Parco Nazionale Val Grande

Lake Maggiore West Bank

A wooded wilderness set amid a little-visited stretch of the Italian Alps, the Parco Nazionale Val Grande is far removed from the more domesticated beauty of the lakes only a short distance away (Verbania is 10km from its southeastern edge). Declared a park in 1992, it covers 150 sq km and styles itself as Italy's largest wilderness area.

Never more than sparsely inhabited by farmers in search of summer pastures for cattle and loggers, the area has been largely free of human inhabitants since the 1940s. The last of them were partisans who fought the Germans in the latter half of WWII. (In June to October 1944, 5000 German troops moved against 500 partisans holed up in the Val Grande, killing 300 of them and destroying farms across the area.)

The lower Val Grande is dominated by chestnut trees, which give way to beech trees further up. Milan’s Duomo had a special licence to log here from the 14th century. Wood was needed in the Candoglia marble quarries, to float the marble on canals to Milan and for use in scaffolding.

The absence of humans in the park today has seen wildlife proliferate. Most numerous is the chamois, and peregrine falcons and golden eagles can be spotted. Wolves are also believed to be present, although seeing one is highly unlikely.

Information centres are located in four villages surrounding the park. The handiest for those staying around Lake Maggiore are Intragna and Cicogna (both near Verbania), the latter actually inside the park boundary. They tend to open only in spring and summer – call the main park number for their opening hours.

Walks into the park will bring you to some majestic locations but as a rule should be done with local guides. Extremely basic, unstaffed refuges where you can sleep (if you have your own sleeping bag) dot the park. They come with a stove and wood for heating, and little else. Otherwise, there are sentieri natura (nature paths). Routes are available at the information centres and on the website.

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