The smallest of Italy's regions, actually an Italian province with special status, Val d'Aosta (Aosta Valley) sits in a completely mountainous area, surrounded by France to the west, Switzerland to the north and Piedmont to the east and south.
As you travel through Aosta, as bucolic and pastoral as you will find anywhere in Europe, you will not encounter much in the way of large-scale industry, except for forestry and the lumber industries that derive from it, and hydrolectric dams that produce a significant amount of electricity for export. Such secondary and tertiary industries that do exist are well planned to integrate into the landscape, with a strongly inclined view toward its preservation.
In the valley bottoms, surrounding the valley towns, and pushing up the slopes, you will see intensive, small scale farming. Higher up, the bare, grassy slopes are used for pasturing cattle, sheep and goats, still being shepherded as in times of old.
Not surprisingly tourism has long played, and will continue to play an important role in the local economy. The Alpine sking - some of the best in the world - particularly at Courmayeur in the Gran Paradiso National Park. Hiking, mountain climbing, rock climbing, rappelling, rafting, kayaking, and other such sports draw thousands of eager outdoors people every year.
Or you can wander around and catch a glimpse of the medieval castles and fortresses that dot the countryside, in all of the 13 valleys that sit between the mountainous ribs of the Region. The castles of Castles of Challant, Fenis, and Verres are good examples.
The population of Valle D'Aosta is, of course, Italian by virtue of its legal status, but there is a strong francophone flavor, with a touch of German (in the Gressoney area). The majority of the populatoin speak Franco-Provencale, and laws are based on the French civil code, a heritage of the days when the Region was part of the Duchy of Savoy, into which it was incorporated in the 11th Century AD.
At the time of Italian unification, Valle D'Aosta was part of the Piemonte area, but gained autonomous status in 1948.
Straddling as it does the Dora Baltea River at a place where it can control access to (and through) the Great St. Barnard and Little St. Barnard passes through the Alps, Valle D'Aosta has immense strategic value to those who occupy it, from the original tribal groups (Celts and Ligurians) to the many subsequent powers (Romans, Byzantines, Goths, Longobards, Franks, Bergundians, Bourbans and Savoians who have successively invaded and held the ground.
The predominant architecture of the area is Gothic, with touches of Romanesque. Roman artifacts are numerous, but it is the unique wooden and marble statuary created by local artists, much of which is exhibited in the Treasury Museum at the Cathedral in Aosta, that exemplifies Aostan art.
So, what to make of Valle d'Aosta? Well, it is quite unlike any other part of Italy, except perhaps the Region of Trentino, with which it shares many social, cultural and geographic similarities.
If you are looking for an authentic "Italian" experience, you have to have a very expansive understanding about what Italy is, in fact, not how it sits romantically in the minds of most tourists - as a kind of Tuscany writ large.
If you are looking for a place to visit that has stunning scenery, a picturesque alpine quality, a place where one can enjoy a sense of space, breathe clean air, and commune with gregarious "locals", it is hard to think of a better destination than Valle D'Aosta.