If you go to the Aosta Valley and follow the signs for the Great Saint Bernard’s Pass, you’ll get to one of the region’s lesser-frequented valleys, the Great Saint Bernard Valley. It’s the valley where the wind known as the coumba freida in the local dialect blows cold in winter, and the temperature remains cool and fresh in summer, always welcome when you’re arriving from the summer heat of Milan. The pass above links Italy with Switzerland. It’s on the route of the Via Francigena, the pilgrims’ way which starts in Canterbury in the UK and finishes in Rome. The Great Saint Bernard’s Hospice up there on the Swiss side was originally begun by Augustine monks to provide food and shelter for the pilgrims. They also started to breed the famous Saint Bernard dogs. The dogs were used to carry loads, and later to help in mountain rescues. It’s quite possible that you’ll see one if you go up to the pass.
Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses is the last village before you go through the tunnel or over the pass and into Switzerland, and is famous for its local ham known as Jambon de Bosses. We stayed there in a bed and breakfast called Nuit à Pleiney. It’s past the town hall and church, at the end of the road through the valley. Saint-Rhèmy-en-Bosses is split into various hamlets, each a group of houses where people used to keep live and keep their animals. Nuit à Pleiney offers a night in the hamlet of Pleiney. I suggest you stay for more, and give yourself chance to unwind, far from the crowds of more popular tourist destinations.
Sara Clerici and her husband Marco were familiar with the area when they started their bed and breakfast as they’d spent many years holidaying there. They then bought an old rural house and spent seven years renovating it. It was a labour of love, where authenticity and respect for the past was key. The whole building still has the original thick stone walls and wooden features, and even the marks from the bread oven in the breakfast room can still be seen on one of the walls. The builders wanted to clean them off, but Sara refused. Each corner of the building tells a part of the building’s history, and Sara didn’t want to erase any of it.
The result is that the bed and breakfast fits beautifully within its original context, both in relation to its neighbouring houses and the mountains. There are five rooms each with their own private bathroom, including two family rooms where one has the option of adding a fifth bed. The accommodation is bed and breakfast with jams and cakes all made by Sara. An evening aperitivo with local products and wines is available upon request.
There’s also an apartment that sleeps four, which is where we stayed. The open plan downstairs bedroom and living room has a bed settee which functions as extra sleeping space. Upstairs is the kitchen under the eaves, while outside at the back there’s an outdoor eating area. It’s the early mornings I remember, waking up and going up into the kitchen to make coffee, throwing open the windows and hearing the sound of the river and the birds. If there was anything I needed post-lockdown, it was this.
The large garden offers space for outside relaxation, although the position in the valley next to the woods, with the odd deer for company is a garden in itself. Whether you choose to take your morning coffee outside or enjoy a herbal tea whilst watching the stars shining in the blackest of nights, Nuit offers the peace and quiet to re-connect with nature. There’s also a sauna, relaxation room and hot tub in the garden to enhance your experience.
Sara works with Carlotta and Gerard of Rimedi Noa, a holistic health service which is offered on site. Whilst other such facilities might take place in spa or beauty complexes, this is all done outside in the garden, which adds to its charm. I met them one afternoon and had a chat with Carlotta about food, health and general well-being. Of course I was being assessed but it really felt like a chat between friends as I sat there in my deck chair and was able to relax into the whole experience. The same thing happened when Gerard gave me cranio sacral therapy in the wooden relaxation room in the garden. I felt like I floated through the rest of the day.
The fact that Nuit is on a main route means leading down from Switzerland that it’s a very convenient base from which to explore the surrounding area, but also to visit other areas within the Aosta Valley. There’s no driving up and down winding mountain roads every time you want to go anywhere, and yet you still get all the benefits of being up in the mountains at just over 1600 m above sea level. Saint Oyen and Etroubles are both neighbouring villages, each of which deserve a visit. Saint Oyen produces delicious cooked ham of the same name, and Etroubles was voted one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Don’t worry about taking your car there if you don’t want to. The beauty of the visit lies in walking through the valley from Nuit to get there, although you’d probably want to drive to one of the restaurants in the evening.
This was the first place we visited post-lockdown and I was curious to know what it would be like in our new age of social distancing. It was surprisingly easy, at least for the visitor. Masks are obligatory indoors along with the rest of Italy, and when you enter the breakfast room to go indoors, there’s a no-touch hand gel dispenser outside. Breakfast is served either indoors at the required distance or outside in the garden. Generally wherever we went, we found people just following the rules and getting on with it. And of course, being in the mountains, it’s difficult to feel crowded. If you’re nervous about getting out there for whatever reason, this is certainly one of the quieter mountain locations.
The mountains have the ability to nourish and regenerate, providing a contact with nature like no other, or at least that’s what I’ve always felt personally. If you’re looking for a place to get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature and peace, Nuit à Pleiney could be exactly what you need.
Nuit à Pleiney, www.pleiney.it
Photos: Rachael Martin