Through Italy's last wilderness: hiking in the Val Grande

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    Through Italy's last wilderness: hiking in the Val Grande

    In the footsteps of the partisans: a lonely walk through the historic wilderness of Italy

    The Val Grande National Park is located in the western hinterland of Lake Maggiore and is considered the largest wilderness area in the Alps.

    After the Second World War, it was almost left to itself, until 1992 the National Park was founded. Since then, the main routes as well as some Bivacci are being maintained either by the park administration, or by private organizations and individuals. Due to the high precipitation and the highly rugged terrain, the nature gets back quickly the untainted paths. There are many warnings on tours on your own, off the main routes. Due to the characteristics of the national park, hikes are really challenging, the orientation is difficult, the altitude meters are many.

    Good, up-to-date maps are barely or only partially available. In recent years Tim Shaw took care of updating the old maps from the 1960s, rediscovering old paths and, in some cases, making them workable again. His updates are now published by the Geo4map publishing house and they are via ViewRanger also usable in an app.

    In 2019 we traveled back to Italy into the Val Grande. This time the route took us from Malesco to La Cima, Matera Mater, Alpe Cortechiuso, Alpe Vou, Bochetta di Terza, Bivacco Alpe Pian di Boit, Pogallo, Cicogna, Bivacco Amici delle tre Veline, Corte Bue / Rifugio Serena down to Lake Mergozzo.

    For the 50 kilometers of Val Grande crossing that resulted in the 6000 meters and we took 6 days for it. Of these we spent two half days of rest (so-called Nearos) on the Bivacco du Francia and in Cicogna.

    A long, hard day until Cortechiuso

    After an extensive brunch in the "Bar Stazione" in Malesco we went off at 13 o'clock in the best weather towards the Capella del Crup, this first climb had it all, at the Capella you have then on almost 6 kilometers already 980 vertical meters in the legs. In 3 ½ hours, however, this first part of the tour was done, and we enjoyed a long break in the shadow of the chapel.

    At 5 pm we started the rest of the day. Over the hills of the La Cima (1810 m) and Testa del Mater (1846 m), it was another 4 hours and a further 730 vertical meters to Bivacco Cortechiuso at 1870 m. At nightfall and thunder rumble all around us, we were all happy to have made the first and most exhausting leg of the entire tour around 9pm.

    Snowfield in front of the Bivacco Cortechiuso

    Bivacco Cortechiuso

    The Bivacco Cortechiuso is currently being renovated, but is open and even received even a fresh delivery of firewood. At Pentecost, the area around the Val Grande will be flooded as a result of the Italian National Alpine Club's hiking week, so we were lucky enough to benefit from the preparations. The Bivacco is adequately furnished, the small stove pulls well, however, the open fireplace is locked, because it does not pull at all.

    Change of plans

    In the twilight, we decide that crossing the pass and the ridge over Cimone di Cortechiuso and Cima Marsicce at over 2100 m is not feasible with our equipment and planned a deeper crossing over the Bochetta di Terza at 1836 m. There should be, seemingly and with the exception of two larger snowfields, the transition to Val Grande possible. However, this also meant that we either had to make another strenuous day with many vertical meters to stay on schedule, or that the following day we would only descend to Alpe Vou (Rifugio du Francia) and take a half-day break there. A look around and the plan was set: a Nearo at the Alpe Vou! The lost half day we should able to recover on the last two days.

    Cortechiuso and a Nearo at Rifugio du Francia

    We slept for a long time, the long day before stuck in our bones. In daylight, our decision to reschedule the tour was the right one. Too much snow up there! On the picture you can see how much snow there is in it. Our route would have come in from the right edge of the picture and passed through the pass clearly visible from here between summit three and four (seen from the right).

    After a hearty breakfast and cozy packing, we set off. Not 2 kilometers and about 530 vertical meters lower, the Alpe Vou waited with the Rifugio du Francia to us. Kniffelig on descent was only to come over the thanks to the snow melt pretty deep and fast stream.

    Rifugio du Francia

    The valley of Il Fiume, the mountain stream, is really beautiful, wild, interspersed with old snow and inhabited by chamois. Right in the middle of the valley, the Bivacco du Francia towers down to the valley just before descending.

    The well at the hut did not work, but we noticed at the crossing of the stream that hoses were laid there. We repaired some hose connections, which were probably torn apart over the winter, and the well ran again.

    Finding wood for the stove, or the open fireplace, was a bit more involved, but we finally started a fire and grilled our sausages. The fireplace does not pull very well and therefore smokes properly. The Tip from TimClosing the door did not bring much success either. We were only able to ventilate thoroughly before setting up for the night.

    Rifugio du Francia - Bochetta di Terza - Bivacco Alpe Pian di Boit

    The third day was about us, now rested Bochetta di Terza to lead. In order to get there, we climbed and slid for less than an hour and 300 vertical meters lower, in order to find the path down below that would take us over the pass. It was still unclear whether the snowfields below the 1836 m high pass would be across. We agreed unanimously that we would not risk and turn back if it became too risky. Secretly, however, it was also clear to everyone that this decision would no longer take place uninfluenced after 900 meters ascent.

    Bochetta di Terza

    After three hours, the 900 meters were made, the snow fields were, let's say, feasible. Fortunately, the snow was already pretty soft, so it was easy to kick. In the upper, but quite steep snowfield, slipping would certainly not have gone well. At the top we rested with gusts of wind, cereal bars and occasional raindrops. The further descent to Alpe Pian di Boit at 1120m tidy, especially the last half through the forest is steep and uncomfortable. The paths in the forest are completely covered with deep foliage, which extends into hollows and depressions to the middle of the lower leg. As a result, stones on the way are no longer visible and you feel and stumble carefully piece by piece deeper. But that was done after another two hours and 850 meters altitude.

    Alpe Pian di Boit

    In the valley just before the Alpe we discover wonderful bathing possibilities, which we also use extensively. The water is cold. Very cold, but also very refreshing. Waste and stench produced for days need to be thoroughly washed off.

    Bathing area at the Alpe Pian di Boit

    Three stone houses, a well, large lawns for the tents, a Spaniard and a Briton were waiting for us on the Alpe Pian di Boit. The almost luxurious Rifugio even has light thanks to solar modules. We set up the tents, collect wood, light a small campfire at one of the fire pits, drink coffee and chat with the two other guests who are setting up their own home. They want to stay here for a few months. It sparkles an entertaining Geartalk with the Spaniard. She has been on the road for 15 years and is now slowly looking for a place to settle down with the British. The evening is relaxed and fun.

    Pian di Boit - Pogallo - Cicogna

    At lunchtime we rest in Pogallo, Pogallo has a changeable and bad history, as do so many Alps and villages here in Val Grande.


    Blossoming wood industry

    Around 1900, the timber trade flourished thanks to Carlo Sutermeister, a Swiss universal genius from Zofingen. This master sutler built Italy's first hydroelectric power plant, founded a shipping company, founded the Banca Populare di Intra, and founded the Verbano Intra section of the Italian Alpine Club, and entered the wood trade here in Pogallo. The ruin of his villa is still standing on the edge of the large meadow in front of the village, and it still wanders wonderfully on the paths he has laid down through the ravine to remove the logging. In Pogallo there was even a school, a prison cell and of course bars. Today nothing is left of the former flourishing life.

    Partisan country: Hope, death and the democratic nucleus of Italy

    At the end of 1943 a strong resistance movement was formed in northern Italy, in the Val Grande, the Ossola valleys and on the Lago Maggiore it came again and again to battles. Again and again the partisans were sensitive to the infrastructure of the German occupiers and Italian fascists, carried out guerrilla action and retreated into the inaccessible thicket of the deep valleys.

    In June 1944, about 17,000 Nazis and fascists marched through the valley under the leadership of the SS and massacred all who encountered them and believed that they were partisans. These were the notorious "Rastrellamento", the "combative actions" in which German special forces systematically searched the valleys to the Swiss border. In Pogallo on 18 June 1944 18 young resistance fighters were shot dead. In the whole area of the Val Grande and the adjacent valleys about 500 antifascists of the Resistenza found a violent death. And yet the Resistenza strengthened here, the balance of power shifted.

    In September 1944, the partisans, the Partisan republic Ossola declare and use a civilian government on Italian soil. Over 82,000 people lived in this free republic for 44 days. Many of the laws later became the basis of today's Italian constitution. The Allies abandoned the partisan republic and on October 9, 1944, the Wehrmacht together with Italian fascists recaptured the liberated territory. Around 35,000 refugees tried to escape through the snowy mountains and in trains through the Simplon to Switzerland. Scenes that are close to our younger generation since 2015 at the latest.

    A very impressive and worth reading interview with the partisan Antonietta Chiovini led Holger Fröhlich and provides information and eyewitness account at that time. at Alpi Ticinesi you can follow the course of the partisan battles of the region. The visit of the Casa della Resistenza in Fondotoce stands for us on our next visit to the compulsory program!


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    After World War II, the settlements and the Alps were abandoned in the Val Grande area. Partly because the Nazis destroyed the infrastructure, but partly also because many wanted to escape the cruel memory.

    From Pogallo the path - created by Sutermeister and therefore called "Strada Sutermeister" - is now clearly touristy, including boards that inform about life and work in ancient times here in the valley. Also fauna, flora and the different rock formations as well as their origin are explained. To Cicogna Cross over new suspension bridges and old, stone colossi the rushing river Rio Pogallo deep down in the gorge several times, again and again, breathtaking views open into the wild, rugged valley cut.


    Cicogna is the last inhabited village in the area. In the past, 700 people lived here, there were seven pubs. Today 16 people still live here, including 4 children. Many buildings are abandoned, locked and for sale. The center of life takes place here at the small bar attached to the hostel and bed and breakfast. "Ca 'del Pitur"By Sara Bianci and Tour Guide Federico Mazzoleni is affiliated. When we arrive, we are greeted from above already, much is not going on at the beginning of June. Only a few day tourists get lost in the 13-kilometer, narrow and one-lane road up here. The journey is already an adventure in itself! We shower extensively and enjoy the culinary delights that Sara conjures us.

    After a total of 10 kilometers, 1380 m descent and thanks to the many climbs but still 980 m altitude gain, we fall exhausted and saturated in the beds.




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