Gran Paradiso National Park

Of the national parks, oldest and best known is Gran Paradiso, set aside to save the ibex—mountain goat-antelopes with spectacular backswept horns almost a yard (85 cm) long. Now this reserve, like many others, saves a number of other species as well.

King Vittorio Emanuele II first declared Gran Paradiso to be a Royal Hunting Reserve in 1856 after populations of ibex (aka steinbock) had decreased alarmingly due to intensive hunting pressure for body parts supposed to have therapeutic properties (a cross-shaped chest bone was thought to have magical powers). He formed a protective guard force and laid out paths still used today for that purpose, part of the present 450 miles (724 km) of marked trails and mule tracks. In 1920 his grandson, King Vittorio Emanuele III, donated the original 5,187 acres (2,100 ha) to create Italy’s first national park.

Even inside the park and despite superb mountaineering skills, ibex were poached until in 1945 only 419 remained. Now, with greater protection, there are almost 4,000 of these stocky, fearless, remarkably trusting grazers in lush mountain pastures in summer, descending to lower elevations in winter, only glancing up in mild surprise when quiet visitors approach within a few yards.

Alpine chamois with distinctive backward-hooked horns have thrived as well, their elasticbased hooves enabling them to leap nimbly among crags. Males clash in spring, ramming each other violently, marking tree trunks with smelly glandular secretions from the base of their distinctive horns (which females wear also).

Alpine marmots lumber along like small furry bears, foraging on plants around the snow line and whistling loudly at the slightest disturbance from any source—an ermine darting after a mouse, a thickset Eurasian badger padding through low vegetation with swaying gait, even an inoffensive mountain hare—but especially the first sign of a red (or silver) fox.

Golden eagles soar overhead and nest on rocky ledges, sometimes in trees—among more than 100 bird species, including fierce eagle owls, rock ptarmigans, sociable little alpine accentors, and choughs. On steep cliffs are wallcreepers (clinging so tightly they are almost invisible despite red wings) and in the woodlands, big, handsome red-crested black woodpeckers and speckled nutcrackers, which hide nuts at harvest time and memorize locations so accurately they can find them again in deepest snows.

Gran Paradiso is 270 square miles (some 700 km2) of beautiful alpine terrain shaped by torrents and glaciers where snow-covered peaks—including the mountain for which it was named—rise from lush green valleys, wooded bottomlands, and some 60 ponds and lakes fed by mountain streams with dramatic waterfalls. High meadows can be covered with wildflowers— wild pansies, brilliant deep-blue gentians, rare handsome martagon lilies and alpenroses—that attract clouds of butterflies: apollos, peak whites, southern white admirals, and others, peaking in June and July. Some 1,500 plant species can be seen at Paradisia Botanical Garden near Cogne inside the park.

Together with France’s Vanoise National Park which adjoins, it forms the largest protected area in western Europe, with, according to park claims, as much wildlife for its size as any reserve in the world outside Africa.

It has become so popular with summer visitors that litter has become a problem, also noise pollution, damage to trails and fragile habitats, and controversial proposed developments both in and just outside the park.

Italy’s high-speed autostradas linked to France and Switzerland by mountain tunnels afford easy park access. Hotels and restaurants are not far from any park border.

Good starting point for park exploration is Aosta, 9.3 miles (15 km) north, reachable by commuter air from Torino (Turin) and Geneva international airports, both about an hour away by car or bus. Busses from Aosta’s Piazza Narbonne connect with most villages inside the park.

Best times are April–October. Families and casual visitors like the northern part of the park for its higher mountains, more spectacular views, and abundant hotels and picnic areas. Serious hikers like quieter, wilder southern valleys. The Gran Piano di Noasca is a good place to see grazing ibex and chamois, also the excursion from Valnontey to the refuge “Vittorio Sella,” especially in evening and early morning. Campgrounds, refuges, and mountain huts are available for overnight stays, both in summer and for cross-country skiers in winter.

The Noasca Visitor Center, Valle Orco, is open all year, with displays, publications, information, including advice on how to arrange for guided trips—Tel: (+39) 0124-901070; others open seasonally are Ronco Canavese, Val Soana; Ceresole Reale, Valle Orco; Rhemes Notre Dame, Valle di Rhemes, Tel: (+39) 0165-936193; Degioz, Valsavarenche; and Giardino Botanico Alpino Paradisia, Valnontey-Cogne. The Aosta tourist office, Piaza Chanoux 8, Tel: (+39) 0165-35655 has accommodation guides, maps, and a list of refuges.


Abruzzo National Park, 154 square miles (400 km2), two hours east of Rome, with some of Italy’s wildest and most scenic country. High in the Apennines, it still contains Marsicano brown bears, lynx, and Apennine wolves, along with chamois, roe deer, golden eagles, goshawks. Abruzzo also has superb flowers, including many endemics. Offices in Viale delle Medaglie d’oro 141, 00136 Roma, Tel: (+39) 06-349-6993. Campgrounds, refuges, also hotels nearby.

Circeo National Park, 33 square miles (85 km2) with wild boar, fallow deer, mouflon, 240 bird species including black and white storks, flamingos, glossy ibises. Offices in Via Carlol Alberto 107, 04016 Sabaudia (LT), Tel: (+39) 07-735-7251.

Stelvio National Park, 528 square miles (1,370 km2) with 30 mammal species including ibex, chamois, roe deer, marmots; 131 bird species including golden eagles, capercaillies, heathcock—and an extraordinary variety of plant species in some of the loveliest valleys in the Central Alps. Offices in Via Monte Braulio 56, 23032 Bormio (So.), Tel: (+39) 03-429-01582.

Calabria National Park, 49 square miles (127 km2) split in three parts with Apennine wolves, wild cats, black woodpeckers, goshawks, Bonelli’s eagles. Offices in Viale della Republica 26, 87100 Cosenza, Tel: (+39) 09-842-6544.

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Abruzzo National Park

Circeo National Park

Stelvio National Park

Calabria National Park