Words by Maria E. Bellini

It’s hard to find an exact Italian counterpart for the word Wilderness. The word “selvaggio” means “wild” and can be used to describe a person, a situation – implicating that something has taken place outside a set of rules (it can be used beside the word ‘parcheggio ‘ giving us the apt phrase – wild parking), and of course a place. Plus the Italian word “selvaggio” doesn’t complete the picture in the same way that the word “wild” doesn’t match up to “wilderness”.

Luckily, 21st century Italian language is contaminated by many foreign words, and the Italians are quite familiar with the term Wilderness, and all it’s nuances.

Compared to the rest of the world, as wilderness goes, in minuscule Europe, we’re probably penalised, as everything is smaller, closer and seemingly bunched up together.

But can Wilderness, to a certain extent be a highly individual matter?

England 1980’s… 

I remember perceiving a first, vague concept of ‘wilderness’ as a child, in a pocket sized area of woodland that bordered along the extremely busy road of Hanger Lane, in Ealing London. Mum and I would cross this area every morning as she walked me to school. The area was overgrown with brambles, and shrouded by tall nameless trees that allowed only sharp slivers of sunlight to fall upon the narrow path that snaked it’s way through the wood. In a hurry, and slightly uneasy, the morning walk was strictly restrained to the main foot path, although I can recall being intrigued by several mysterious trails that led off from our safe haven into deeper darker woodland, beckoning my inner adventurer to take a step into the unknown.


By Esponenziale (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Val Pogallo, Cicogna, Cima Pedum and Cima della Laurasca, taken from Pizzo Pernice – By Esponenziale (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Wilderness In Italy Today

If you’ve ever been summer hiking around the Dolomites’ Tre Cime di Lavaredo, or have huffed and puffed along the sunny coastal paths above the Cinque Terre, or even quietly wandered across the country lanes of Tuscany, you might be under the impression that solace is hard to come by in the densely populated Italy. You may not be totally wrong in your assumption however change direction, and seek out the obscure, and you can still be guaranteed to come across some virtually uninhabited areas suspended in time.

We’ve been looking at several locations, considered by many to be some of Italy’s main Wilderness areas. Previously we looked at Calabria’s Orsomarso, this week we head up north to the Val Grande in the northern region of Piemonte, and in the future we’ll be looking at the Supramonte mountain range located in central-eastern Sardinia, and the towering forests of the Tuscan-Romagnolo Foreste Casentinesi.

The Val Grande National Park in Piemonte

A visit to one of Italy’s most wildest areas is not to be undertaken lightly. The Val Grande National Park, located in Province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, right on the border with Switzerland is a place best visited with a local guide. The area, Val Grande” (translating to ‘big valley’) is largely uninhabited and considered to be one of the remotest areas in the Alps. Its vicinity to Lago Maggiore makes it an good adventure themed choice to combine with a more peaceful lakeside break, and being only 100km from Milan and 150km from Turin, means that it’s not too far form the international airports.

The Val Grande – – Big Valley, refers to an expanse of difficult to reach, total wilderness. Surrounded by a ring of mountains, means that access is not straightforward. However there is an accessible trail system, situated on the outer parts of the Park, devised and maintained by the Park and suitable for families and located in easy to get to places. You’ll need a translator as it’s in Italian – details HERE

The village of Cicogna, the Val Pogallo and Monte Zeda - By Esponenziale (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The village of Cicogna, the Val Pogallo and Monte Zeda – By Esponenziale (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Was The Val Grande Always Uninhabited?

Following a decrease in agricultural, farming and woodland activities, this inevitably led to a natural reforestation process. World War II saw most locals flee after military action in 1944 intervened in everyday life changing things for ever. Today you can still find traces of the Linea Cadorna, a defense system of trenches, caves and tracks, built during the First World War to ward off possible enemy attacks, entering through Switzerland. See photos here (in Italian) www.in-valgrande.it/lineacadorna/info.htm

Mainly covered by forests in the lower lands, with alpine pastures and shrubs as altitude increases, you’ll be hard pressed to find roads and trails, and even facilities are sparse. Don’t expect to find the infrastructure, information and organization that’ you’ll get in the Dolomites or in the ‘classic’ Alps. This is wild country.

There are only three small villages actually located in the park: Cicogna – Cossogno, Colloro – Premosello Chiovenda and Genestredo – Vogogna.

Monte Zeda By FraCarim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Monte Zeda By FraCarim (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

When planning your trip, bear in mind

  • There isn’t much information available. Be prepared for just a few websites, and a forum. (you’ll need google translate).
  • The majority of Trails are not waymarked
  • The best was to experience this area is with the help of local guides
  • Cell phone coverage is nil

Getting There

By motorway – Exit motorway at Gravellone Toce – either on the A8 from Milan or the A26 from Genoa or Turin.

Nearest airports: Milan Malpensa and Turin.

Useful tips

  • Research your trip well and get a guide!
  • Contact the visitor center for a programme of activities. info@parcovalgrande.it

Maps And Books

An interactivce map of the area is available on the Park’s website.

For a list of guide books and maps regarding the area – see this page (although many are in Italian) 

Find Out More

Val Grande National Parkofficial website: in Italian

In-Val Grande – website with useful information: in Italian 

Val Grande on Parks.it – in English

Visit the Val Grande with a local guide: official Guides HERE

Where To Sleep

Alpine huts, Bivouacs and Rifugios are available in the Park – see official list  and here

And Finally

Forum (in Italian) www.in-montagna.it/forum


Maria E. BelliniMaria Elisabetta Bellini is Italyontrail.com’s founder, born in the U.K, she came to running whilst living in Italy, where she still lives and trains. Never ceasing to marvel at what’s at the summit of a hill, or around the bend along the trail, she loves using trail running as a means to explore nature, contemplation and Italy.