An Insider's Courmayeur
This January, after visiting Milan for a few days, my family and I decided to head up to Courmayeur for a relaxing trip in the snowy mountains. We chose to stay in Pre San Didier instead of Courmayeur for two reasons: much better prices and Pre San Didier is home to the famous "terme" or hotsprings, which we intended to visit.
The drive from Milan to Courmayeur is about 2 1/2 hours but well marked (it's just slightly past the big city of Aosta). We stayed at the Residence Universo, which is about a 2 minute walk from the terme. The hotel is simple but cozy, and warmly run by an entire family (Grandma is especially cute manning the front desk!). I should also note that the restaurant at Universo is delicious-- I had the typical black truffle pasta with their house red wine and was very satisfied. Two good restaurants right across the street are located at the Hotel Bucaneve and the Hotel Bellevue. At the Bucaneve I ordered a version of french onion soup made with cabbage which is one of the best things I ate all year.
We also happened to be sitting next to a family that had their pet wolf under the table! Another specialty from this northern region (or adopted from the Piedmonte region), is fonduta, which is similar to fondue, but made with fontina cheese instead of gruyere. It is also traditionally served with pieces of a hearty, freshly baked multi-grain bread.
Since the only skier in the group was myself, we didn't hit the slopes on this trip, although Courmayeur and its surrounding are an excellent place to do so. And although Courmayeur is essentially a ski town, you will find there is plenty to do if you don't ski.
On our first day, we decided to walk along the main street of the city on our way to the gondola ski lift, admiring the cute little stores and their window displays. Even if you're not skiing, you can take the gondola up the mountain, which is an incredible adventure in itself.
I also recommend eating at one of the restaurants once you get to the first stop--- I have tried a few but have heard that they are all equally good. Since this is a popular spot, you might have to wait for a table-- but no problem-- just grab a glass of "vin brulee" (hot, spiced red wine) or a big mug of beer, and sit out on one of the patios overlooking the slopes.
Once you do sit down to eat, I recommend getting something warm and yummy, like the simple yet delicious polenta with mushrooms and cheese that I ordered.
After heading back down the mountain, we walked back along the same main street, but this time we were on a mini pub-crawl. We sampled plenty of good, local wines along the way, but our favorite stop was at a small unasuming bar where we ordered a drink called "grola".
I was intrigued because it had to be made for a minimum of two people, and the ingredients were kept a secret. Turns out a grola is a wooden "kettle" with several "mouthpieces" to drink out of (ours had six). It arrived at the table with the alcoholic concoction inside lit on fire--- once we put this out, we took turns passing it around and sipping a very strong but delicious drink.
I was able to get the waiter to admit the ingredients (4 different kinds of alcohol) and later when my Mom bought one to take home, we read the full recipe (much more toned-down then the one we were served):
4 cups of weak coffee, 4 nips of grappa, lemon and orange rind, 3 coffee spoons of sugar for each cup of coffee: scatter the sugar on the cup rim, sprinkle it with grappa, and light it on fire. Also noted on the recipe: "It is a drink served as a symbol of great friendship."