It’s not much of a boast, but I’d be surprised if there’s a journalist writing in the English language who can trump my knowledge of the Valle d’Aosta.

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I’ve lived there on a couple of occasions, seen every season, and spent countless weeks holidaying in the tiny autonomous region of Italy’s far north-west. I’ve hiked many of its wild places, one of which I wrote about for the UK’s Independent. I’ve skied (almost) all its accessible mountains. I’ve tasted most of its wines (Chambave is my favourite wine village) and walked every street of its capital Aosta, once Augusta Praetoria, the “Rome of the North”.

It was my friend Mario who led me to the spot where that photo was taken, in 2006. We’d been out collecting mushrooms since before dawn. On the way back we stopped at the Col d’Arpy and walked 20 minutes up the hill behind the cafe. You don’t get any clue it’s coming then, whoosh, the path drops away a thousand feet to the valley floor and you’re left staring right at Monte Bianco, the Brenva Glacier, and the wall of granite that makes up the Grandes Jorasses. I’d only packed my camera as an afterthought. Anyway, it doesn’t come near to catching what it was like that morning.

It’s not an especially accomplished photo, I know. It’s been clumsily cropped and enhanced to work on this site, too. But every time I visit, to tinker or check something, I think of Mario Lanza, who died far too young in 2008. He was a former national swimming coach, my teacher of all things Italian, a great cook, a mycophile, a dad, and my friend. If I’ve ever written anything about Italy worth reading, it’s in part due to Mario. I miss him.