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A Park Rich in History in the Italian Alps

<i> Green is a Camarillo free-lance writer who lived in Italy for almost 20 years. </i>

“Once 22 families lived in the village. During the evening we’d all gather in one stall with only a kerosene lantern for light; the women would spin wool, the men sing. Now everything is different. During the winter I’m alone with the cows and the dog.”

We found Viela, a handsome woman standing tall and straight, watching her herd of cows. She is one of few native mountain villagers who remain in Gran Paradiso National Park.

The park, in the Italian Alps near the Swiss and French borders, is rich in history. Inhabited by mountain tribes before the Roman invasion (Aosta has many Roman ruins), the area around the high peak of Gran Paradiso was later under the feudal domain of church bishops and more recently a hunting ground for Italy’s kings. Now many of the old stone and log houses have been converted to vacation homes.

We joined the “temporary villagers” in Valsavaranche, the only large valley completely within the park. Despite modern kitchens and bathrooms, we barbecued at a communal oven and washed clothes in the fountain.

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In the old villages--Degoiz with its hotels and shops, Tignet with its frescoed houses, Creton, Bien, Maisonasse and Eaux Rousses by the rushing waters--French influence is strong. It was the French who, about 300 years ago, brought potatoes, corn and log cabins from America; the dialect Velia speaks is ancient provincal .

Cheese Every Morning

Velia and her grandsons, visiting her from the valley below, make cheese every morning--Fontina, rich and yellow, and Toma, made of partially skimmed milk.

Many hotels feature typical mountain cooking: polenta , thick cornmeal spread on wood and served with sausages or meat; hearty soups with potatoes, bread or pasta and dark green Savoy cabbage, or the cuisine of the Aosta Valley: cannelloni and medaglioni of veal.

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There are several park offices but few professional rangers; the guardia forestale’s main function until recently was to patrol for poachers, as the park was formed to preserve its rare species of mountain goat, the ibex.

Fossil remains of the animals date from the end of the Tertiary Period (12 to 13 million years ago). During the Middle Ages these large mountain goats with their curved horns were valued for a small bone near the heart that served as a talisman against violent death (not, however, for the goat).

The only survivors of the species were high on the peak of Gran Paradiso. Now, thanks to the park, other areas in the Alps are being repopulated.

Part Goat, Antelope

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The other large animal in the park is the chamois, considered part goat, part antelope. During winter these light, long-legged animals graze near the villages. During summer they go to the high slopes where one can see them through binoculars.

There are many trails crossing Alpine meadows--rich green dotted with yellow dandelion, purple thistle, violet lupine, blue bells, white Alpine stars, pale yellow gentian--and leading to the glaciers.

On long treks you can stop at a mountain shelter or refugio , similar to hostels. Rows of slippers greet guests--hiking boots damage the highly polished pine floors.

Beds cost $6 to $12 a night, depending on whether one chooses a dormitory or a four-bed room; baths are communal, linens provided.

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We hiked up, but one can arrive by helicopter.

The restaurant serves meals and has a spectacular view of the rocky mountainside and the river below, its song obliterating the noise of cars and people.

Along one trail we passed four youths wearing city hats and leather jackets, cowherds returning after the noon meal in one of the villages below to the high meadows and old earthen stalls. These are simple structures, dug three or more feet into the ground.

High-Pasture Living

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Elsewhere in the Alps you can find people living in the high pastures with a few cows or goats, but here progress and the park have forced and cajoled most of them to the valleys.

Gran Paradiso National Park is under the jurisdiction of two regions: Piedmont for the southern part and Aosta for the northern. Only by hiking across the peaks or driving around park boundaries can one part be reached from the other.

The northern part is more characteristic because of its conifer forests and three major valleys: Valsavaranche; the Valley of Rhemes, with the town of Rhemes Notre Dame at the end of the valley, and the Valley of Cogne.

Here you can vacation summer and winter. Cogne is a resort city with vacation apartments in five-story buildings, discotheques. shops, cafes, ristoranti and more than 30 hotels--many rated with three and four stars. About 37 miles of cross-country ski track, ranging from beginner to challenging, crisscross the slopes.

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You can rent equipment; experienced skiers give instruction. Early each year the Marcia Gran Paradiso is held, a non-competitive cross-country marathon. Or try night skiing by the light of 1,000 wood torches.

Cogne is just outside park boundaries; inside, regulations limit development. Valnontey is just beyond Cogne.

Valnontey has a hotel, a good family-run restaurant where you can also rent rooms, two campgrounds and botanical gardens with 1,500 varieties of Alpine plants, including rarities and those endemic to the zone.

Ideal Time to Visit

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According to park officials, September is an ideal time to visit Gran Paradiso (but be prepared for possible snow flurries), and May and June are good months to get a closer look at the animals. They tend to shy away from the crowds during August, when Italians abandon the cities for mountains or seashore. The damage to trails and the refuse scattered everywhere are irritating to the vacationer who loves nature.

Each valley has its own tourist bureau that provides information about private rentals and a listing of hotels. The regional tourist offices at Aosta or Piedmont also send information. Prices begin at slightly more than $30 for a double room or that much per person for bed, breakfast and dinner, often required.

Many hotels request a minimum stay of three nights; some are heated and open all winter, others only in summer. Reservations are mandatory for July and August and are advisable for the week after Christmas.

Easily accessible by autostrada from Turin or Milan (about two and three hours of driving, respectively), the park is connected with France through the long tunnel under Mt. Blanc and with Switzerland (Geneva is about 103 miles from Cogne) through the Saint Bernard. Trains traverse the Aosta Valley; from there buses go into the northern valleys.

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Warm clothing, hiking shoes and a slicker are essential and can be bought locally. (We found comfortable hiking shoes for about $50 in the marketplace at Degoiz, but the choice is limited.)

If you are sun-sensitive, bring sunscreen; it is not easy to find in Italy, even in city farmacia . A good pair of binoculars and a telephoto camera lens will enhance your enjoyment of Gran Paradiso National Park, an area off the beaten track for American tourists but offering a combination of living history, natural beauty and summer and winter sports.

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The Gran Paradiso area does not have deluxe hotels, nor does it have the crowds of nearby Courmayeur, a popular resort on the Italian side of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco).

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However, there are large and small hotels, with Cogne the most developed tourist area. Small villages in the valleys of Valsavaranche, Rhemes and outside Cogne may have one to three hotels, often family-run.

Many cater to the same clientele year after year. Both these and the fancier hotels of Cogne may be filled during July and August, the week after Christmas and Easter week.

Cross-country skiing is popular, so you may find, even during February and March, groups from schools and government offices enjoying a settimana bianca (a week in the snow).

Most hotels have restaurants; some require that guests pay for two meals a day. Hotels in all categories have central heating (if they are open during winter) and hot and cold running water in the rooms but many are without other extras.

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Italian vacationers spend their free time in the lounge chatting with other guests, playing cards or watching TV, so rooms are often furnished only with the essentials for sleeping and dressing.

High-season rates apply during the Christmas and Easter holidays, July, August and, in some areas, September. For a double room with bath you can spend from about $35 to $75 U.S. Low-season room prices may be up to 15% less.

Reservations are probably necessary, except during June or late September, and can be made through the Italian Automobile Club or the Aostan regional tourist office: Ufficio Informazioni Turistiche, Aosta (Piazza Chanoux 8) or at its agency in Rome (Via Del Tritone 62). The local agency for Cogne is Azienda Autonoma di Soggiorno, Piazza Emile Chanoux, 11012 Cogne.

For more information, contact the Italian Government Travel Office, 360 Post St., Suite 801, San Francisco 94108.

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