Italian Lakes (2013)


The immense 965km (600-mile) rampart of the Alps determines the geography of northern Italy. Its national parks protect a diverse range of flora and fauna, including animals that were hunted until recently, such as lynxes, wolves and bears.

The Alps were formed when the sea bed was lifted up by the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, then moulded and sculptured by the movement of glaciers during the Ice Age. About 90 million years ago, a large tropical ocean, the Tethys, which separated the African and European continents, began to close. Forty million years later, the two tectonic plates collided beneath the Tethys and a fragment of Africa locked with the European landmass. The sediments of the sea were subjected to enormous pressure which gave rise to massive sheet-like folds of rock - or nappes - that rose out of the sea and pushed northwards, sliding and breaking over one another to form massive thrust faults.


Glacier in the Ortler Alps, Alto Adige.


The Italian Lakes were created during the last Ice Age, the result of glaciers thrusting down from the Alps and gouging out deep valleys. As the ice melted in the valley bottoms, the lakes were formed.

In the final stage, as the ocean disappeared, a large mass of material which was originally far to the south was pressed onto and over the deep ocean layers. Thus, younger sediments are overlaid by more ancient material in some areas, and in valleys it is possible to see the crystalline rocks of the original proto-continent, some 400 million years old.


Gentian are just one of many species of flower found in the Italian Alps.


The Ice Age

The landscape we see today is only around two million years old, dating to the Quartenary Period (which was also the Ice Age), which did so much to remodel the region. At that time, it was glaciers rather than rivers that flowed south from the Alps, and all was enveloped in a vast mantle of ice. Engulfing the surrounding land up to 1,000 metres (3,280ft) deep in icy masses, the slow enormity of the glaciers’ force gouged out the bottoms of the valleys, depositing moraine - the debris plucked from the valley floor, from silt to large boulders. The characteristic V-shape appearance of the glacial valleys deepened, producing gigantic basins that, once the glaciers’ tongues of ice had retreated, left vast lakes of fresh water.


The Dolomites at sunset.


At a depth of 410 metres (1,345ft), Como is one of Europe’s deepest lakes. Its northern end is reminiscent of a fjord showing the characteristic V-formed cross-section of ridges. Lake Garda, the largest lake, is 346 metres (1,135ft) deep, and the moraine deposits contribute 149 metres (489ft) to that depth. The sheer thickness of the moraine allows its extension into the plain far out of its valley, making it unique among the lakes in having almost a third of its length outside its confining ridges. The rich deposits of the moraine have also given Garda’s shoreline a fertility hardly matched by the other lakes. Yet, like the others, the northern reaches are confined by high ridges with a similar fjord-like appearance.

The coral mountains

Named “the most beautiful natural architecture on earth” by the famous French architect Le Corbusier, the Dolomites are geologically very different from the main body of the Alps. The crenellated spires, soaring towers and jagged peaks of these spectacular pink-tinged mountains lend a surreal quality to the landscape.

It was the 18th-century French mineralogist Dolomieu who gave the name “Dolomite” to these mountains. The massifs divide into the eastern and western Dolomites, each formed under slightly different conditions. The western massif rose as a more or less single block from former tropical islands. When the region was covered by the tropical sea some 230 million years ago, the accumulation of marine invertebrates, coral and algae created islands and mudflats. These deposits became the rock known as Sciliar dolomite - the core of the western massif. During that period, erupting volcanoes spewed lava into the sea, which cooled in the gaps between the “tropical” islands, leaving behind the dark-brown volcanic rock still visible today in places such as Val di Fassa and Val Gardena.

By the time of the late Triassic period, the area was a huge tidal flat covered with marine sediment which, when compressed, became the Dolomia Principale - the rock that characterises the eastern Dolomites. More and more layers of marine detritus were embedded, which remained undisturbed until around 60 million years ago in the Tertiary Period when Europe and Africa collided. Unlike the western massif, which was supported by layers of ancient rock and rose as an undeformed block, the eastern, less protected side, had severe buckling and folding, and rose as elongated humps. Tofane, Cristallo and the Dolomiti di Sesto are all good examples of these vast banks of rock. The characteristic pink appearance of the Dolomites today is a result of erosion by water and ice which has revealed the original Triassic coral.

The enrosadira , when the jagged pinnacles and peaks of the Dolomites turn pink and then fiery red as the sun sinks, is one of the world’s most magnificent spectacles.

The towering peaks of the Alps and the Dolomites preside over forested wilderness, Alpine pastures, meadows carpeted by wild flowers, vineyards in the foothills and orchards in the valleys.

Piedmont peaks

Apart from Western Europe’s three tallest mountains, Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Monte Rosa and Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn), many are spread across Piedmont, literally at “the foot of the mountains”, peppered with numerous parks. The Valsesia is Europe’s highest nature conservation area, while the Gran Paradiso was Italy’s first national park and is one of the finest.

Close to Lake Maggiore, the Val Grande, with its barren peaks, lonely valleys and untracked paths, is the largest uninhabited and most extensive wilderness area in the Alps. The mountains may be low in comparison with the soaring peaks of Monte Rosa to the west, but they are nonetheless extremely impressive, with the Val Grande River at the heart of the park fed by waterfalls and rivulets crashing through steep-sided gorges.

There are well-known legends in the Alta Valsesia of hidden lakes brimming with liquid silver. The spring waters above Macugnaga are said to come from a lost valley that was once home to the Valle d’Aosta’s early tribes. But, below ground, real gold glistens, and the area around Macugnaga was once famous for its mines. The Guia Gold Mine was the first in the Alps to be opened to the public, and the guided tour shows the veins of shimmering iron pyrite (tantalising fool’s gold).

Standing at 4,633 metres (15,200ft), the Monte Rosa range is the second-highest in the Alps after Mont Blanc. Famous for its “Himalayan rock face”, Monte Rosa is named not after the colour pink, but rather from the local patois roisa or roese , which means “ice-covered”. Its extensive glaciers are honeycombed with crevasses, and it is one of the few remaining major glaciated areas in the Alps.


The Marmolada glacier in the Dolomites.


Receding glaciers

Glaciers produced the magnificent lakes of the Alpine foothills - Garda, Iseo Maggiore, Como and Lugano - fashioned from above by tongues of ice and dammed below by terminal moraines. But the pattern of rising temperatures, believed to be caused by global warming, means that glaciers are receding. Between 1990 and 2000, underground temperatures had risen nearly 1°C - three times faster than at any other time during the 20th century. After the Marmolada glacier in the Dolomites shed 2 metres (6.5ft) of ice in only two days, revealing remnants of bunkers, barracks and storage areas built by Austro-Hungarian troops during World War I, it is now closed to summer skiers. A report on climate change by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is predicting the disappearance of 75 percent of Alpine glaciers within 45 years, a surge in avalanches and floods, and the closure of all but the highest ski resorts. Walter Maggi, a geologist at Milan University, said that the closures had come after low rainfall in the spring and very high temperatures in June and July. “But there are deeper causes,” he said. “The finger of suspicion points at global warming.” Time will tell.

Victorian Trailblazers

While the Dolomites were named after a Frenchman, it was the exploits of Victorian mountaineers that put these majestic mountains firmly on the map.

In 1837, John Murray Publishers produced a guide to the Alps which mentioned the Dolomites in print for the first time. This was the spur that sent so many British mountaineers to explore the peaks, and led to the founding of the Alpine Club of London (now Great Britain), the first Alpine association in the world. The club members included aristocrats and better-off middle classes, the only Victorian social layers that could afford spending much money and time on quite a romantic hobby - climbing Alpine peaks. The British mountaineers would emphasize membership of their Alpine Club by writing “AC” next to their names when registering at Alpine inns and shelters. Rock climbing became an important activity of Victorian mountaineers in the Dolomites, and elsewhere in the Alps.

In 1852, John Ball, the first President of the club, was also the first to scale the Brenta Dolomites, using a route that is still standard today. Ball’s Guide of the Eastern Alps (1868) confirmed his status as a trailblazing mountaineer.

Douglas Freshfield and Francis Fox Tuckett also led expeditions, and have had passes and Alpine refuges named after them. In 1864, they crossed the San Martino Dolomites, a feat that stunned the mountaineering community as the team eschewed maps and equipment for intuition, stamina and skill. Even Tuckett’s sister, Elizabeth, was a seasoned Alpine traveller: her Alpine Journal includes sketches of the ascent of the Cimon della Pale made by Edward Robson Whitwell in 1870. Known as “the Matterhorn of the Dolomites”, this was the last major British conquest.

Leslie Stephen, the father of novelist Virginia Woolf, was a keen mountaineer and President of the Alpine Club (1866-1888) who explored the Pale di San Martino group in 1869, crossing Passo di Ball, the pass named after John Ball. Instead, a lasting memorial to Tuckett is the striking Alpine inn named after him, Rifugio Tuckett, set above the chic resort of Madonna di Campiglio.

Women pioneers

Victorian women were equally passionate about the mountains. Elizabeth Fox Tuckett was the first illustrator to turn her Alpine adventures into children’s stories. Amelia Edwards recounted the exploits of her peers in Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys (1872). She explored the peaks on horseback and warned against the hardships of the crags: “The passages are too long and too fatiguing for ladies on foot, and should not be attempted by any who cannot endure eight and sometimes ten hours of mule-riding.” Edwards was particularly fascinated by the tall peaks of Cimon della Pale in the San Martino group. She found the massif similar to a Pharaonic pyramid.

Although the British legacy lives on, in the form of such fine mountaineers as Chris Bonington, the baton has passed to Italian mountaineers of the stature of the great Reinhold Messner. Even so, the British Alpine journals still make inspiring reading.


Mountaineers scale a peak c.1900.


Lake vistas

The most romantic of the lakes must be Como, an amazing wishbone shape surrounded by rugged limestone mountains. This fabled lake is a voluptuous blend of the Alpine and the exotic, of cool, lofty mountains and Mediterranean-style warmth. After the expansive beauties of Lakes Como and Maggiore, Lake Lugano is more untamed and wild. Sir John Lubbock, in The Scenery of Switzerland , comments that it “owes its complex form to the fact that it consists of two longitudinal and two transverse valleys dammed up by moraines”. John Addington Symonds, in his Sketches in Italy , depicts its great beauty as being coloured with “the changeful green and azure of a peacock’s breast”.

Reminiscent of Lugano, long and narrow Lake Iseo does, however, have less forest and more blue in its mountain shadows. At the upper end, where the stream of the Oglio brings down melted snow from the great Adamello range, the water in early summer takes on a pale opaque-blue colour. Its shores, although sub-Alpine, are almost Neapolitan in parts. Little Orta, lined by its snowy mountains at the north and low hills at the south enclosed in pearly mists, is magical and blue.


The northern end of Lake Garda at Torbolé.


Lying apart from the others, Garda is the largest lake and the most scenically diverse. It stretches from the Lombardy plain to the foot of the Trentino Dolomites in the north, where mountains rise straight from the shoreline. Every afternoon in summer the cooling breeze of the Ora funnels down on to Lake Garda. The northern reaches resemble a deep Norwegian fjord, enclosed between towering mountain ranges. But those very peaks and pinnacles protect the flourishing olive trees, oleanders, camellias and citrus in this extraordinarily mild climate, known to the Romans as Lake Benacus, the “beneficent”.

To the south of the lakes, the silts from rivers and moraines, before and after the Ice Age, formed the richly fertile Lombardy plain which is still the most productive area in Italy.


Climbing above a via ferrata.


Orchids and edelweiss

Vines, olives, palms and citrus trees are sprinkled among horse chestnut, pine and conifer trees, and little Alpine wild flowers peep out from their snowy mantles in high pastureland, while lakeside exotic blooms don their glory in the warm microclimates.

The high wilderness of Alta Valsesia on the Swiss border has numerous species of plant below the snowline and an extraordinary 57 species above the snowline. Although much of the area is scree, ice and boulder-covered pasture, it is still a nursery for rare high-altitude plants and the most famous of all Alpine wild flowers - the edelweiss. This delicate white flower blooms in late summer and grows in limestone pastures up to 3,400 metres (11,000ft).

The Stelvio national park has an extraordinary diversity of plants, with over 1,200 species recorded. A member of the primrose family, the chickweed wintergreen thrives in the conifer woodland and displays its attractive star-like white flower. Splendid too are the sweetly scented black vanilla orchids, purple Alpine clematis and members of the gentian family, from the rare yellow gentian to the azure trumpet variety.

Vie Ferrate

Literally “roads of iron”, vie ferrate mountain paths had their origins in the 1860s but date mainly from World War l, when they were constructed as a way of transporting troops and equipment over difficult terrain. Especially prevalent in the Trentino-Alto Adige area, some have rusted away, but many have been adapted to access free climbs. Vertical ladders, footholds into the rock, metal brackets and even bridges allow climbers to move across steep, sometimes vertical cliffs.

In the Brenta Dolomites, vie ferrate were constructed during the 1930s purely to access difficult climbs of the dramatic and beautiful rock faces. These classic routes include the famous Via delle Bocchette in the Parco Naturale Adamello Brenta.

The vie ferrate in this area differ widely in length and level of difficulty. Climbers must be equipped with a sit harness and a vie ferrate kit, which can be bought or rented from most climbing shops. This includes two karabiners tied on each end of a lanyard - or shock-absorbing rope. A helmet is also essential together with fitness, caution and a good head for heights. “Exposure” in vie ferrate parlance means proximity to a large vertical drop - which are both frequent and potentially terrifying. They are graded from A-G and all require good climbing skills.

The Val Grande area is cloaked with maple, beech, chestnut and yew trees, and the plentiful spring water ensures that the Alpine flowers flourish - including gentian, edelweiss, mountain tulip and the rare white alpenrose.

The Adamello-Brenta is one of Italy’s key wild places. Soaring peaks, razor-edged pinnacles, jumbled screes and vast rock faces oversee splendid paths - such as the Via delle Bocchette, the most famous of Italy’s vie ferrate . Crimson-red lichen cloaks the granite boulders in autumn, and the fir and pine trees are interspersed with beech, birch, hazel and wild cherry trees. Among the cracks in the rock grows the deep-blue bellflower, Campanula raineri , and the primrose Primula spectablis puts on a spectacular show, covering the rocks with its large reddish-pink flowers. Other varieties of Alpine flora include the edelweiss and the rare lady’s orchid.

“The terraces of the garden are held up to the sun, the sun falls upon them, they are like a vessel slanted up, to catch the superb, heavy light.” So wrote D.H. Lawrence on Lake Garda in Twilight in Italy (1916). Along the eastern coast of Lake Garda are the high ridges of Monte Baldo. The scenery is spectacular, but perhaps even more important is the extraordinary botanical diversity which gave this area the name “Hortus Italiae” - the garden of Italy - back in the 16th century. The Alpine climate on the highest peaks, which are both snow-covered in winter and sun-scorched in summer, contrasts dramatically with the lower slopes, which are sheltered by Lake Garda.


Anemone baldensis.

Public domain

The lake has frozen over only once in recorded history, in 1701, and the microclimate allows citrus, olive and palm trees to flourish. During the Ice Ages, the highest ridges were unaffected by the vast glacier that covered the area and plants survived and flourished. Endemic species evolved bearing the epithet baldensis or baldense , such as the distinctive sedge carex baldensis . One of the best-known flowers to be first discovered on Monte Baldo is the Monte Baldo blue-white anemone, anemone baldensis. In spring, the grassy flanks are carpeted with alpine flowers and medicinal plants which attract herbalists worldwide.

Subtropical exotic plants flourish on the frost-free lake shores, and some of Europe’s finest gardens are here. Isola Madre in the midst of Lake Maggiore has the famous Kashmir cypress tree, Europe’s single largest specimen which is over 200 years old. Camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas bloom in profusion, and lemon trees are confined not just to Garda, but also to Lugano, Como and Maggiore in the deliciously warm microclimate.

Alpine wildlife

After the Ice Ages, many animals sought refuge and migrated to the Alpine regions. The ptarmigan - or snow grouse - and mountain hare were originally inhabitants of Central Asia. Many species persecuted here in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the lynx, wolf and bear, are once again on the increase.

In the Alta Valsesia, the predatory stoat, at home in the high mountains, matches its coat in winter to its snowy habitat, foxes roam and majestic golden eagles rear their young on inaccessible crags. Agile chamois race up and down the precipitous slopes and whistling marmots snuggle into their burrows.


A chamois in Gran Paradiso National Park.


Often called “the park of rock, ice and snow”, the Stelvio is the largest protected area on the Italian Alpine ridge, and a tenth of it is permanently covered in ice. Remnants of the Great War such as barbed wire and guns are still entombed in the glacial ice. But wild as it is, chamois, and red and roe deer still roam, joined by brown bear from the Adamello. The long-horned ibex is here too, usually well above the tree line on craggy mountain ridge tops, migrating in winter to the warmer south-facing slopes.

The area is also home to more than 130 species of birds. Tiny pygmy owls hunt by day and night as do eagle owls - the largest of their species in Europe. Woodpeckers are common too, with five different species successfully breeding here - the great spotted, the grey-headed, the black, the three-toed and the wryneck (so named because of its dexterity in twisting its head supposedly through 360°). Above the treeline, in the shadow of the golden eagles and majestic bearded vultures, once thought to be extinct in the Alps, but now successfully reintroduced - little alpine choughs and accentors take their lives in their wings.

The Adamello-Brenta park is home to the eagle and pygmy owls and to the black, three-toed and grey-headed woodpeckers. In the barren uplands also lives the mountain hare, whose coat turns from brownish grey to snowy white in winter. Chamois, deer and marmots are also residents, along with the shy brown bears who leave behind tell-tale signs such as disturbed bees’ nests. Although the indigenous brown bear became extinct in the Brenta area, bears still exist elsewhere in the Dolomites, with numbers boosted by the introduction of Slovenian bears (see box).

In the Prealps of the Veneto, the highest reaches of Monte Baldo are home to rock partridge, black grouse, Alpine choughs and many other mountain birds, including golden eagles. On the lower reaches, songbirds congregate in the warm spring sunshine, tawny owls and nightjars nest in the conifer woods and, during migration, clouds of swifts swoop over Lake Garda. Brown bears are sighted occasionally, but more common are the herds of roe deer taking cover in the thick vegetation, while in the higher, exposed ridges marmots and chamois can often be spotted.

The lakes and rivers teem with coarse fish. Lake Iseo is especially well known for its perch (persico) , while Lake Como is renowned for its shad (missoltino) , and trout (trota) is especially good in lakes Orta and Maggiore. Eels (anguille) and chub (cafvedano) are widely found in Garda and Como. The Alpine char, Salvelinus alpinus , is a small fish which reached the Alps thousands of years ago with the glaciation. But lost in the mists of time are the serpents and dragons once thought to have inhabited Lake Orta’s Isola San Giulio.

Alpine adventures

Outside the ski season, meadows full of Alpine flowers recall a vision of Heidi heaven. But in summer those same ski lifts transport walkers up to wilder pastures in the lee of soaring peaks. Tunnels, trenches, embrasures and forts were constructed at strategic locations, linked by iron ways, vie ferrate , some of which can still be climbed today to see open air “museums” of restored defences.


Brown bear (Ursus arctos) in the Dolomites.


There are plenty of adrenalin sports on offer, too, such as white-water rafting, canyoning and paragliding. Around the lakes there are numerous opportunities for swimming, boating, water-skiing and windsurfing, and for golf and tennis. Mountain biking is very popular, especially around the Mottarone above Lake Maggiore and on Monte Baldo above Garda. Pocket-sized Lake Orta also has itineraries such as the “Girolago” - a leisurely scenic tour around the lake.

Return of the Brown Bear

In 1999, it was realised that the Alps were in danger of losing their native brown bears for ever. Uncontrolled hunting and the intrusion of man into their natural habitats meant that bears were threatened with extinction: only five remained in the wild and mountainous Adamello-Brenta park, and no new cubs had been born since 1990.

Researchers found that the Slovenian brown bears were genetically virtually the same as the Italian brown bear (Ursus arctos) . In 2002, bears began to be reintroduced with the aim of creating a population of 40-60 bears, which is considered the minimum viable population (MVP) to sustain the species.

The bears reside in Trentino’s Adamello-Brenta Nature Park, a protected area some 50km (31 miles) north of Lake Garda, but roam as far as the provinces of Bolzano, Sondrio, Brescia and Verona, an area of about 6,500 sq km (2,510 sq miles).

So far it seems that the Slovenian bears have adapted well to their new environment and are perfectly well integrated with their Italian cousins. Twenty baby bears were born between 2002 and 2006 from the six or seven “founder” Slovenian bears, and according to all forecasts, the bears which were reintroduced have adapted easily to their new Italian life.

Horse riding is also becoming very popular. In winter, the Scandinavian sport of skijoring is celebrated in Val di Fiemme - one of few places in the Alps to have this kind of fast and furious combination of skiing and horsemanship. A skier is pulled behind a horse at full gallop along a snowy track. During the Skijoring Grand Prix of Predazzo, teams race around a track in a frenzy of hooves and snow flurries.