Fort Bard, from military garrison to cultural centre
From impregnable fortress to art and culture centre: the parable of the imposing Fort Bard, at the entrance to Val d'Aosta, is that of a military garrison for centuries guarding the valley, the scene of bitter battles, transformed into a large museum centre, a space for exhibitions and concerts, one of the region's major cultural attractions. Where you can spend a whole day, and perhaps even a night, in the hotel housed in the halls of the old garrison.
Conquered by Napoleon, rebuilt by Charles Felix
In a strategic position on the promontory dominating a bend in the Dora Baltea river, next to the village of Bard, a military fort defended the valley through the vicissitudes of its history for at least a thousand years: conquered by Amedeo IV of Savoy in 1242, enlarged in the 17th century by Charles Emmanuel II, then razed to the ground in May 1800 by Napoleon's army after a bitter two-week battle against the Austrian troops barricaded inside.
Carlo Felice had it rebuilt in its current form 30 years later, again in anti-French function. Conceived by military engineer Francesco Antonio Olivero to withstand even three months of siege, it had 50 gun ports and could accommodate up to 900 men. With the unification of Italy, it lost its strategic value, used first as a prison, then as an ammunition depot. It was only in 1970 that it was ceded by the military to the Val d'Aosta region, which, after a ten-year restoration, reopened it as a cultural centre in 2006.
Fort Bard consists of three buildings arranged at various levels on the hill: at the base, the so-called Opera Ferdinando; in the middle, the Opera Vittorio; and at the top, the Opera Carlo Alberto, by far the largest building, containing the parade ground surrounded by a portico for exhibitions. To access the imposing fortress, there are convenient lifts, but to grasp the genius loci, one must walk, like soldiers on guard duty, along the impressive path, between the ramparts, that winds its way from the medieval village of Bard, to not miss a single glimpse of the valley.
4 museums and an exhibition space
There are four museums that can be visited inside Fort Bard: the Opera Ferdinando houses the Museum of Fortifications and Borders to learn more about defence and siege techniques illustrated with models and films; the section on Borders, to reflect on the very concept of borders and boundaries, on its evolution over time, placing the Fort Bard in the historical and geopolitical perspective of the different periods of its long history.
In the building in the middle, the Opera Vittorio, there is a space called Le Alpi dei ragazzi, designed to introduce the public to mountaineering and mountain climbing, from the preparation of the trip, with techniques for setting up itineraries and equipment, to the conquest of the summit, with all the steps necessary to tackle any type of mountain climb without being unprepared.
In the third building, the Opera Carlo Alberto, on the first floor, the Museum of the Alps, 29 rooms that explore the Alpine world not only from a naturalistic and geographical point of view, but also from a historical, anthropological, meteorological and political point of view, through interactive installations and videos that tell the story of the transformations of the mountain environment at the hands of man.
The itinerary can continue in the Prisons, where the history of Fort Bard is narrated, that of its evolution over time and the protagonists of its ups and downs, from Napoleon to the Austrian captain Bernkopf, who clashed so violently at Bard, to Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, who was entrusted with supervising the reconstruction work, a task that was not to his liking, so much so that he called it “a moral prison”.
The Fort also includes several exhibition spaces for temporary exhibits and a hotel, Hotel Cavour et des Officiers, 11 charming rooms in the old garrison, the highest and most panoramic floor of the Opera Carlo Alberto.
Among the most beautiful villages in Italy
Wedged between the mountain and the Fort, Bard is somewhat hidden, but definitely worth a walk. One of Italy’s most beautiful villages, it has been inhabited since Neolithic times, due to its extraordinary location as an obligatory passage of the Via Francigena and, previously, of the Roman Via delle Gallie. Today, its long history is still alive in the alleys lined with some important stately homes from the 14th and 15th centuries, some of which were places of welcome for pilgrims.