Free coffee and a Seven Dwarves tunnel on a rainy day in Parco Nazionale Val Grande.
Taking the long and winding and very narrow road
In seeking out new spots to explore, especially during mud season where upper elevations were still snowy but maybe too patchy for snowshoes, Parco Nazionale Val Grande seemed a good choice for a Milan day trip. The starting point was in Cicogna, which was just 17km but a world away from Lago Maggiore's less rustic lakeside Verbania. The road up was described ..alla strada molto stretta .. (very narrow) but while accurate, the description was not comprehensive. My friend, and fellow American transplant, Michele, was kind enough to drive so off we joined the Milan mass weekend exodus and drove towards greener pastures.
The road trip up is not for the faint of heart, serving to raise my heart rate even before doing any hiking. The rocky walls stingily yielded space to the single lane road with numerous blind spots and curves as it switchbacked up away from civilized luxury of Lago Maggiore to a more rustic environment. As we climbed higher, even in a small car, we had to make 3 point turns on some switchbacks as the car couldn't manage the tight radius. On some sections it was possible to see down to the alpine green blue rushing rapids at the bottom of the narrow gorge we were driving up. I was unsure which was the less scary way to look but still attractive view, the long ways down river or waiting to see a surprise vehicle around the next curve.
Hand Carved Tunnel
Like many places in Italy, the journey not only seemed to be one across distance but time, complete with warnings that there was no cell service in this part. the final 10Km is particularly stretta with an incredible tunnel that seemed to have been carved by the seven dwarves, low and rocky with no lights or warnings , the car entires and for a moment it is completely black, then a second or two into it, the figurative and literal light is seen. I am not sure who made this tunnel, but another peculiarity of Italian front yards is an affinity for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves sculptures. Maybe it's like the past trends of pink flamingoes, lawn jockeys and more recently garden gnomes, not sure exactly about this affection for plastic Disney figures in the country which gave birth to Michelangelo. So maybe it really were the seven dwarves who carved this spooky tunnel with their pickaxes.
Largest wilderness area in the Alps
Some more twists and turns arrived at the town of Cicogna and could imagine the town itself would offer great views if the clouds had not been thick and misting, allowing us to glimpse a few skinny waterfalls across the narrow valley. Val Grande is the largest wilderness area in the Alps and word is that there are a lot of snakes in Val Grande. We didn't spot any serpents, maybe they didn't like the rain but we did come across a big fat black shiny spotted salamander.
Hospitality and coffee just for us
Accustomed to having coffee everywhere in Italy, we figured there would be a bar to find an espresso and bathroom break before we started on our planned trail: La civiltà della fatica an intermediated level loop estimated at 5 - 6 hours . I recalled the notice on the website that the visitors center would be closed for repairs for 2016. Before arriving in Cicogna, I wondered why they were allotting an entire year for redoing the visitor's center, I couldn't imagine that the visitor's center was a large multi media creation that you might find in say the Grand canyon, it was likely no more than a room, so a year seemed a generous allotment for redoing it, but after driving the road I am thinking they may have a hard time getting workers to make the commute, so they allowed a year's buffer.
In any case I was not too concerned, in Italy there seems to be some unwritten law about having coffee available where more than three people may congregate. Walking a narrow pathway between buildings built on terraced hillsides we looked for signs of caffeinated life. All seemed closed and dreary when we passed by three people who looked out of place, dressed and asked if they knew of a bar or place for a coffee. They said everything was closed. So I said to Michele that we would have to find a tree to pee on and go without caffeine.
The troop of 3 must have taken pity on the wet foreigners as they turned around and told us to follow them. They led us down some stairs between buildings and they knocked on the door of the Ostello del Parco ( which also seemed closed, but was open to those who wanted to stay overnight) the briefcase man asked the man who answered if he would offer us a coffee and if we could use the bathroom. He welcomed us in and sent a colleague into the kitchen to brew us up a caffè lungo on with his stove top Moka. The room we waited in had a few dining tables draped in vinyl covered cloths with one bearing a display selection of locally made genepy and chamomile liquor. Some other hikers with their dog were checking out and had left the dog's plastic baggie of poop in the yard, a few minutes later they returned to retrieve it. It seemed Cicogna was filled with people displaying little niceties, providing a silver lining to the clouds leaking on us from above.
Our coffee and bathroom break were free but we did buy some dried genepy to make an herbal tea and a bottle of chamomile cordial. Then we started our walk up.
Eerie mist make for otherworldly atmosphere
The place seemed otherworldly, perhaps a combination of weather and that road up. The mist and clouds masked the views, but it was still scenic. Occasionally we could glimpse something in the distance giving us an idea of what it would be like on a clear day.
The weather and a later start modified our hike to just and out and back to the rifugio Alpe Prà . The rifugio closed, some info indicates it is opened occasionally though it is not clear when those occasions are . The loop seems like a nice walk though and now that we know how to arrive, we will depart earlier or there is the option to stay overnight at the Ostello del Parco.
English Language Links for Parco Nazionale Val Grande
We did a much shortened version of the trail to Alpe Prà and Casa dell' Alpino (suggested time 1.5 hrs up with vertical gain of 518 meters on w ell defined trail) The trail is dotted with signs sharing information on the people, flora, fauna and history of the area. While the signs are in Italian, they are illustrated so you can get a sense of the information with the images. It is recommended to do this tour in the fall when the leaves are changing.