Days spent on sightseeing were passing really quickly and we didn’t even notice that we were already halfway through our trip. Thursday was probably one of the most exciting days in our Italian-Alpine itinerary. I think everyone was at least a bit excited about the mountains.
In the morning we travelled to Courmayeur, and Italian village with a French-sounding name where we stayed just for a little while so that everyone could accomodate to a slightly higher altitude. We then jumped on the bus for a few more minutes after which we arrived at the bottom station of the funicular railway going up in the high Alps. We had a few hours to explore the beauty of the mountains on our own and we had 2 terraces to visit, both placed at quite different altitudes. With two other girls from the group we decided to go all the way up and start there and to descent to the lower terrace later during the day. We boarded a round-shaped funicular carriage with panoramic windows. As it was ascending it was also making a slow spin so that everyone could have a view from a different angle. Many people decided to check out the mid-height first but we changed the cart and went even higher. It was interesting because at some point we were going through a layer of clouds that completely blocked our vision. But then we were at such a high altitute that the world became bright again and we were above the clouds! Isn’t that crazy and exciting? They were constantly moving and sometimes it was hard to take a good picture but I tried my best.
When the clouds were not in our way the views were simply breathtaking. Mountain tops of various shapes and sizes – some were more pointy, others were rounded, most of them covered with white caps of snow. The building of the top station also featured a museum of minerals as well as a cafe & restaurant. Not to mention that there were more funicular railways that could take hikers even further to other parts of the Alps, like Chamonix in France. Having a chance to see Mont Blanc from this close really made the biggest impression on me that day. The highest viewing terrace that was available for tourists is called Punta Helbronner and is placed at 3466 meters. Considering that the highest mountain in Polish Tatras, Rysy, has 2503 meters I can easily say that Punta Helbronner is the greatest altitude my feet have ever been. The weather was pretty dynamic up there so warm clothes and a good softshell jacket were a must if you didn’t want to feel cold. From our guide and from the comments left on a travel agency website by people who participated in this trip before us, we knew there’s also a possibility to access the glacier. So we took a special elevator going down into mountain depths and then we passed through an underground tunnel. At this slightly lower height there was a building where hikers were getting ready for their trip. We even met a group from Poland. We tried to find our way around but it was more difficult than we though.
In the end we just found an information board telling that you can access the glacier through here and that you’re doing it at your own risk. There was no path really – you had to step across the fence and proceed. So we did and carefully proceeded few meters further just to be able to touch the snow. We took a couple of photos and went back. Afterwards we proceeded to descent to the lower station. We were below the clouds again and the weather seemed much better there but the views were not so spectacular, yet still very beautiful. At this level we could also get outside of the station and walk around a bit. There was even a special alpine garden arranged there that featured many species of plants native to the mountaineous hills of the Alps. After spending some time there our time was running up and we decided to return to the starting point. It really was a great experience and I highly recommend going to Punta Helbronner to anyone visiting this part of Italy. Once the group gathered again in the bus we were once more on the road for this wasn’t the end of sightseeing for the day. For those who were interested there was an additional trip to Aosta organized. It was highly recommended by many so I decided to join as well.
Aosta was much warmer compared to the earlier part of the day and t-shirt was just enough to feel comfortable. Next to Arco di Augusto we met our local city guide who first took us to the church of Sant’Orso. The church was built many centuries ago and apparently when it collapsed (during war I think) a new church was built on top of the ruins. Today after many years of excavations it is possible to go underground and see the remains of the old walls in a relatively good condition. They were simply hiding underneath the rebuilt church. We then passed through Porta Pretoria, an old town gate once also equipped with a moat. Just past it, on the right there’s a Teatro Romano – Roman theatre, its well-preserved ruins actually. We were lucky as a Week of Culture was going on when we visited and we could enter few more museums/venues free of charge. Next we visited Cathedrale di Aosta and some old building parts found underground – Criptoportico Forense. After those visits we had some free time to take more photos, grab something to eat or do some shopping. With much excitement and a handful of beautiful views and interesting places the day came to an end.
On Friday we were visiting Lago Maggiore, one of the biggest Italian lakes of which a part is actually located on a territory of Switzerland. It took us around an hour from the hotel until we were able to see the lake. We drove to Stresa, a rather luxurious resort town by the lake, with multiple 5-stars hotels. Upon the arrival of our tour guide we were welcomed onboard of a ferry (or water taxi) that after a short ride delivered us at Isola Bella, the biggest of a group of islands known as Boromee. The name Bella derives from Isabella – wife of count Carlo III. Beautiful palace that was finished in 17th century still serves as a summer residence of living descendants from Boromee family. Presence of any of them is indicated by a red flag above the palace. Out of 4 floors the visitors are able to visit 1st floor which serves as a museum, showing wealth of architecture, art and furnishing. After having a castle tour (which lasted approximately 1 hour) we had some time to visit the gardens that surround the palace. And oh boy, I must tell you that I’ve never seen a garden this beautiful. It was arranged with a lot of taste and featured rare species of citrus plants, palms or bamboo. There were also 4 (maybe more) white peacocks wandering around – they treated tourists as if they didn’t exist. After finishing the sightseeing of Isola Bella we were on a ferry again.
This time it took us for a longer ride across the lake and the captain made more or less a full circle around these islands so that we can see them from different sides. Eventually we landed at Isola Pescatori, a Fisherman Island. It was so tiny that you needed less than 10 minutes to walk from one end to the opposite one. We visited Chiesa di San Vittore and then we had some time for ourselves. In the afternoon we returned to Stresa where we also had some time off before departure. I headed down the narrow street between 2 hotels to arrive at a little square that was buzzing with people. I also found a perfumery there that was offering products from Acqua di Stresa, a brand I have seen years before in Florence, at Pitti. I tested them all just to remind myself the scents. I also used this opportunity to buy a couple of hand made soaps from this brand so that I had some gifts for friends. The weather wasn’t great on Friday. It was the first day during our adventures when the sky was fully covered with gray clouds and the temperature was moderate. It wasn’t raining at least, a great plus. We were back at the hotel and the rest of the afternoon before dinner time was just for our leisure.