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Photo by marcobrivio.photo/Shutterstock
Puez-Odle Nature Park in the Dolomites
In Italy, these trails and parks provide breathing space for everyone.
Italy’s historic piazzas, traditional trattorias, and beaches lapped by blue ripples will seduce you. (Give in, it’s OK.) But don’t go back to Italy without setting foot in at least one of its under-visited regional and national parks. The pandemic put the county’s parks front and center, not only providing breathing room for tutti in Italia but also showcasing Europe’s highest level of biodiversity, with over 57,000 species recorded—more than a third of all animals on the continent. If you can’t reach one of the 20 national or 130 regional parks, try one of the 420 national and regional reserves or countless trails stretching from the snowy Alps in the north down the Apennines and both coasts to the heel, with ample woodlands, marshes, low-growth garigue scrubland and shrubby Mediterranean maquis vegetation along the way. Andiamo!
Quietly parked above touristy Cinque Terre is this hidden gem of a regional park in the overlooked seaside town of Sestri Levante. Pack your bathing suit and goggles for the Monte Castello Promontory, a network of coastal hiking trails and rocky perches shaded by cork oaks, mastic, and broom, with serenely empty paths and panoramic Med views you won’t have to share with other tourists. You’ll encounter numerous birds, from water hens to warblers, and if you’re lucky, martens, foxes, and rare diurnal Jersey tiger moths. Freshen up back in town at the unassuming 48-room Hotel Vis à Vis, where you can dip into the heated ocean-view pool or enjoy the rooftop bar. Reward yourself at sunset at the popular beach restaurant Portebello with a bottle of local rosato and an enviable heap of crunchy fritto misto.
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Often shortened to just Abruzzo National Park, this is one of Italy’s first national parks, established in 1923 in central and southern Italy. More than 123,000 acres have been preserved, keeping some of the country’s most remote mountain regions undisturbed. This was the last part of Italy to be Christianized and many pagan rituals like Fire Festivals and sacred lucus (ancient wooded groves) haunt the landscape. Dense beech forests remain home to many of the country’s rarest flora and fauna, like the white-backed woodpecker and the lady-slipper orchid. There are also critically endangered Abruzzi brown bears, wolves, chamois, otters, and even unconfirmed lynx sightings. Niko Romito’s Casadonna Reale and Michelin-three-starred restaurant and cooking school occupy an austere 16th-century former monastery inside the park. For more casual, but just as hearty fare, pull over on SS 17 at Alt-Stazione del Gusto in Castel di Sangro. The neon-lit joint specializes in Italian road food like crunchy fried chicken, marshmallowy bomba buns stuffed with stewed beef and spinach, or pistachio gelato.
Tuscany isn’t all Sienna light and Rooms With a View. Maremma, in the region’s southwest, is its wildest corner and would have Lucy Honeychurch clutching her pearls. The Maremma Regional Park features bird-rich wetlands (with 270+ species, including scops owls and woodlarks), dense maquis, holm oak forests, thermal waterfalls, and extensive cave systems. But there are also plains dotted with umbrella pines and populated by wolves, wildcats, and porcupines. This is Italy’s Serengeti and its grasslands are also home to butteri, horseback shepherds, who round up wild horses and free-roaming cattle. Follow the Albegna River upstream to where it links with the Vetta Mare and Via Clodia, two long-distance hiking paths that pass Terme di Saturnia Natural Destination. The thermal baths date back 3,000 years when Etruscans and Romans soaked in the healing sulfurous waters after battles, and today remain home to thermal cascades.
German-speaking Süd Tirol, bordering Austria and Switzerland, is home to the sky-piercing Dolomites. The region claims at least six major national and regional parks in addition to being one of Italy’s five UNESCO World Heritage natural sites. Its claim to fame: over a dozen 9,800-feet-plus mountains and a landscape of karst steeples and skerry pinnacles that shelter bears, wolves, fire salamanders, and ermines. The 26,000-acre Puez-Odle Nature Park is home to segments of the High Route No. 2 and Val di Funes’ 1.8-mile Zannes Nature Trail, the region’s first wheelchair-accessible path, a gently sloped loop with 14 interactive stations over Piuswiese Meadow where pasqueflower, alpine snowbells, edelweiss, and bellflowers shake in the wind. Fifteen minutes from the park atop Mount Plos is Forestis, a sanatorium originally designed for Austrian royalty, but born anew as a design-minded nature resort in 2020 with 62 wood-lined suites and a spa paying homage to the region’s Celtic past. Restaurant Finsterwirt, housed in a 13th-century building in nearby town Brixen (also known by its Italian name, Bressanone), serves summer truffles, Alpine cheeses, and Eisack Valley wines; its notable guests have included Pope Ratzinger and the Dalai Lama.
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Italy is home to more than 20 underwater marine parks, but the Marine Protected Area of Portofino is easily the most varied, with eight miles of coastline and a rich underwater cultural heritage appealing to hobby snorkelers and advanced divers alike. You can dive down to wrecks of steamships and German U-boats. The average visibility in the water is 65 feet, ideal for exploring and photographing the park’s colorful micro-habitats covered in violet gorgonian, scarlet corals, and yellow cluster anemones and helpful when exploring the otherwise dark and steep underwater cliffs. Divers may spot schools of barracuda, tuna, moray and conger eels, scorpion fish, octopus, and lobsters. Steps from Portofino harbor’s bobbing boats is the newly opened 14-room Belmond Hotel Splendido Mare. The fisherman’s shelter turned stylish waterfront getaway is an annex to the main hotel atop the hill. Head to Camogli, about 20 minutes away, for Italy’s most scenic sunset aperitivo at the cliff-perched Bar Dai Muagetti.
Just five minutes from Matera is Basilicata’s UNESCO-inscribed Parco Regionale della Murgia Materana, a scrubby 19,000-acre plateau home to churches carved into caves and canyon cliffs, some with colorful 8th-century frescoes. Matera itself is a popular locale for biblical films like The Passion of Christ, but next door in the park is a warren of at least seven major cave complexes. It’s also a biodiversity hot spot and home to asphodels, sunroses, endemic orchids, wolves, and rarely seen leopard snakes. Wake up in Matera’s Corte San Pietro, a six-room boutique hotel built into the tufa stone walls and caves of Matera’s canyon, locally called the Sassi. Nomadic chef couple Hélène and Francesca arrange Secret Suppers for small groups inside the park at Francesca’s ancestral home next to the Chiese Rupestri with memorable canyon top cocktails served in vintage crystal.
Not everyone gets all the way down to Salento, the sun-scorched and southernmost heel of Italy in Puglia. Dotted by gnarly olive trees and restored masseria farmhouses, the region is becoming increasingly known for its native bee-friendly wildflowers and grasses being preserved by grassroots groups like Coopertivo Terrarossa. The Tricase-based nonprofit has launched several programs to help promote sustainable tourism with workshops on beekeeping, endemic vegetables, and coastal cave hiking along the Sentiero della Cipolliane, all as a way to help safeguard the area’s shrinking biodiversity. In the heart of Salento, Castello di Ugento, a restored 17th-century castle and cooking school with 12 rooms, offers programs emphasizing local experiences like horseback riding, treks, and mountain biking though Otranto Regional Park, as well as hands-on grape and olive harvesting. Book one of the checkered-cloth tables in the fig-shaded courtyard of La Stanzie, a traditional farmhouse and olive mill strewn with drying tomatoes. The memorable meal captures the veg-forward spirit of Apulian cuisine in plates of cavatelli pasta, mashed favas, and dozens of seasonal vegan and vegetarian antipasti.
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