Forte di Bard

| Mon, 08/03/2009 - 11:14
Words by Carla Passino
Images courtesy of Alessandro Vecchi and Twice25

Thick and bulky, the hill of Bard stands incongruously in the middle of a narrow valley, towering over the rushing Dora Baltea river and the villages that line it. Even though the Alps soar above it on either side, it still feels massive and impregnable, a natural bastion protected by sheer walls of glittering rock.

If it looks like this today, when daring motorway tunnels cut into the belly of the mountains to the left of the hill and rescue helicopters fill the sky with the noise of their rotor blades, imagine what it must have looked like in the bare, dark, sparsely populated Middle Ages.

It must have felt gigantic, safe—and strategically placed to exact juicy tolls from the many hapless merchants crossing to and from France and the rest of Italy. Small wonder then that the powerful lords of Bard chose it to built their stronghold.

Their decision marked the hill’s fate forever. After the local notables handed over the castle to their overlords, the House of Savoy, Duke Carlo Emanuele II of Savoy was quick to spot the place’s defensive potential. He dismantled the nearby forts of Verres and Montjovet, and concentrated his efforts in making Bard the key to his dukedom’s defence in the Aosta Valley.

Over the centuries, the fortress crept down the hill as the Savoy army expanded and strengthened its walls and battlements, a forbidding symbol of the House’s growing power.
Only one man was able to mar Bard’s glorious history—Napoleon. After crossing the Great St Bernard pass with an army of 40,000 in 1800, he swept through the Aosta Valley unchecked. Until he reached Bard, that is. Here, an Austrian garrison, which fought alongside the Savoy army under the command of Captain Von Bernkopf, halted Napoleon’s progress for 14 days. When they finally surrendered, the French emperor granted the Austrians the honours of war—and then proceeded to raze the “villain castle of Bard” to the ground.

Even so, Bard was too strategic to be abandoned and King Carlo Felice of Savoy invested money and effort in reviving it. He called upon military engineer Francesco Antonio Olivero and on a young lieutenant, Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour (who later masterminded the Italian unification of 1861) to build a fortress that would be even stronger and more secure than the ones that stood before it.

Olivero’s genius conceived the fort as it stands now, a number of defensive buildings laid across three levels, which were connected to each other but could also fight (or defend themselves) independently.

Today, four sets of glass lifts link the levels, regaling passengers with mist-wrapped views of the pine-clad Alps and the stone roofs of the Aosta Valley villages. But invading soldiers trying to walk the paved road that connected the lower forts to the upper ones in the 19th century would have had to negotiate the steep, 67m-high slope under the weight of their gear—while the defendants poured a rain of bullets on them from above, safe in the knowledge that they had both the strategic advantage and access to huge warehouses full of weapons and food.
This feat of military architecture—the mighty taupe strongholds, the thick walls and the winding roads that link them, all left virtually unchanged since the 19th century—are reason enough to visit the Forte, but there is more. After years of decline, the structure has been converted into a cultural venue hosting concerts, ballet and opera, theatre performances, and temporary exhibitions, as well as a permanent Museum of the Alps and Children’s Alps attraction. The latter is a great draw for children, who will love walking over (the projection of) a rushing Alpine brook, stepping over a river of molten lava, admiring eagle, ibex, bear and wolf, and watching the high definition video of a fictitious eagle’s flight from the top of the Mont Blanc to the Fort (this is a hit with many grown ups too) before engaging in the museum’s piece de resistance—the Children’s Alps, a virtual ascent of Mont Blanc, complete with pike and hat, followed by a very real hike up a climbing wall.

Grown ups may prefer to spend their time walking down the Fort the old fashioned way—by the 19th century paved road—to take in both the powerful military buildings and the graceful houses of the medieval Borgo that still shelters at the foot of the fortress. And if military history is your passion, it may be worth investing in the guided tour that take you to explore the fort’s every nook and cranny.

The Forte di Bard is open from Tuesday to Friday 10am to 6pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 7pm. There are extended opening times in August (up to 7.30pm) but the shops and the Children’s Alps attraction still close at 6pm. Beware that the ticket office shuts an hour before closing time, and since it is located on the fort’s very top level it will take you up to 10 minutes to reach it. The complex closes for a week in winter, usually at the end of November or in early December (call +39 0125 833811 for information). Many different ticket combinations are on offer—one of the most popular ones, which gives access to the Museum of the Alps and the Children’s Alps attraction, costs €11, concessions €6-8.