As early as 1856 the Gran Paradiso mountains in the Italian Alps were afforded protection as a wildlife reserve by Italy’s King Vittorio Emmanuel II to protect their herds of Ibex. By 1922 the reserve had become Italy’s first national park, and today it covers 720 square kilometres. On the creation of the adjoining Vanoise National Park by the French in 1963, the largest protected area in Western Europe was formed. On this 2-centre holiday we aim to enjoy daily natural history walks amongst the beautiful Alpine valleys, forests and high peaks of this spectacular region, focusing on their alpine flora, birdlife, butterflies and, of course, such mammals as Ibex, Chamois and Alpine Marmots. The area’s geology is also very varied, one of the reasons for the outstanding flora which includes such special ‘alpines’ as the pink-flowered Aethionema thomasianum, an endemic of the Aosta Alps growing on calcareous screes; Astragalus alepocurus, the central Alpine milk vetch found in the high alpine meadows; Campanula alpestris (Large-flowered Bellflower), to be found on limestone rocks and screes, and Saxifraga biflora, a compact saxifrage with red flowers favouring acid rocks. Many other alpine species of saxifrages, sedums, vetches, composites, campanulas and of course various gentians and orchids also occur here.
We will be based for our first three nights in Cogne, a small and friendly Italian town in the Val di Cogne, high above the Aosta Valley and surrounded by gentle green meadows and towering, glacier-covered mountains. The region is both Italian and French speaking, though each valley tends to have its own dialect, and the area is noted for its Valdostane cuisine, which includes plenty of Chamois, venison, excellent local cheeses and Valle d’sAosta wines. We will then cross the border to spend our last four nights at Lanslevillard, a French village near Mount Cenis, one of the finest sites for Alpine flowers. From both these bases we will explore the trails of the Gran Paradiso and Vanoise National Parks, and enjoy the exceptional variety of birds, plants and butterflies of the region.
On one day we will walk from Valnontey, a small village in the Gran Paradiso, along the beautiful valley of the Torrent Valnontey, towards the impressive glaciers that cap the park. A wayside botanical garden introduces us to many of the alpine plants that we hope to find during the week. In the delightful forests of beech, larch, spruce and Arolla Pine above, we will look for Firecrests, Coal Tits, Serins, Citril Finches, Crossbills and, with luck, Bonelli’s Warblers and the elusive Black Woodpecker, before we reach the alpine meadows above the tree-line where Choughs, Alpine Choughs, Lammergeiers, Golden Eagles and other birds of prey may all be seen overhead, and Wheatears, Ring Ouzels, Dippers, Black Redstarts, Rock Buntings and Water Pipits all breed. On other days we will explore further valleys and also the meadows and screes of the Col de Petit St. Bernard where we look for Alpine and Small White Orchid, the various prostrate willows such as Salix breviserrata, S. reticulata, S. serpyllifolia and S. herbacea, Alpenrose and Creeping Azalea. Typically, at the high point of each day’s walk, we will break the day with a leisurely and delicious picnic lunch; a time to appreciate the abundance of alpine flowers and the clouds of attendant butterflies, and scan the slopes around us for views of Ibex and Chamois and noisy Alpine Marmots. We will also look out for Peregrine, Golden Eagle and Lammergeier, as well as two specialities of the highest slopes, Snowfinch and Alpine Accentor.
Next we cross into France to spend our last four nights in the Vanoise National Park. France’s first national park lies in the Haute Savoie, just to the south of lordly Mont Blanc, and also holds an impressive diversity of wildlife. Chamois, Alpine Ibex and Alpine Marmots are all found here, whilst amongst 125 species of breeding birds are Lammergeier and the enigmatic Wallcreeper. It is, however, the flora that is most spectacular and, in the alpine meadows, we will look for such plant specialities as Mount Cenis Restharrow (Ononis cristata), Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum), Erigeron uniflorus, and both Primula pedemontana and Primula hirsuta. Alpine specialities of the screes and rocks include Blunt-leaved Rock Jasmine (Androsace obtusifolia), Hairy Rock Jasmine (Androsace pubescens), Androsace helvetica, Phyteuma globulariifolium, the Glacier Buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis), Petrocallis pyrenaica and Mount Cenis Bellflower (Campanula cenisia).
To complete our week we will visit the area of Mount Cenis, renowned for its alpine flora. Amongst the species we will look for here are the two mountain pansies, Viola calcarata and Viola cenisi; the yellow-flowered Erysimum rhaeticum and pink-flowered Androsace adfinis subsp. puberula are found in the rocky crevices, whilst the screes hold Mount Baldo Anemone (Anemone baldensis). Other plants we will look for are Alpine Pasque Flower (Pulsatillas alpina), many species of gentian, including the diminutive Snow Gentian (G. nivalis), various campanulas and rampions, the handsome False White Helleborine (Veratrum album), and Frog and Alpine Orchids.
The holiday was very enjoyable. The hotel staff were very helpful. The leaders looked after us very well and were very knowledgeable.
The holiday was fantastic and, as a first timer to group holidays and Naturetrek, I would definitely want to go on this type of holiday again. The scenery and wildlife were stunning - probably the word I said most all trip! The sheer abundance and variety of flower and butterfly species was breathtaking. We had good sightings of Golden Eagle and Lammergeier which were the icing on the cake. I was a relative beginner in terms of botany and butterflies but that did not matter. Phil had excellent knowledge and there were others in the group with knowledge to match, but I felt included and soaked it all up. If I remember a tenth of what I learnt I will have learnt a bit - there was so much to see. Phil and Sharon were terrific leaders. They worked very hard to give us a good experience - driving the minibuses and organising great picnics on top of being naturalists and tour guides. They were top class!
Very happy with the leaders again. They made a good team: while Phillip focused on flowers, Sharon scanned the skies and slopes and alerted us to birds and mammals. They handled the challenging driving circumstances calmly and professionally as they did the flight problems! I liked both hotels and thought the food was very good and ample. We went to some wonderful spots and they made me realise there isn’t just one ‘alpine flora’ but a whole range, suited to different heights, soils and aspects.
I am not an expert naturalist but I was most impressed by the leaders’ knowledge and the easy manner in which they put it across. Quite apart from their biological expertise they drove us safely over mountain roads and prepared excellent lunches!
This was my fifth holiday with Naturetrek and I was more than satisfied this time. The tour description, while accurate in itself, could not do justice to the grandeur of the scenery and we were blessed with a wide spectrum of wildlife, both flora and fauna, with a profusion of butterflies, the like of which I have never seen before. Our two leaders were excellent in their knowledge of their subjects but deserve special mention for their safe driving whilst encountering the multitude of hairpin bends, dare-devil Italian and French drivers and numerous intrepid cyclists. It just remains to thank Naturetrek for another excellent holiday, from the first delve into the brochure, planning, execution and completion.
Mr & Mrs L
Everything about the trip was excellent - the tour leader made every effort to ensure our needs were catered for, and his knowledge on flora and fauna was first class.
When asked if the holiday was good value for the cost: "In view of the sheer abundance of wild flowers and the magnificence of the mountain scenery, plus Phil's skilled leadership - yes!"
Phil was an excellent leader; knowledgeable, calm, and a very good provider of packed lunches. He took great care when driving the minibus to ensure that we were all comfortable. Although we all had different levels of knowledge (mine being the lowest), he answered questions appropriately to us all as individuals.
An extremely enjoyable and educational week, for which the secrets were: a) the leader: humorous, relaxed and very knowledgeable. b) The hotels and villages. The eight of us had the good luck to 'gel', and we all enjoyed each others company, the more so as ages ranged from 15 to 75.
I thoroughly enjoyed the holiday and learnt a great deal. Jenny and John Willsher were excellent leaders - approachable, encouraging, patient, careful drivers and very responsible.
My highlight was actually seeing a Crested Tit at last at close quarters instead of in tree tops! Lovely trip with great companions.
Visiting an area I didnt know, this was a wonderful holiday. Scenery, birds, butterflies and flowers were stunning, made even more special because of the expertise and enthusiasm of our leaders and the group in general. I learnt such a lot.
Excellent holiday made all the better by the attention and enthusiasm of the leaders. In particular I must mention the superb quality of the picnics provided, whether it was the magnificent surroundings or the sheer quality of the food but they were splendid.
J. & J.R.
The two guides (the Willshers) were outstanding and very knowledgeable. Jennys delicious picnics were a welcome highlight. The small, friendly group was a bonus. Jenny and John co-operated seamlessly in making the holiday a great success.
Our leaders displayed an excellent level of knowledge and understanding and looked after a diverse group very well. Overall a memorable and enjoyable trip.
A very enjoyable trip... the area is excellent for the range and number of butterfly species.
An excellent pair of leaders who greatly contributed to our enjoyment.
The holiday was just what we had hoped for.