The Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy has just celebrated its 95th birthday. Author Gillian Price provides some background and suggests five ways to enjoy this spectacular alpine national park.
Close to Italy’s north-western border with France, the grand old lady of the Alps was founded on 3 December 1922 by King Vittorio Emanuele III, a nature lover who gave up his hunting rights and transformed his grandfather’s game reserve into Italy’s very first national park ‘for the purpose of protecting the fauna and flora, and preserving the special geological formations, as well as the beauty of the scenery’. Amazing, really.
Back in 1821 ibex were disappearing at an alarming rate all across the Alps as they were in great demand for talismans and meat, so the Italian royal family simply exercised their authority and declared hunting illegal. The decision was ostensibly to save the animals (which, thankfully, it did – there are now around 5000 ibex), although members of the royal family were exempt from the ban. As well as the Gran Paradiso, many of the mountains and valleys across Piemonte and the Aosta valley became vast game reserves and kilometres and kilometres of wide paved tracks were constructed so that the king and his retinue could ride up in style. Neat hunting lodges offered overnight accommodation and shelter.
The Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso saw the first rangers enter service in 1947 – they have just celebrated their 70th birthday. As per the Italian name, a guardaparco is there to ‘look at the park’, oversee and monitor from dawn to dusk. The underlying principle is that the better they get to know the park, the better they can protect it. They are not intended to be tourist guides and they don’t look after the animals in any way. I clearly remember a visitor being quite upset after seeing a chamois with weeping infected eyes, a serious impediment to movement. The information was duly reported to a ranger. But as he explained, diplomatically, there was nothing he could do about it. If the animal was ailing then nature would take its course. However, the early rangers spent most of their time protecting the animals as illegal hunting was rife. It was understandable, as living conditions were harsh in the alpine valleys, work was scarce and game meant a source of income and food. Curiously, it was not unusual for a former hunter to be taken on by the park as a ranger as they had precious knowledge of the valleys and terrain as well as wildlife habits.
These days the 50 rangers, many with university qualifications, spend much of the year working alone and living in tiny high timber chalets, but they keep detailed diaries of their movements and observations and have radio contact with headquarters.
1) Go wildlife watching and learn how to tell ibex from chamois
Ibex are the emblem of the Gran Paradiso. Magnificent, sturdy creatures they hang out in herds and are easily seen grazing with their young. They’re also known as Bouquetin and Steinbock, not to mention Stambecco (in Italian). The males weigh up to 100kg and carry impressive notched horns that curve backwards and are used for mock battles to gain breeding rights in a herd. These horns make them immediately distinguishable from chamois mountain goats, which are daintier and more importantly have narrow horns like crochet hooks. That’s the bottom line. Easy, you think; however, this applies only to the males. The female ibex have much shorter, knobbly horns that don’t grow long enough to curve backwards. This is where it gets harder to tell the difference between them and chamois at a distance, so you have to check out other distinguishing features. Look for the broad, dark brown stripe down the chamois face or, if it’s facing away from you, a patch of creamy fur on its backside.
Once a year a census of all the wildlife in the park is carried out by the staff. After a long absence, wolves were first sighted in the park in 1997. A pack established itself in Valsavaranche in 2007 and more recently in Val Soana. By observing the movements of herds of chamois and ibex, the movements and activities of the wolves can be followed.
Another species that you have to be lucky to see is the massive bearded vulture, or the lammergeier, once hunted to extinction but successfully reintroduced. It feeds on carrion so is a sort of garbage collector, and is especially talented at dropping bones from a height so as to access the marrow. A park web cam gives some great footage.
2) Stay in a refuge
The high altitude alpine huts dotted across the mountains are open to walkers and climbers throughout the summer months. One superb choice for an overnight stay is Rifugio Sella on Alpe Lauson, at 2584m above Cogne. The building dates back to 1850 as it was used as a hunting lodge for King Vittorio Emanuele II’s parties. However, it was named after Vittorio Sella, a great Italian explorer and photographer – related to Quintino Sella, the founder of CAI, the Italian Alpine Club. Set in a broad, grassy basin it is perfect for admiring the ibex and chamois that graze on the surrounding slopes. It is visited in Walk 4 and Stage 4 of AV2 in Walking and Trekking in the Gran Paradiso.
A modern refuge was also named for the king himself. Set at 2732m, the huge corrugated iron barrel that is Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele II was completed in 1961 and can sleep 152. This is the place to stay if you plan on reaching the summit of Gran Paradiso itself. The 4061m peak entails a snow-ice traverse so engage a guide. The refuge is visited in Walk 11.
On the southern side of the Gran Paradiso is Rifugio Città di Chivasso, a cosy hut overlooking the Pian del Nivolet and its tarns. Visited in Walks 12, 15, 16 and 20
3) Explore the old villages
In the southern realms of the park a suspended world of old alpine hamlets awaits exploration. Above Noasca in the main Valle dell’Orco, around the 1500m-mark, a string of picturesque houses with stone slab roofs and paved alleyways was bustling with life up until the 1960s. Vallone del Roc is dotted with what are now long-abandoned buildings, including the school house complete with wooden benches and blackboard, a communal oven, fountains and dozens of modest stone houses with slate roofs and adjoining stalls for livestock. Shrines and bright frescoes of saints testify to the traditional faith of these mountain dwellers. Walk 23 explores Vallone del Roc, while Walk 25 visits nearby Nivolastro and Walk 26 ventures up Vallon di Lavina in the company of frescoes. One curious extant feature of all the valleys is a primitive but surprisingly efficient ancient fridge. You can easily walk straight past a ‘crutin’ as it’s a low-slung miniature stone hut built over a stream. Butter and milk would be stored there during hot summer weather and the cool temperature of the water flowing beneath would ensure suitable conditions. What inventive genius!
4) Climb a mountain
If you’re not equipped for the ascent of Gran Paradiso, then head for Becca della Traversière on the ridge separating Val di Rhêmes from Valgrisenche. Even though it’s 3337m high, it’s a perfect peak for walkers as the access path follows a broad gravelly crest with minimal exposure and awesome views. It is advisable to wait until mid- to late summer for this to be snow-free and safe. The peak is also visited by mountaineers who’ve climbed up from France via a glacier – and look a bit put out to see ‘mere walkers’ wandering up from the Italian side. Walk 17 is the route.
5) Trek Alta Via 2
Twelve full days are spent on this exciting roller-coaster traverse cutting through the heart of the Gran Paradiso National Park. This trek of a lifetime climbs over dizzy cols and past glacier-bound mountains day in, day out, linking valleys where alpine refuges and welcoming villages offer cosy places to stay. On many stages walkers spend time in the company of marmots and chamois, rather than humans. A special privilege. But the Alta Via 2 is no stroll and hefty ascents and descents are the flavour of the day. At the end comes a special reward when the Mont Blanc massif, in all its glory, comes blasting into full view.