Long before Savoy, the alpine region between what is now France and Italy, was to become an independent state in the center of Western Europe in the 11th century (for the next 700 years), the Romans had already identified its high mountain passes as a strategic route northward for its conquering armies and traders. While the region is now mainly popular with skiers, hikers and mountain climbers, it also offers visitors a surprising number of well-preserved Roman sites, and the timeless little mountain towns that grew from them.
About 30 minutes after road signs indicate that we have crossed the border from France into Italy, we reach Susa. Originally established by the Celts in 500 BC, at the confluence of two mountain streams, it has been a crossroads of many transalpine itineraries between Italy and France ever since. And it is still known for its considerable Roman and medieval heritage.
Its most important Roman ruins are the remarkably well preserved Arch of Augustus, built in 8 BC to celebrate a peace treaty between Rome and the Gauls, parts of the adjacent Roman baths, the nearby the amphitheater and aqueduct. The restored 2nd century amphitheater is now used for live performances. The imposing Porta Savoia, also with its origins in Roman times, was substantially rebuilt in the Middle Ages, and remains the point of entry to the Medieval part of the town.
The Middle Ages also contributed several monuments of note. Joined to the Porta Savoia, the 11th century Cathedral of San Giusto, the Romanesque church which was once part of an abbey complex, has retained some frescoes on its outside walls, and its remarkable bell tower with six levels of mullioned windows. Inside, it also holds a few artworks from the 14th and 15th centuries and a baptismal font that predates the current church.
Perched on a rock spur on the west side of town, the 11th century Castle of the Countess Adelaide memorializes the most emblematic figure in the city. Her marriage in 1046 to Oddone (Count of Maurienne and Savoy) marked the beginning of the Savoy dynasty in Italy. Today the castle houses the local Historical Archives and the Civic Museum.
A short drive north from Susa, the Benedictine Novalesa Abbey was founded in the 8th century on the road commanding the Mont Denis Pass, which had become a major pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. By the 11th century, it was one of the most important abbeys in Europe.
The complex endured varying fortunes over the next millennium, but it remains an active religious community to this day. It includes a monastic building proper, the abbey church and four medieval chapels scattered on the surrounding grounds. Two of these chapels are open to visitors: the 8th century (restored in the 11th century) Santa Maria Magdalena chapel with a painting of Mary with the Holy Grail, and the Saint Eldrado chapel.
The interior of the latter is covered with a unique cycle of late 11th century Byzantine-style frescoes representing the lives of Saint Eldrado and Saint Nicholas. These are among the oldest surviving images of St. Nicholas. It is considered one the most significant historic and artistic religious works of the Western Alps.
We continue on to Aosta, the northwestern most city in Italy and the principal city of the Aosta Valley, at the junction of the Great and Little St Bernard Pass routes.
While most widely known these days for its proximity to the Italian entrance of the Mont Blanc Tunnel (opened in 1965), Aosta has been settled since prehistoric times, and subsequently taken over by the Romans in the 1st century BC. By 11 BC it was established as the capital of the Grey Alps province of the Empire.
Its massive defensive walls are preserved almost in their entirety, enclosing a rectangle of 724 by 572 meters (2,375 by 1,877 feet). They are 6.4 meters (21 feet) high, built of concrete faced with small blocks of stone.
Towers stand at the angles of the fortifications and others are positioned at intervals, with two at each of the four gates, for a total of twenty towers. Two of the city gates have remained intact, the most remarkable of which is the eastern gate, known as Porta Praetoria (1st century AD). It consists of a double gate flanked by two towers. Of its three arches, the large central one accommodated carriages, with on either side, smaller ones were for pedestrians.
Within the Walls
The rectangular arrangement of the streets is modeled on the Roman plan dividing the town into 64 blocks. The main road, about 10 meters (33 feet) wide, running from east to west, divides the city into two equal halves. This layout makes it clear that the main purpose of the city was to guard the road..
The Roman theatre, of which only the southern façade remains, is 22 meters (72 feet) tall. The structure, dating from the late reign of Augustus, could accommodate up to 4,000 spectators. It was recently restored and has been used for live performances since 2011. A nearby amphitheater was also constructed within the walls under Claudius. However, its only remains are incorporated into the Medieval cloister of Santa Caterina.
The Aosta Cathedral was originally built in the 4th century on the southern part of what was then the sacred area of the Roman Forum. In the 11th century, this Palaeo-Christian structure was replaced by a new one, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. Much of the Romanesque building can still be seen, including the basilica plan with nave and two aisles, the crypt, the two bell towers and the remaining part of a Pre-Romanesque set of frescoes on the church ceiling. Various architectural elements were reconstructed throughout the centuries, resulting in a rather interesting sampler of the evolution of religious architecture over the last millenium, to culminate with the Neoclassical facade we see today.
Good to Know
Getting There — While the route of the alpine passes between Rome and France may not have changed much since Roman times, they are now broad and well paved modern roadways that make visiting the area by car the most effective solution.