Nira My God To Thee: Robert Clayman Goes Hiking In The Italian Alps
Robert Clayman climbs mountains and strides Roman ruins to find a little jewel straight out of a childhood spent watching The Italian Job and eating a lot of continental chocolate.
Hip. On me, it was the first thing that went. A twinge turned into a chronic, intermittent stab. Suddenly, I was putting my pants on very slowly. Not webcam slowly. Old man slowly. This is the harvest for the man in his forties of all the excessive physical exertion and athleticism of his twenties. Well, it is for a lot of men. I have no excuses. Many of my arse-based working friends don’t either. But very slowly and perceptibly, we’re coming apart at the seams.
It tends to make one shy away from risky behaviour or unnecessarily strenuous activity. But here I am, a few thousand feet above sea level in the verdant foothills of the Italian Alps, overlooking the breathtaking Aosta Valley, with Mont Blanc offering a superior backdrop. A vigorous, stentorian mountain waterfall cascades across a small metal bridge and forms arching rainbows. Yeah, this was worth the exhausting two-hour hike, climbing mostly innocuous paths but with some tricky footing and narrow ridges.
Not that my effort impressed Mauro. Ah, Mauro. Stick thin in skin-tight black Neoprene, a shock of white hair on top and flip-flops on his feet, this is our guide for the day. Our mountain man – an outdoors Sideshow Bob, utterly evolved for his environment. Mauro spends his summers walking up extremely steep climbs like he’s walking to the shop for a paper and sleeping in a sparse wood cabin nestled in a picture-postcard meadow. Words really can’t do the place justice. Perfect sort of nearly gets there. He spends his winters digging people out of avalanches and has been buried a few times himself. Hence the white hair. He’s barely 40. Though to note – both his hips work perfectly and the man barely raises a sweat at a 15% gradient. As we begin our tricky descent, a Yorkshire terrier pads past me. The smug little bastard is out for his Sunday constitutional with his owners, a family of five with young kids. They certainly build them different in Aosta.
Land at Geneva, drive out of Switzerland, enter France, go back into Switzerland and then queue for a couple of hours to get through the Mont Blanc tunnel (it IS a Friday afternoon during French school holidays) and emerge 20 minutes later in Italy. Here we are in Aosta. A verdant valley the Romans treasured as a valuable tactical site for imperial security, Hannibal sadly didn’t come through the St Bernard Pass, as is erroneously recorded, but the Italian Job DID. Home to the speakers of original Patois (an ancient Romano-French-Latin hybrid), some fabulous Roman architecture and a quite unique Alpine culture. I am braced for cheese, polenta, outdoor activities, more cheese, some fascinating history and yet more cheese. It doesn’t disappoint.
A very brief sojourn in the impressive new Skyway Monte Bianco cable car whisks us up to 3,462 metres for lunch above the clouds at Punta Helbronner. Surreal dining over (and thin air negotiated) we head to our hosts for the weekend, the elegantly appointed Nira Montana hotel. Located in the charming village of La Thuile, a few miles down from Mont Blanc, this perfectly formed 55-bedroom hostelry is a magical retreat, not only from your daily life, but some of the more rugged cultural and physical elements of the valley. Built in the style of the valley’s traditional houses of wood and stone, the building uses some clever energy-saving systems – and some prosaic ones. No air conditioning units required. Want fresh air – open the windows. How novel. General manager Giuseppe Artolli has had an illustrious career across some of the grandest of the grand hotels, but has settled here to run this sublime boutique as a very smooth ship.
A very suave modernist library and lounge greet you on entrance. The perfect place to relax after a day hiking or skiing, La Musique du Faubourg Paris have remixed music tracks to create a custom-fit ambience. The bar, though maybe a little too well lit to be deemed romantic, features an easy personal service. The rooms are elegantly earthy and feature some beautifully rare features – such as wood flooring computer-lathed so what appears to be the naturally cut serpentine curves of logs actually marry up with each other. All feature the same stonking vistas – if you’ve ever wondered where they shoot the wrappers and commercials for Milka chocolate, this is the spot.
An excellent spa features two saunas, steam room and treatment centres, with a delicious indoor pool, fitted with various saucy massage systems. A lovely way to relax tired, post-mountain-tempered muscles. However, where this little five star really excels is in its all-day Star Restaurant. Outside of its four walls and serene grey upholstery, Aostan cuisine is indeed, for want of a better word, ‘hearty’. A trip to higher climbs might get you to Le Riondet, a family-run wooden hall, filled (literally) with raclette, stews, local meats, polenta with everything and large Alpino regimental warriors with feathered hats and formidable facial hair. They finish you off with Grolla – an Alpine beverage of coffee, grappa, sugar and spices, served alight in a carved wooden ‘Friendship cup’. It is, to be fair, an experience.
Nira Montana understands that unless you are spending 14 hours pulling sledges, one’s stomach should be treated just a little bit more delicately. Breakfast is a joy. The best scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten at a hotel. Ever. The single best selection of organic honeys – nearly 20 – I’ve ever partaken off. Ever. Great service. Nice room. This already puts Montana in rarefied company. Let’s ignore the blinding pizzas made in a wood fired oven by a man who trained in Naples and took over a month on arrival to adjust his starting yeast so that it was happy at this altitude. Pizza may well be science, but the dinners are art. Not El Bulli art. Not Michelin-trying-to-win-the-sodding-Turner-Prize-art.
Just perfectly balanced, expertly seasoned and moderately portioned. Truffled deer terrine with an apricot chutney and port jelly is refined and savoury. Scampi ravioli with honey mushrooms disappears so fast, I want to weep. Olive-crusted sea bass with anise and fennel pie is a startling break from all the meats and cheeses and a classic zuppa – strawberries steeped in red wine, with hazelnut crunch and cardamom ice cream goes down as easy as (insert inappropriate metaphor here). I may have waddled out of Aosta a little heavier. But the only twinge I felt was regret to be leaving. I’ll come back. Even if I have to crawl.
Lead-in bed & breakfast rates at the Nira Montana hotel start from £149 per room, per night. For more information visit www.niracaledonia.com or call +44 (0)131 225 2720.
To find out more on the Aosta Valley, visit www.aosta-valley.co.uk.