Deep in one of the most populated parts of Europe there lies a paradise of magnificent beauty and solitude – The Val Grande National Park. We decided to pay this green jewel a visit and escape civilisation for a while.
We understand that a lot of readers will argue that the Val Grande national park in Italy is not the last remaining wilderness in Europe and they are obviously right. There are a lot of stretches of uninhabited land in the northern and eastern parts of Europe. The Val Grande national park is not even that big and almost surrounded by densly populated areas. It does have a few unique features, though: It is located almost in the very center of central Europe, has very inaccessable, wild areas that can only be reached with certain mountaineering skills and has a rich history to discover.
During fascist times the Val Grande area was the refuge of the „Resistenza“, the italian rebels that opposed the fascist Mussolini regime and fought a heroic yet hopeless fight when the valley was combed through by 15.000 German troops and 2.000 fascist Italian troops. There were only 450-500 rebels facing 17.000 enemy soldiers in this harsh terrain of the southern alps. There is a great website about the area that describes what happened in detail. Unfortunately it’s in German.
The ruins of the time the national park was inhabited are still visible today and some of them were made into beautiful cabins that provide shelter to hikers.
We arrived late in the season, around the end of September around noon in the village of Cicogna. After parking the car close to the trail that we selected we headed towards Braserga Velina. Braserga Velina is a small homestead that is operated by an italian local that lives there for the summer and rents out two guest cabins to hikers. He grows some of the best grapes, tomatoes, onions and garlic that we ever ate in his little garden.
After spending the night in his bigger cabin we headed on a very difficult route towards a uninhabited cabin called Rifugi Orfaleggio. The trail is rated as a T5+ making it quite a challenge. There were many places were we had to traverse along slippery, wet rock with certain death right beneath us. Most tricky bits had very sturdy chains anchored in the mountain that helped a lot. We still advice hikers with less experience that are not fond of hights to go the longer but safer way passing the ruin village called Corte Bue.
Pristine flora and fauna
The Val Grande national park is a refuge for a lot of endangered species that are not easily seen around most parts of Europe anymore. We saw a poisonous European adder, a few salamanders and a huge variety of mushrooms. The ecosystem seems very healthy, lush and provides plenty of chestnuts, mushrooms and other food sources for the deere and the boars.
The „Rio Val Grande“ that runs through the valleys we hiked through is home to a population of small and very wary brown trout that we could watch eating bugs of the surface when we spend a day at one of the big pools that are formed by the creek. Swimming is possible but breathtakingly cold and only for people without a heart condition 😉
After arriving at the Orfaleggio we spend five solid days there without seeing another human being – just what we came for. The cabin has everything one could want for a stay in the woods. Old pots, pans, silverware, basic ingredients and a solar powered light provide all the „comfort“ one truly needs. The restlessness that comes with computer jobs, email-clients on smartphones and all that crap vanished pretty much immediately and we embraced the cabin-life full-on. We chopped firewood, cleaned the italian coffee makers and said Hi to the chipmunks living in the cabin. We even found a lot of pleasure in cleaning up the place.
After building ourselves roman-style recamieres by the campfire we kicked back, had some single-malt from the flask and practiced shooting empty cans with my slingshot. Good times.
At night we usually sat around the campfire or played games around the solid-wood table inside the cabin.
The Rio Val Grande
During the days we hiked around the area for a bit to check out the cool ruins or search for chestnuts to fry at night. I spend most of my time next to the creek, though. Like mentioned in my previous post about my visit to Hazel Creek in North Carolina I have a passion for fishing mountain streams with a fly rod. Unfortunately fishing is not legal in this national park so I had to leave my rod at home but I still found great pleasure in studying the stream and the bugs and fish living in it. There is just something about blue, chrystal-clear mountain streams that never stops to fascinate me. I could spend hours looking at them. Here are a few pictures of the hundreds I took during this trip that try to capture the beauty of this stream.
After spending five days in absolute solitude we headed back the longer route going by Corte Bue because it had rained recently and we didn’t want to kill ourselves on the slippery rocks. Since I couldn’t bring my good boots to Italy I was using old ones that a friend provided which fell apart completely during our time in the cabin. Shoelace, Zipties and Nails kept them barely usable and added some extra danger to my hike. In the end the complete front half of the sole was hanging off and got caught in roots and obstacles on the floor regularly.
The way back was even more scenic than the way to the cabin and since it was less life-threatening I got around to take a bunch of pictures.
We decided to come back to this magical place in the next few years. But for now we have Norway, Sweden and Finnland on our bucket list. Stay tuned.