– By Kim Feldmann
As the birthplace of important artistic movements – like the Baroque and Renaissance – and icons such as Michelangelo, Dante, and Leonardo da Vinci, Italy is one of the countries that has contributed the most to European traditional arts, science, and technology. Besides its cultural heritage, the country is highly captivating for its natural landscapes, gastronomy, wines, and historic monuments. Palaces, Medieval cities, cathedrals and archaeological sites are surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery – like the cliffs of the Amalfitan Coast; paradisiacal islands such as Capri; the vast sunflower fields of Tuscany; eye-popping beaches of Sicily, and enamoring regions where to enjoy a tranquil boat ride in Sardinia. Multifaceted, the country also hosts ideal locations for the practice of outdoor activities; unequal tastes like the truffles of Piemonte; charming atmospheres in Portofino, Cinque Terre and Liguria; as well as romantic regions like Venice; cosmopolitan cities such as Milan, and one of the world’s most important religious destinations: Rome.
As one of Europe’s wealthiest regions, the Italian North exhales an entrepreneurial spirit – most probably inherited from the merchant-controlled communes that spread around the area after a long period of barbarian-rule – making trade a major means of subsistence among mountain-dwellers. Its varied landscape introduces a mixture of cold, dry air descendant from the mountains and a warm, moist breeze coming from the Mediterranean, that when combined with the richness of the river Po basin creates an incredibly fertile land.
The northern region of Italy is often subdivided into northwest and northeast. The northwestern side includes the districts of Valle D’Aosta, Piemonte, Lombardia, and Ligúria. Places like Bérgamo, Bréscia, Milan, Pavia, and the lakes of Como, Iseo, Garda, and Orta are some of the cities in Lombardia. The Valle D’Aosta district (with Aosta as the capital), is located between the Swiss and French Alps, while Turin is the capital of the Piemonte zone. In Linguria – a narrow stretch of land bordered by mountains and sea – the cities and towns of San Remo, Genova, Portofino, Cinque Terre, and Porto Venere are some of the ones that comprise the region.
Meanwhile, the north-eastern area is formed by the Emilia-Romagna, Vêneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Trentino-Alto Adige districts. Emilia-Romagna adjoins north and central Italy – a region famous for its artistic cities and gastronomy – with some of its most popular sites being the capital Bologna, Ravenna and its Byzantine mosaics, the castle of Ferrara, Parma, Modena, and Piacenza. The Veneto is a diverse region with vast plains, lagoons, and the Dolomites mountains to the north; its main cities are Venezia, Verona, Padova, and Treviso. Trentino-Alto Adige is an Italian-German region: Alto Adige being the German side and Trentino the Italian counterpart. This region is composed of the provinces of Bolzano (capital of Alto Adige) and Trento, as well as another part of the Dolomites mountains. Finally, the cities of Pordenone, Udine, Gorizia and Trieste make up the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Enveloped by the Alps to the north and west, and the more modest Apennines to the south, it seems only natural that the Italian nord features some worldwide-known mountains: the Matterhorn (Cervino) and the Gran Paradiso in the western Alps; Stelvio and Dolomites on the eastern section of the range. For adventure seekers, a mountainous region means skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, mountain biking, as well as hiking and trekking. Fortunately, all of the above can be found in northern Italy, among other adrenaline-filled traits. But despite having a versatile list of attributes, the region is still most famous in the outdoorsy community for its wide number of hikes and treks, strengthened by strategically placed refuges and chalets, and everlasting historical vestiges.
Beginning a journey from West to East, the first main region in which to explore the hiking potential is the Aosta Valley. Embedded among the French and Swiss Alps, the valley commences near Turin – the closest city –, in the zone of Pont-Saint-Martin. Like any alpine valley, the Aosta is a mixture of astonishing views, small settlements, and a wild yet accessible natural environment, making it one of the top choices of many hikers. To the north, it is separated from Switzerland by monolithic mountains, among which is the impressive Monte Cervino, referred by the Helvetic as Matterhorn; to the south, lies the Gran Paradiso National Park, which does justice to its name of “great heaven”. In the border with France, the frozen immensity of Mont Blanc rises towards the sky, surrounding the valley with its grandeur.
Within the Aosta Valley, Gran Paradiso is an idyllic option for both short and long treks. As the name suggests, here lies the wild heart of the Alps, an area of great harmony and natural beauty, habitat of marmots, foxes, and mountain goats. The valleys that spread toward the north stay out of the protected zone, but share the same untamed beauty and hold hidden viewpoints over some of Europe’s most impressive mountains. Valtournenche, for example, leads the way to a steep crevice until Breuil-Cervinia, at the foot of 4.478m Mount Cervino (Matterhorn). Yet the best part is safe in the Gran Paradiso: arriving from the south, via Piemonte, the Ceresole Reale Valley presents some unforgettable views of the mountains, not only concerning the landscape but also the human environ. From Noasca, where the park head office is located, it’s only a few kilometres until the trek that leads to the Valle del’Orco, through old villages now taken over by forest and wildlife.
Moving towards the East, Lake Como is a mandatory stop for those who enjoy the peace and quiet often correlated with lakeside settlements. Usually more inviting from April to July and from September to November, this enchanting region of mountainous slopes, charming villages and deep blue waters features some magnificent scenic overlooks in addition to well-preserved historical towns. One of the hiking highlights is the valley of Valtellina, located north-east of the lake, in what’s known as “Little Yosemite” of Italy. This is also a great opportunity for wine-lovers to try the Nebbiolo varietal, which has for centuries been used to make a dry vino unique to the region.
Almost at the Austrian-Slovenian border, north-east of Trento, lies the Dolomite mountains – a cluster of sheer rock formations, split into nine zones by rivers and valleys that frame the overall scenery of northern Italy. Declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the Dolomites offer a series of outdoor activities, always with mighty landscapes in the background. Among picturesque, stone-built villages and green valleys, there is a mixture of local culture and architecture that becomes evident through the medieval churches that dot the area. As an alternative means to discover the secrets of this area, it’s possible to watch culinary demonstrations, visit traditional farms, taste the region’s wine, and stay at elegant hotels with quality restaurants where to unveil some of the mysteries of the homegrown cuisine. The region is also a hub of outdoor activities, both light and intense, with all the safety needed for travellers to enjoy the local nature and discover the true spirit of the mountains – a mixture of adventure, high-end gastronomy, and robust wines. In one of the region’s “wildest” zone, the Dolomiti di Brenta, the town of Molveno is the starting point to a number of treks and ferratas towards refuges deep into the heart of the mountains. Other key features not to be missed are the Lago Nero, in the Adamello zone, which overlooks the Brenta range; the Groste pass, Dolomite’s highest “walkable” section; and Madonna di Campiglio, a well-known winter destination that turns into an intersection of trails during summertime. For a while, the Dolomite seemed untouchable but today it’s possible to find a broad infrastructure of refuges, cable cars, maps and guides that turn this once mysterious and hostile environment into something slightly more human-friendly.