-roofed Swiss chalets, cows, goats etc. suddenly become ancient villages and sleepy towns, filled with stone houses with slate roofs and colourful flowers and creeping vines. The modern, smooth, diligently-marked roads become uneven mountain paths complete with alarming potholes and clouds of dust surrounding local drivers in their beaten-up vehicles. All the houses have little balconies over which are draped drying clothes or rugs or old women watching the world go by. It feels very different from the other side of the mountains, but no less beautiful.
The Roman town of Aosta was created by Caeser Augustus in 25BC. Take a moment to think about how old that is. There’s something incredibly weird and surreal about walking through somewhere you know started out as a military base to stop swarms of barbarian troops sweeping over the mountains and taking over the Roman Empire. It’s like being in a history textbook. You even enter the original Roman city through the mighty stone archways that are part of the almost completely preserved walls.
The ruins are as awe-inspiring as the breathtaking view of the Alps that accompanies you as you drive to Aosta from Switzerland. Just parts of walls, and ancient towers, and foundations, and crumbled stones… and yet the knowledge that right here where you’re standing, an Ancient Roman community went about its daily life. They kept prisoners in the towers, they guarded the gates in their funny armour and helmets, they had names all ending in “-us” and put on plays in the still intact amphitheatre.
I closed my eyes as I stood there, and could almost hear the roar of the audience full of soldiers and noblemen and suchlike, with their goblets of wine, waving the bones of whichever unfortunate animal they were gnawing on. I’m a bit dreamy like that.
And then there’s the Tour Fromage. I could find no description or explanation of this before we set off for Aosta; it was just listed as an attraction to see. The Tour Fromage. Is it a tower made of cheese? I wondered excitedly, and – I must be honest – hopefully. A tower of cheese would indeed be a magnificent attraction. Would it be constructed from a variety of different cheeses, perhaps, or devoted entirely to one kind?
It’s probably just where the Romans stored their cheese, you know, warned Riho as I looked around expectantly for a magical tower made of cheese.
The tower proved to be something of a letdown, unfortunately, when we spotted it. It was a rather ordinary – even boring – grey building. Not particularly tall, either, so I don’t know how they can call it a tower. Somewhat miffed, I read the plaque to find out if it at least had an interesting history of cheese storage or even as the offices for the society of Roman admirers of cheese. But no.
It belonged to a family called Fromage. That is all.