While the Aosta Valley is one of the smallest regions in Italy, it is rich in heritage as the Savoy Castle, an interesting historical building, clearly demonstrates. The castle is located deep in the Gressoney-Saint-Jean valley, a much appreciated place by Margherita di Savoia, the first queen of Italy.
Margherita of Savoy
Margherita of Savoy (fig. 1) was born in Turin on the 20th November 1851, to parents Elisabeth of Saxony and Ferdinando of Savoy. She became queen soon after marrying Umberto I of Savoy.
Margherita’s childhood was characterised by some unhappy events: Her father died when she was very small, and following his death, her mother got married to another man who was not well-liked by Margherita. Thus, she spent her young life in solitude in the Chiabalese Palace with the company of her preceptors, who, like herself, had never thought that at some point, she would actually become a queen.
Keeping in line with tradition, Umberto, Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy’s son, should have married an Austrian arch-duchess who prematurely died. After her death, it was decided that Umberto would instead marry Margherita, his cousin. In fact, at the time, Margherita was considered to have been a good choice who all of the court’s subjects would totally accept and approve of, for the following reasons: First, she was a very smart woman who loved her country very much, secondly, she had a great personality and was also proud to belong to the Savoy dynasty.
The wedding between the two cousins took place in the Dome of Turin on the 21st April in 1868 and soon after they moved to Naples where Margherita gave birth to her first son, Vittorio Emanuele III. When her father-in-law, the king Vittorio Emanuele II, died, Umberto became the new king, but Margherita excelled much more than her husband in terms of public opinion. She was, in fact, admired by her subjects and also by many influential people such as politicians, artists and intellectuals. Her admirers included the Italian poet Giosuè Carducci who dedicated an ode to her. Once her son Vittorio Emanuele III took the throne, Margherita left public life and began living more privately between the Royal Palace of Stupinigi, during the summer months, and her villa in Bordighera, during the winter. Margherita died in Bordighera on 4th January 1926.
Among all the members of the royal family she had appreciated Gressoney-Saint-Jean the most, and this is why many traces of her, such as her personal residence, can still be found there.
“I spent an excellent season in this beautiful and tranquil valley, where the ordinary noises are softened by the mountains and where the nature helps to overcome all the harsh difficulties in life”
Margherita of Savoy, July 26 1894, Gressoney
The castle building is located beneath the Ranzola Hill, in a place called “Belvedere”, since it dominates the whole valley with an amazing view of the Lyskamm glacier.
The castle, as mentioned before, was the royal residence of Margherita di Savoia, the first queen of Italy. She literally fell in love with this beautiful valley after having resided there many times as a special guest in the house of Beck Peccoz Barons. Due to her frequent visits there, the property is now known as the Villa Margherita (fig. 2).
The castle, itself was constructed on behalf of the queen and the construction work started in 1899 and was completed in 1904. Margherita spent her summer holidays there from its completion up until 1925, one year before her death. Margherita’s presence in this valley made other noble families also want to visit and reside there, enabling the area to become an important tourist destination to this day.
The castle was designed by the architect Enrico Stramucci, who had also designed the neo-Baroque decorations for the Royal Palace in Turin and for the Quirinale in Rome. The castle is constructed in mediaeval-style which is described as the “15th-century Lombard style”, quite frequently seen in France and Savoy, the homelands of the still-reigning sovereigns.
The building consists of three floors: the ground floor with living quarters, the noble floor with the royal apartments and the second floor, which is not open to visitors, and is reserved for the gentlemen of the court. There are also the cellars, which are located underground.
Only a few pieces of the original castle furniture remain. In fact, the other furniture now on display comes from the Villa Margherita property of the Beck Peccoz Barons. However, the original pieces that do remain include tapestries in linen and cotton, decorated with a Chiné effect. The ornamental pictures that adorn the walls are the work of the young painter and restorer Carlo Cussetti, who also worked on the new wing of the Royal Palace in Turin. In addition, the mediaeval-inspired coffered ceilings, wooden panels and furniture are made by the wood carver Dellera, another artisan from Turin. Inside the building visitors can consistently see the representation of the daisy flower, which is not a coincidence but, rather, a conscious choice to honour the queen, since the meaning of her name, Margherita, is daisy.
On the ground floor, there is a very sumptuous wooden staircase (fig. 3) featuring griffins and eagles, leading to the royal apartments, preceded by a hall whose ceiling bears the following inscription: “hic manebimus optime”, meaning “here we stay excellently”.
It must be said that the Queen’s apartment occupies the best position: From the windows of the sitting room in the northern tower, it is possible to admire the view of Mount Rosa as well as the entire valley.
The Botanical Garden
The Savoy Castle is also surrounded by a vast park which is characterised mainly by the presence of trees and larches. A botanical alpine garden (fig. 4) was added later and it opened to the public in 1990.
The garden is composed by a series of rocky beds with alpine plants which are not only local but also from other areas of the world. These plants have been specially chosen based on their particular ornamental qualities.
Among them, one can admire the martagon lily, the alpenrose, the edelweiss, the globeflower, the alpine columbine, the arnica, various evergreens, the gentian, the saxifrages and also the fireweed, which is very common nearby on the banks of the river Lys.
Although the garden is open all year, it is considered better to visit it in July and August, to be able to fully enjoy the spectacle of colours and fragrances of the flowers in bloom.
The Queen’s Walk Itinerary and the So-called Alta Via 1
Visitors, once having enjoyed the residence and the botanical garden, can also enjoy a nice walk, known as The Queen’s Walk, which is the very path that Queen Margherita used to often take while she was there on holiday. This path allows visitors to stroll nearby the Lake Gover (fig. 5), which is located not too far from the historic centre of Gressoney-Saint-Jean. There, it is nice to have a look at the traditional architecture and to also visit the ancient church of Saint John Baptist, which dates back to 1700, where a well preserved wooden crucifix hangs, dating back to the year 1200.
The Queen’s Walk is also included in the so-called Alta Via 1, a trekking route which runs near the foothills of some of the highest peaks in Europe such as Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. The route provides an immersive experience into the nature and the local villages of the area, with their history and traditions, and is a gateway to explore archaeological remains and monuments. Thus, the beautiful castle fits right into the trek’s landscape and has been thoughtfully included in the route.
Written by Dr. Barbara Mordà
Caresio, F. (2012). Castelli e caseforti della Valle d’Aosta. Borgaro Torinese: Priuli & Verlucca.
Mordà, B. (2023). Alta Via della Valle d’Aosta. Itinerario escursionistico tra storia, natura e leggende. Washington: National Geographic Partners – Novara: Libreria Geografica.
Regolo, L. (2019). Margherita di Savoia. I segreti di una regina. Milano: Edizioni Ares.