Italy’s Hidden Treasures: Indie Exploration in the Alps

No traveler would argue that Italy is lacking in sights or attractions. It’s brimming with legendary cities like Venice, Rome, and Florence, and each of these is overflowing with ancient monuments, famous works of art, and grand cathedrals. But the real Italy, with its crumbling villages and quiet traditions, has more to offer curious travelers than souvenir shops and crowded museums. Indeed, not far from Milan is an incredible mountain paradise, where tiny stone towns hide on mountainsides and ridge lines, enhancing the already breathtaking beauty of the steep Alpine slopes. These hidden corners of Italy are beckoning adventurous travelers – and they certainly won’t disappoint.

Transportation

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Arriving in this under-appreciated region of Italy is surprisingly easy.

  • From Milan, you can catch a bus that goes directly to Valsesia – a large valley that harbors so many small villages. Look for the Baranzelli bus lines which will take you all the way to Alagna, the last stop in Valsesia.
  • Otherwise, take the train from Milan to Vercelli, then transfer and continue on to Varallo.
  • If you’re arriving at the Turin airport, travel by train to either Vercelli or Varallo and use the ATAP bus lines to get to your final destination.

Once you’re in the valley, public transportation is consistent and reasonably priced.

  • Use the same bus lines to get to most mountain villages – just remember that tickets aren’t sold on board. Usually the café or bar nearest the bus stop will sell you a ticket.
  • Check the bus schedules ahead of time so you can plan your trip accordingly, especially on weekends and holidays.
  • Car rental is also an option to give you more freedom in planning itineraries and activities.

Three hikes to get you started

Start exploring: Val d’Otro

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A hike to Val d’Otro is a good way to start exploring the alpine villages, since it’s easy to get there and will certainly reward you with its hilltop views. The town of Alagna is the starting point, and is perfectly lovely in its own right. Home to several ski resorts, this town is the valley’s top tourist destination. Head uphill through the older part of the village, through narrow, winding stone streets.

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Signs lead to Val d’Otro – the trail is clearly marked. Leaving the village behind, the path is visible crossing a meadow and continuing into the forested hills. The stone trails on this hike and others in the region were the roads of the valley’s first inhabitants. Imagine the people, animals, and carts that would walk these paths daily to travel from one village to another.

The trail does climb steadily for almost an hour, so take as many breaks as you like during the walk. Enjoy the wooded scenery and the small hillside chapels along the way. The edge of the forest marks the entrance to Follu in the Val d’Otro, a cluster of houses in the center of a wide, green meadow. Spring and early summer are wonderful times to visit this area. The entire meadow blooms with small, multicolored wildflowers. Take a few minutes to admire the houses and the view of higher peaks in the distance. Then, stop in at the lodge for an espresso or hot chocolate. Relaxing in the mountain sunshine is the perfect way to appreciate the day’s simple pleasures.

Off the beaten path: La Res di Fobello

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If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, head for La Res di Fobello: a tiny village that has yet to be discovered by tourism. The trail head is in the town of Fobello, a remote part of Val Mastellone.

A bus service is available to take you there, then head uphill in the village on foot. You’ll need to follow signs to La Colma, then continue to La Res. The trail climbs steadily, but the views and quaint towns provide constant distractions. A stone pathway leads through a large, wooded area, then cuts across an open, green slope dotted with old houses. Then it climbs to an open hillside overlooking the mountains all around. The views from this part of the trail are spectacular. In the valley below is Santa Maria, surrounded on all sides by steep, green slopes. There’s no passage over the mountains by car, so you can see where the road actually ends.

In the summer, the small mountain villages are inhabited by shepherds and families. Many cultivate small parcels of land and produce fresh vegetables and fruits. Apple trees are abundant, and the area is known for its delicious potatoes. Chickens often wander onto the trail, and you’re sure to see cats, dogs, and donkeys. The owners tend to their vegetables and animals, and at noon the scent of cooking wafts from open windows. In early fall, groups of men gather on the steep grassy hillsides to harvest the hay with old-fashioned scythes. Their cattle roam freely around – and occasionally onto – the trail. Enjoy the peaceful domestic scenery as you continue to climb.

The last leg of this hike is steeper but only lasts a few minutes. Then the trail cuts directly across a mountain-top meadow, where a tiny stone church and a few buildings are gathered. One or two giant trees provide shade for hikers. This is the small community known as La Res di Fobello. It’s perched precariously on the ridge of a mountain, and provides wide valley views on both sides. On one side is Fobello, its valley, and adjacent mountains. Turn around to look across another valley and see the town of Rimella, with houses terraced onto a steep mountain incline. Visible in the distance is a broad, grassy mountain speckled with houses: Alpe Pianello – the perfect way to end an Italian Alps itinerary.

The show-stopper: Alpe Pianello

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If you’ve dreamed of alpine scenes straight from The Sound of Music, the pleasant hike to Alpe Pianello will be well worth your time. The town of Rimella is a good place to start if you’re arriving by bus. If you have a car, a parking lot is available closer to the trail head. From Rimella, follow signs to Alpe Pianello. The trail wanders through several villages and crosses the paved road a few times before arriving at the trail head and parking lot. A sign at this point informs visitors if the back-country refuge is open or closed. It’s generally open on weekends in the spring, summer, and fall. For peace and privacy, make the hike on a weekday. Otherwise, go on a weekend, get to know the locals, and have a glass of wine or a meal at the alpine refuge.

After a brief walk through the woods, the trees disappear and the path can be seen cutting across the mountainside. Little villages dot the hillsides on both sides of the valley. Shepherds are most often herding their flocks of sheep, who gather like white specks on distant slopes. Their bells echo through the valley, along with calls from the shepherd and his barking dog. Look to the sky for a chance to see a golden eagle or a kestrel hunting rodents in the grass.

This is a longer hike but never steep, and the views are open throughout the walk. The trail follows the line of the hillside, cutting in and crossing small creeks, then circling out again on the mountain’s outer slope. Near the final destination, the trail arrives at the valley’s ending point, where a small village lies. A little church and several houses are clustered there, looking out on a truly spectacular vista. The entire trail is visible from this point, as are many mountain villages and peaks. On a clear day, look for Monte Rosa, the highest peak in Switzerland, magnificent and continuously capped in snow. Once you’ve enjoyed the view, take some time to wander between the stone houses. Some are newly restored, but others still bear the marks of many, many alpine winters. Their gray stone perfectly compliments the bright green grass that grows on all sides. Even the roofs are made of stone, with granite slabs layered over wooden beams for durability and insulation.

This delightful landscape, with its fresh air and broad skies, is the perfect place for a picnic. Local cheeses, deli meats, and breads are available from the alimentari – small grocery stores – in Rimella. Wine is usually the beverage of choice for Italian picnics, but spring water from a stone fountain – like the one found in Rimella – is also a refreshing option. A peaceful hike and an amazing view is certainly worth celebrating.

Other activities

The area has many opportunities for outdoor activities, notably skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

  • The river Sesia is a good place to raft and kayak, with tours and classes available.
  • If Italian food fascinates you, be sure to visit an agriturismo – family owned restaurants and farms that serve traditional local fare, from fresh mountain produce and cheeses to wild boar and frogs. Many of these restaurants are located off the beaten path and aren’t even accessible by motor vehicle. The required hike is all part of the experience – and a great way to work up an appetite.

Practical information

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When to go

Winter is long in the Alps, so the summer months from May to October are best for hiking and exploring. Wildflowers will be lovely in May and June, and the fall colors are a sight to see in October. Just remember that whatever time of year, the weather in the Alps can be unpredictable, so always be prepared for chilly temperatures at the summit, the possibility of scorching sun and sudden thunderstorms.

Where to stay

If you’re wondering where to make your base camp for exploration, the town of Varallo is a good option. It’s large enough to have some budget grocery stores and restaurants but small enough to feel authentic. It also has a large outdoor market on Tuesdays and a beautiful, historic hilltop convent.

Costs

  • For sleeping, a bed and breakfast is a reasonable option, costing between $38-65USD (€30-50).
  • If you’re on a budget, plan to spend between $20-30USD (€15-25) a day for food if you go out to a restaurant once a day but picnic for your other meals.
  • If you’re willing to spend a little more, there are deluxe hotels and restaurants available, especially in the smaller towns like Alagna.
  • Camping is another option in the summer; you can camp near Alagna or Fobello and pay around $20USD (€15) per night with a tent.
  • For a true alpine experience, plan ahead and stay at one of the free, open back-country shelters. These stone houses usually provide bunk beds, a rustic kitchen and a wood-burning fire for cold nights. During the peak season, you will probably share the space with other hikers and travelers.

Resources

General Information - Check out the Alagna Valsesia website for lots of practical information about traveling in the area.

Bed and Breakfasts – Here are a few bed and breakfast recommendations for the area:

  • In Gui - This B&B is in Varallo and offers double rooms for as low as $38USD (€30) per person.
  • The Agriturismo (Farm Holidays) in Alagna Valsesia is located at the foot of Monte Rosa mountain as is great for those looking for some peace and quiet.

Campgrounds – If you’re looking to save a little cash, check out the following campgrounds:

Add Italy to your indie trip

Check out the following multi-stop trip that has a hiking focus and includes a stop in the Italian Alps.

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For more on traveling to Italy, check out the following articles and resources:

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  • Kinga Mesaros said at 2013-04-03T07:53:22+0000: You can do this kind of trip also starting from Venice, the Alps are only about 1h and half by car. There are many amazing places like in the Valle del Mis (google this to see pictures), and up to the Marmolada, Kronplatz and all surrounding valleys. So much to explore and so many hikes to take! Trails are well marked and in the summer there are some people around, you shouldn't be afraid of getting lost. I cannot give you practical info about moving around since I live near Venice and have a motorbike for travelling around, but there is soooo much to explore, I've seen hundreds of nice places, all are worth it. And the food is pretty much amazing.