Visit Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park for Culture and Nature
Visit Gran Paradiso National Park for Culture and Nature
Gran Paradiso National Park, located in northern Italy near the French and Swiss borders, is off-the-beaten path for most Americans. That’s probably why the idea of hiking there appealed to my husband David and me. The park is the former royal hunting estate of King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy. In the mid-1800s, he declared the area a Royal Hunting Reserve to save the endangered ibex from extinction. In 1920, grandson King Victor Emmanuel III turned the Royal Hunting Reserve into Italy’s first national park, which is known today as Gran Paradiso, after the park’s highest peak.
Getting to Gran Paradiso
For many years, the challenge of getting to Gran Paradiso from the United States had kept us from going to the park. But, after much research, we discovered the quickest way to Gran Paradiso is to arrange for a cab pick-up at the Geneva, Switzerland airport. While this isn’t the cheapest way to get there, it’s the most convenient.
From Cogne, the main tourist hub of Gran Paradiso National Park, it’s possible to do all kinds of day hikes from trailheads reached most conveniently by car or local bus. Even better, all of the trails are well-marked and easy to find.
Hike to Vermania
Just south of Cogne, a mostly flat trail follows along the Torrente di Valnontey River that rushes down from Gran Paradiso past the village of Vermania. The view up the valley towards the mountain and its glacier is beautiful.
Along the way, in the tiny hamlet of Vermania, there are several timber houses with slate roofs like this one.
Hike to Lillaz Waterfall
Also near Cogne, from the village of Lillaz, there’s a short (15 minute), steep trail to the popular Lillaz Waterfall. Depending on the time of year, you might be disappointed like we were, viewing the falls in late summer. Instead of a big rush of water, we saw what looked like a trickle. Apparently, the best times to see the falls are in winter or early spring.
Alternate Hike to Lillaz Waterfall
The more interesting way to get to the Lillaz Waterfall is to hike there from Cogne rather than driving to nearby Lillaz. We followed the lovely Cogne Nordic Walking Park from our hotel in Cogne. Along the way, you can see some pretty spots like this waterfall.
On the hike back from the Lillaz Waterfall, I spoke with a woman who was “walking” her two cattle. In French, she told me, “These are my pets and my passion.” While it surprised me at first that she spoke in French, it reminded me that this part of Italy has a long French heritage.
Even though it has fewer than 1,500 residents, Cogne is the “big city” in Gran Paradiso National Park. Since it’s convenient to many good day hikes and has a town center with local shops, we based ourselves there. The local architecture in Cogne features lots of stone. This lovely church located in the “old” center of town dates back to the first half the 17th century.
Traditional Craft in Cogne
In Cogne, it’s possible to sample lots of traditional craft, locally sourced food, and regional Italian and French wines. Local culture here is a blend of French and Italian customs and dialects. After all, Cogne is close to where France, Italy and Switzerland come together. We visited the “Les Dentellieres” (lacemaking) Cooperative in the village center. This woman, one of 40 members of the cooperative, is making lace using many threaded bobbins. You wouldn’t believe how fast her hands move from one bobbin to the next. She told us, “I love making lace and have been doing it since childhood, when my mother first taught me.”
Bellevue Hotel and Spa
A key ingredient (no pun intended) of this trip was the food. We stayed at the Bellevue Hotel and Spa, a traditional, locally owned and operated boutique hotel. The Bellevue offers gourmet meals, great local cheeses and honeys, and hundreds of wines selected by its sommelier. After a day of hiking, the hotel lobby is a great place to relax with tea, pastries, a glass of wine or a cocktail. This unique inn, a former mansion, oozes character. It has wooden floors and furniture, old oil paintings throughout, and locally carved wooden animals on top of each dinner table. Each of its three restaurants serves local ingredients and herbs from the hotel’s kitchen garden.
From our small balcony, we could even watch the “action” each morning in the kitchen garden. My daily ritual was figuring out what herbs the chefs were picking for the evening’s dinner. Our room (pictured here) wasn’t plush, but it was very comfortable. Nice touches included the handmade alpine furniture and the oil paintings. Best of all, it had great mountain views.
I have to admit, as much as I enjoyed the hikes, I loved having dinner at the Bellevue. Not only was the service very professional, but the four-course meals in the atmospheric dining room were outstanding.
At the end of dinner one night, Rino, the hotel’s sommelier, offered to show David and me the Bellevue’s wine cellar. To become a sommelier, Rino completed a rigorous, six-year program. He said, “I’m very proud of expanding the hotel’s collection,” now valued at over 2 million euros. At the end of the tour, we were delighted when Rino asked us to sign his wine cellar wall, the first Americans to have that honor. Do you see the green and red ties that Ring is wearing? In Cogne, men have worn these these traditional ties for hundreds of years.
Why Gran Paradiso?
Gran Paradiso National Park makes for a relaxing mountain sojourn, especially if you stay in Cogne. You get to experience mountain life, local people, and locally-sourced dishes steeped in tradition in a very pleasant alpine setting. Even if it’s challenging to get to the park from the United States, it’s well worth the effort.
One more option in this area is to drive from Cogne to Turin, which is a city with rich history, architecture, and museums.