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Gran Paradiso: a Paradise for Ecotourism

Ekologická dovolená, cestování
Gran Paradiso: a Paradise for Ecotourism

By Heidi Koolmeister (Project Leader of the Newsletter of Let's Do It! World)

Parco nazionale del Gran Paradiso is a national park located in Italy, between the Aosta Valley (Val d'Aosta) and Piedmont (Piemonte) regions, which covers a staggering area of 703 km2 of mountainous terrain. The height varies from 800 metres of the valley bottoms to 4061 metres of Gran Paradiso peak, from which the name of the park is derived. From the summit of Gran Paradiso the Europe's highest mountain Mont Blanc (4810 m) can be seen. This is a truly a magical place covered by alpine meadows, forests, pasture, glaciers, and numerous streams. It is a place where one can truly see Mother Nature in its greatness. This was the place where I spent one of the most amazing vacations I have ever had.

Have you ever been to a paradise?

Our journey to the national park of Gran Paradiso started from the city of Milano. It took three train changes and roughly three hours to get to Aosta and then a bus to the higher grounds of Cogne where our hike would start.

As I was looking out of the train window during the voyage, the flat grounds around Milano changed steadily and almost unnoticeably to hilly and then mountainous terrain. The endless network of rivers, streams and waterfalls that unravelled in front of our eyes was simply mesmerizing.

As we travelled, the Italian signs started to look much more like French: a clear sign that the borders of France and Switzerland were getting closer.

The Gran Paradiso National Park, where we were heading for a week long trekking journey, protects an area characterized mainly by alpine environment. The mountains that make up the range have been, in the past, cut and modelled by giant glaciers and by streams that created the valleys that we can see today. This was definitely what I had in mind when thinking about the Alps.

From a hunting ground to animal sanctuary

While hiking your way up the narrow pathways, some of the beautiful creatures you can encounter are the alpine ibex, the alpine chamois, the marmot, the mountain hare, the ptarmigan, and the golden eagle.

The one to look out for, is the alpine ibex, which is behind the birth of this beautiful national park. For centuries leading up to the 19th century, the ibexes were hunted for their meat, blood (allegedly to boost virility), horns and bone (to make amulets). By the beginning of the 19th century fewer than 50 were left alive.

In 1856 Vittorio Emanuele II declared the area a royal hunting reserve, saving the ibex from extinction. A century later the population had regained and when Victor Emmanuel III came to the throne, there were about 2000 ibexes in the area. In 1920 the royal hunting preserve was given to the State to protect that beautiful rare species.

Nowadays, each climb you make up the hills reveals new breathtaking views and opens up new chances to see those beautiful animals in their natural habitat.

In the wilderness

In the forests of the valley the most common trees are larches, mixed with spruces, Swiss stone pines and more rarely silver firs. Higher up the slopes, the trees gradually thin out and make way for vast alpine pastures, rich with flowers in summer.

And even higher, the landscape is characterized by rocks and glaciers, right up to the highest tip of this national park at 4000 meters, which is called Gran Paradiso. The terrain changes swiftly from thick and rich forests to mountainous rough terrain, up the point where you meet snow.

Once up there, well maintained rifugi on top of the highlands is the best place to rest your tired feet and enjoy the local hospitality. One of the hikes we did during the first days was going up 4-5 hours on the famous long distance nature trail called Alta Via 2, which took us through those scenic places to a point where we could see the animals described above.

By sunset we had reached the Rifugio Vittorio Sella, a refuge which is located at 2588 meters in the valley of Lauson. Rifugo for us was a lifesaver at the end of a long day's hike, offering an idyllic view and warm home-cooked meals. We spent the rest of the days trekking up and down the mountains, from dusk till dawn, setting up our tent for a good night's sleep every night.

Built on sustainable tourism

The areas where the national park is located, Val d'Aosta and Piemonte, are very eco-friendly regions and the local economy is oriented on ecotourism. To ensure that the ecological balance is protected with the growing amount of tourists, the visitors of the park must follow the tight conduct regulations.

The responsible traveller should make sure to:

  • take the rubbish with them;
  • leave the flowers, insects and minerals where they are;
  • camp only in designated areas;
  • not disturb the animals, but only observe from a distance;
  • and naturally, stay on the assigned tracks for ensuring minimal damage to the nature.

To make sure that the visitors behave according to the rules, the park has 58 wardens to patrol the area.

What is more, most of the power in these areas comes from the hydroelectric plants, which use energy from the cascading waterfalls that come crashing down the mountains sides. There are numerous agritourism farms and residences offering fresh vegetables, milk and meat products. Recycling and the use of renewable resources are a part of the local life here. Even the families living here use natural materials, such as wood, for heating up the stoves in the houses.

What not to miss out?

  • Do try the local gastronomical products: apart from pizza and pasta the local things to try out are the cheeses such as Fontina (i formaggi) and the meat e.g. Boudin (i salumi) which have a particular taste, the cornmeal dish called polenta, and local wines such as Il Valle d'Aosta or Vallée d'Aoste.
  • Keep your eyes open while trekking as some local farmers sell their products (e.g. honey, yoghurts, milk, cheese, and wine).
  • Staying in the local huts called rifugi for the night is truly an unique experience to enjoy the local hospitality and home-cooked food with rich "mountain" portions.
  • Drink loads of local water as it is full of minerals. In Cogne you can even find a water dispenser where you can buy (for a few cents) litres of still "natural" or frizzy "frizzante" water for you journey ahead.

In case you will be visiting EXPO Milan 2015, it is a great idea to turn your eyes towards northwest to the Alps and visit Gran Paradiso.

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