The Parco Nazionale della Val Grande (or Val Grande National Park) is a protected wilderness in Piedmont, northern Italy. The park is the largest wilderness in Europe, at just under 15,000 hectares. The wilderness lies on the border of Switzerland and stretches from Lake Maggiore to the Alps.
Val Grande has no roads or settled population, with few man-made structures. Over half a century has passed with no human habitation with evidence that nature is slowly reclaiming the natural environment.
It is not a conventional National Park. Walking trails are steep and there is hardly any signage, meaning visitors must rely on maps. Overnight campers bring sleeping bags or choose to stay in some of the abandoned mountain huts peppered around the park. However, please do note that it’s almost impossible to use mobile phones.
The park is protected, with many fascinating species calling Val Grande their home. The Eurasian eagle owl, rare beetles and even vipers live in the park. Colossal beech trees and conifers are a feature of the park. Closer towards altitude, you can spot Alpine columbine, rhododendrons, wolf’s bane and Alpine tulips.
It is hard to pinpoint the origins of Val Grande, although there is evidence of carvings and objects dating back to the Roman and Iron Ages. Pre-1000, is is assumed that the wilderness was visited by hunters, although it was far too inhabitable for settlers.
From the 10th century, surrounding communities began a process of deforesting the uncultivated land around the valley. From the 14th century, they decided to capitalise on the clearing of the forests by monetising the process. This was led by both a desire to make the land more habitable, as well as the discovery of the Candoglia pink marble quarries, which were mined to help in the construction of the Cathedral of Milan.
Shortly thereafter, timber production grew in the area and became a vital export of the land. Towards the end of the 19th century, Swiss businessman Carlo Sutermeister ran a timber business in the hamlet of Pogallo, housing hundreds of his workforce in little stone buildings near the power plant and the mansion he built for himself.
By the 1900s, the area remained mainly a mystery to most Italians, although small clusters of groups did in fact now call the wilderness home. Although, it was with the arrival of the Second World War that life in the park changed forever. Partisan fighters sought refuge in the wilderness; however, in June 1944, Nazi Germans ransacked the valley, executing dozens of soldiers. When Nazi forces finally broke through Italian borders, the remaining soldiers fled for their lives over the nearby Swiss mountains.
Since then, the wilderness has remained abandoned, however, efforts were made to ensure Val Grande was not forgotten about. In 1967, the area and its growing fauna and flora, enhanced in the absence of humans, was declared a Strict Nature Preserve. In the 1980s, a non-profit organisation acted on plans to turn the area into a National Park. In 1992, the park was officially declared open.