Up in the Air in Courmayeur, Italy
Courmayeur, Italy
Where Italy, France and Switzerland converge sits the fairy tale town of Courmayeur. At the top of Italy’s Aosta valley, high in the Alps, literally in the shadow of Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, the town has become one of Europe’s premier alpine getaways. Whimsical slate roofed structures are set amid the amazing views of the Dente del Gigante (Giant‘s Teeth) and the sadly receding glaciers.

Hotel Dente del Gigante

One of these remarkable stone roofed buildings is the Hotel Dente del Gigante where we were honored to be the guests of Luciano and Alfreda Angelini.

Since 1947, the Angelini family have been the proprietors of this beautiful inn at the base of the giant teeth near Val Ferret. The weekend was dedicated to a celebration for family and friends and we were thrilled to be a part of it.

Included in the festivities was a ten course meal the lasted an incredible five hours. Each course reflected the region’s unique flavors and was paired with the perfect organic wine. We can’t imagine when or where we could ever have a meal (event!) like that again. In the Italian tradition, the food and conversation nourished body, mind and soul. After dinner, we moved to the cozy lodge area where the fabulous Paolo Bonfanti entertained us with his marvelous music. A perfect finish to a perfect meal.

We took off early the following morning to hike the Val Ferret. Strenuous work was needed to burn off the massive amount of calories consumed the evening before. The peace and beauty of the place is palatable, just the two of us walking up a valley alongside glaciers, streams and the snow covered peaks, layered one beyond the next.

The serenity was only broken by the screeching cry of the valley’s famous marmots. Not ferrets as the valley’s name implies, but marmots, a kind of high altitude wood chuck or whistle pig.

Perhaps the locals just didn’t think that Val Whistle Pig had quite the same ring.

After about an hour of hiking up the trail from the parking area, we were surprised to come upon a beautiful mountain lodge, the Rifugio Elena. Unbelievably -- in the middle of nowhere -- there is a beautiful and bustling refuge with lodging rooms and full service restaurant. Though we vowed never to eat again after last night’s dinner, we did have some nourishing soup, featuring the fabulous local Fontina cheese.

Prè de Bar glacier
There are many of these refuges throughout the area that are used as safe havens from sudden storms or base camps for more demanding excursions into the wilderness. From this refuge, many folks go on to take the hour long hike over the ridge into Switzerland.

When not gawking out the windows, we spent most of our time at Rifugio Elena staring at the incredibly informative pictures on the walls. The history is all there, the refuge was built shortly after the First World War, destroyed by an avalanche it in 1960, then rebuilt in 1995. There are photos documenting the retreat of the Prè de Bar glacier just across the valley. We were fortunate enough to get a first hand account of the glacier’s demise from an elderly gentleman who has been visiting Val Ferret for over sixty years.

For an up close and bird’s eye view of these rivers of ice, a ride on the Funivie Monte Bianco is unbeatable. Planning, engineering and construction took decades and at the time of its completion, in the mid-fifties, it was the highest cable car in the world. Honestly, it doesn’t matter a wit that it isn’t the highest anymore, it’s more than scary high enough! Whoever created a higher one had to be out of their ever-lovin’ minds, and Veronica can tell you right now, she will NOT have any part of it!

Billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” (one of the best of the hundreds to make this claim) this terrifying little aerial tramway was the area’s only direct link into France until the Mont Blanc tunnel was completed in 1965, after eight years of digging. These mountain folks are of a hardy stock.

Veronica, being a rational human being, has a natural fear of riding in small boxes that dangle thousands of feet in the air from an inch thick cable. David, on the other hand, was actually giggling with anticipation. His maniacal grin taunted Veronica’s every terrified step toward the unwieldy gondola while pointing out “see, no wind at all, it‘ll be great,” knowing that Veronica would go nowhere near it otherwise.

Funivie Monte Bianco Step 2
Once in the car, the trip is basically STRAIGHT UP from Courmayeur (4,015 ft) to Punta Heilbronner (11,355 ft) on the French border. When she had her eyes open and was properly managing the gorge rising in her throat, Veronica had to admit it was one of the most spectacular sights she had ever seen. At the top, the panorama includes many of the Alps’ most famous peaks. These include the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, as well as Mont Blanc and the famed Giant’s Teeth -- seen up close and personal.

Funivie Monte Bianco Step 3
At the top, while drinking a very civilized and nerve-calming glass of wine, we had a chat with a group of crazy Scots, up there for some frost bite-tempting camping and crevasse-dodging skiing. Knowing that writer (and bad-ass mountain climber) Jon Krakauer (of Into Thin Air fame) called the area "the death-sport capital of the world," we wished them the best of luck and smartly decided that cable car travel was the least dangerous path back to the base of the peak.

With this in mind, the stomach churning ride down was actually quite pleasurable.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

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