NATIONAL PARKS OF ABRUZZO
Abruzzo’s large network of national and regional parks, special reserves and biospheres make up a valuable structure of protected habitats where the unique environment of the Apennine range can regenerate and thrive.
Located in the heart of the Italian peninsula, the Abruzzo region is contained by high mountains to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the east. Within these boundaries, its landscape is made up of forested mountains and hills, with lowlands only occurring at the mouths of rivers as they flow into the sea. Abruzzo boasts the tallest peaks of the Apennine range and the mountains are characterised by deep gorges and large expanses of high plateaux. Fortified medieval villages, churches and castles dot the hillsides, with fishing villages and beach resorts lining the coast.
Proudly known as the ‘Region of Parks’, one third of Abruzzo’s territory is subject to environmental protection, including the Abruzzo, Majella and Gran Sasso-Laga national parks. There is also the recently formed Regional Park of Sirente-Velino, as well as over forty reserves and natural oases which are administered by a combination of local institutions.
The walled city of L’Aquila is the main commercial centre in the province. With a wonderful heritage of its own, including important monuments and works of art, it has remained relatively undiscovered by most tourists. Its famous 16th century citadel is now the site of the State Museum.
A region of parks
With a variety of environments existing within Abruzzo, each park shares some common characteristics in terms of topography, flora and fauna. However, each also has its own special atmosphere and distinctive features, whether they be Abruzzo’s forested hills and glacial valleys, the limestone summits and vast karstic plains of Gran Sasso, or Majella’s wild landscape and wealth of hermitages and chapels.
Each national park has adopted a different animal as its logo, although these species are present in varying degrees in all of the parks. Abruzzo is represented by the Marsican brown bear, Majella by the Apennine wolf, and Gran Sasso-Laga by the Abruzzo chamois.
Gradually shrugging off the perception once common in the rest of Italy that it is a backward, undeveloped region, Abruzzo is beginning to exploit its natural resources. Many more tourists are coming to the area than before, and often to explore the national parks. Certain customs still prevail however, and authentic examples of a more traditional era can be found in many of the more isolated hilltowns.
Abruzzo National Park
Abruzzo – Italy’s first national park – was established in 1922 in an attempt to preserve a microcosm of the unique but rapidly diminishing environment that is typical of the Apennine chain. Three main massifs shape the park’s outline with its southern zone extending into the regions of Latium and Molise. High peaks include Monte Petroso (2,249m), Monte Marsicano (2,245m) and La Meta (2,242m). Nowadays, the park covers 500 sq km – two thirds of which are covered by forests.
A wealth of trees
Centuries old beech woods, mixed with Turkey oaks and Austrian pines form most of the forests, with maple, mountain ash, fir, yew, laburnum, hazel, wild pear, wild cherry and apple trees also present. Species dominant in the Ice Age – silver birch and mountain pine – can also be found. Woods of black pine are at Villetta Barrea and the Camosciara Reserve, while poplars, willows and alders fringe the riverbanks.
The park’s main river – the high-level Sangro – rises near the Passo del Diavolo in the north, and flows through the park to the artificial basin of Lake Barrea. Alpine flora, including gentians and edelweiss, is present above 2,000m. In spring and summer, the meadows, valleys and woodlands are carpeted by wildflowers such as violets, peonies, forget-me-nots, columbines and two endemic species – the Marsican iris and lady’s-slipper.
Several successful initiatives have been undertaken to reintroduce native species that were, until recently, diminishing in numbers. This glorious landscape is home to the Marsican brown bear, Abruzzo chamois, Apennine wolves, red deer and roe deer. Rarer species such as otters, wildcats and Apennine lynx, as well as badgers, pine martens, polecats, squirrels and dormice are present in the park, but are rarely seen by visitors.
Access to Abruzzo
Only one road crosses the park, although there are over 150 different walking routes and many cycling and horse-riding tracks. The popular town of Pescasseroli in the centre of the park is perfectly situated as a base for exploring the area, while Barrea’s medieval towers and churches are beautifully set against a mountain backdrop in the south-east.
Abruzzo National Park is divided into zones which are strictly monitored in order to ensure the protection both of vulnerable habitats and species, and minimise the harmful impacts of increased human activity. As a result, the usual restrictions concerning camping and access apply. Leaflets, information on accommodation, and camping and fishing permits can be obtained from any of the fifteen visitor centres. Guided walks and horse-treks are also organised.
Majella National Park
In contrast to Abruzzo, Majella is one of Italy’s newest national parks. Founded in 1993, it extends over 740 sq km between the provinces of Pescara, L’Aquila and Chieti. Larger, wilder and less ‘managed’ than Abruzzo, Majella offers some excellent walks in four main areas: the Morrone mountains in the north-west; the Pizzi mountains in the south-east; Monte Porrara and its surrounding area to the south; and the wide Majella massif in the centre of the park.
Majella is famous for its concentration of summits, over thirty of which reach above 2,000m. The main peak is Monte Amaro, the second tallest in the Apennines at 2,793m. It rises up out of the middle of the main massif, with its characteristic outline dominating the surrounding countryside.
Vast karstic plains stretch across wide plateaux between the peaks. The shepherds in the Abruzzo region have traditionally practiced transhumance, moving their flocks to different altitudes according to the seasons. Parts of these plains have always been grazed by sheep, but tracts are still swathed in colour when wildflowers bloom in spring and summer.
Glacial features in the form of open screes sweep down from the western side of Majella towards dense beech forests that cover the lower levels of the mountainside. Here, the Majella plateau is separated from the Morrone range by the Orta river. Swollen by its numerous tributaries, this once glaciated river cuts a broad valley through the mountains.
The park is filled with rivers and waterfalls that tumble over the rocky landscape. These watery havens offer a home to salamanders, newts and fish, which in turn provide food for bears, otters, martens and other animals that hunt along the rivers. As in Abruzzo National Park, populations of wolves, chamois, brown bear and lynx are slowly recovering after long periods of hunting and poaching.
The abundance of wild herbs, alpine and meadow flowers, and blooming shrubs attracts a varied and colourful selection of butterflies to the area, including the rare apollo butterfly (Parnassius apollo), which is specially protected from capture and trade.
Since prehistoric times
Majella National Park is as valuable for its stunning cultural and historical sites as its natural environment. Archaeological finds and examples of cave art from the Palaeolithic era show that early man eked out an existence in this elemental wilderness.
Roman settlements have also been discovered and the well-preserved remains of a 1st century Roman colony can be seen at Alba Fucens, near Ovindoli. Elsewhere, the mountain villages and towns are splendid examples of medieval strongholds, fortified to protect the inhabitants from marauders. Red-tiled dwellings cluster between narrow streets forming a tight community: a grassy perimeter surrounds the houses to safeguard sheep and livestock, and the entire population is enclosed within high walls.
During the Middle Ages, the remote landscape of Majella was favoured as a place of retreat for monks and hermits. Over forty chapels, grottoes and hermitages are hewn from the tall ridges that jut out and tower above the plains. Some teeter precariously along sheer cliff-faces, others, built into the buttery-coloured stone, are camouflaged by the rock. The most famous hermitage – Santo Spirito – is now a national monument, and is positioned high up along folds of calcareous strata above the Santo Spirito valley.
Gran Sasso National Park
The largest national park in the Abruzzo area, and one of the largest in Italy, the 1,600 sq km National Park of Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga is a truly impressive environmental preserve. Its landscape of mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls is enlivened – particularly in autumn – by the region’s clear light and the vibrant colours of the forests and fields. With its fair share of castles, hermitages and stone villages, it is as captivating as any of the other parks, with its sheer scale and size generating an exhilarating atmosphere.
The land is divided into two zones: an interior zone which is strictly protected because of its special environmental and cultural importance; and a busier perimeter zone which has a greater number of towns and amenities.
The park’s contrasting mountain formations are collectively its most characteristic feature. Three mountain groups define the area: the Monti Gemelli chain in the north of the park, and the central Monti della Laga range which connects with the vast Gran Sasso d’Italia massif, itself dominating the remainder of the territory.
Gran Sasso d’Italia
Stretching between the Vomano river basin to the north and the River Pescara in the extreme south, the lengthy Gran Sasso d’Italia range is home to the tallest peak in the Apennines. The jagged vertical walls of Corno Grande lead straight up to its unmistakable summit at 2,912m.
Both Corno Grande, its close neighbour Corno Piccolo (2,655m) and the other mountains of Gran Sasso d’Italia are unique in the Apennines for their limestone and dolomite composition. Atmospheric conditions, the dissolving action of water and the effects of glaciation, have formed caves, gorges, ravines, gullies, sinkholes and underground rivers and streams in the calcareous rock of the wide plateaux. Such features are very much in evidence on the southern side of the massif, where at 1,600m, the Campo Imperatore plain is spread with karstic lakes.
A glacier still exists in the park: Il Calderone (the cauldron or big pot), on the north face of Corno Grande, is the only glacier in the Apennines and the furthest south in Europe. The wide U-shaped valleys of Gran Sasso and the sweeping moraines beneath the mountains offer further evidence of the effects of glaciation.
In contrast to Gran Sasso, the smoother summits of Monti della Laga are composed of sandstone sediments and layers of marl. Lower than the peaks of Gran Sasso, they still reach a height over 2,450m. Their geomorphology is of rounded crests with deep valleys cut by many fast flowing rivers and torrents. Defined by water, the range is also full of lakes and most particularly, a large number of spectacular high waterfalls that cascade over layers of split rock.
Lake Campotosto, with its distinctive shape, is Europe’s largest artificial basin and an important reserve for the sizeable number of birds which nest, feed and breed on its shores. Surprisingly, supervised human activity is permitted here, with canoeing and windsurfing facilities available. To the west of the lake is the town of Montereale. Known for its monastery and 17th century churches, it is well positioned for access to the park and is surrounded by pretty fortified villages and a number of castles.
Gran Sasso’s wildlife
Certain aspects of the vegetation, plants and insects of the Gran Sasso plateaux resemble those found in Eastern European regions of a similar topography. Large expanses of pasture sweep across the steppe-like plains, filled with swaying field grasses and meadowland wildflowers. Endemic species, including Androsace mathildae and Adonis distorta, represent examples of the nordic and oriental origins of this post-glacial flora. The landscape is also home to grassland insects and their predators, grass snakes. Orsini’s viper is found here in greater numbers than in any other part of the country.
The protective cover of the fields is also attractive to birds. Ortolan buntings, rock sparrows, crested larks, red-backed shrikes and downy pipits – species whose habitat is becoming increasingly under threat in other parts of Europe – all nest here. Other birds living at higher altitudes include alpine accentors, water and rock pipits, snow finches, rock partridges, rock thrushes and alpine choughs. They share the mountains with raptors such as goshawks, golden eagles, peregrines and eagle owls.
Gran Sasso is also host to recovering numbers of the Abruzzo chamois, reintroduced here from Abruzzo National Park. Its grasslands and rocky mountain ledges were the home of these attractive animals until they were wiped out by hunting at the beginning of the last century. They have been adopted by the park as deserving special attention and have attained a highly protected mascot-like status.
Monti della Laga
Contrasting again with the alpine and steppeland vegetation of Gran Sasso, Monti della Laga’s slopes are mainly covered with forests. Low down are woods of oaks and chestnuts which date from Roman times and have always been an important resource for the mountain community. Higher up, centuries old beech forests are interspersed with yew, holly, maple, ash and elm, as well as pockets of silver fir and birch. These plantations give a wonderful array of colour in the autumn time. Black bilberry bushes grow abundantly as part of the heathland between the forests and the mountain pastures. Apennine wolves, Marsican brown bears and wildcats roam the whole territory.
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