Colli Euganei Park: a Haven for Flora in Ancient Volcanic Land.


General Presentation and History

In the very middle of the province of Padova, even though contained within a heavily populated area, the monotonous horizontal line of the Venetian plains is interrupted by the jagged outline of the Colli Euganei – an outstanding oasis of green, history and century-old traditions. 

The Colli Euganei show ancient memories of human presence. Various objects in flint, collected in several locations on the Western coast, and some findings from the Superior Paleolithic, demonstrate a continuity of human presence in the area. More interesting finds are those of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, to which dates back the marsh village by the small lake of Costa near Arquà Petrarca. On Monte Lozzo there are also settlements dating to the initial phase of the Iron Age and showing the very first evidence of the ancient Veneti, of which a great number of finds are conserved at the Museo Nazionale Atestino in Este – the main Archaeological Museum in the region. The presence of the Romans in the area dates instead to the 2nd Century BC; the Romans were responsible for the construction of roads, and gave a strong impulse to the settlements and also to agriculture, by spreading the cultivation of grape, olive and fruiting chestnut. Great development was also achieved by the centre of Montegrotto, which became one of the most important and beautiful spa towns of the Roman nobility.

During the Middle Ages the Colli Euganei kept – for their dominating position – numerous human settlements; a great number of ‘corti’, ‘pievi’ and fortifications were built at that time. At the beginning of the 15th Century, the area of the Colli Euganei entered the dominion of the ‘Serenissima’ (Venetian Republic), thus starting a period of peace and prosperity, with the construction of splendid dwellings and mansions erected by the Venetian nobility, which are densely scattered over the whole area to this day. The 1800s – started under the banner of Napoleon, and ended with the annexation to the newborn Kingdom of Italy in 1866 – were a century of great demographic growth, which saw a consistent exploitation of this region and the beginning of extraction activities on an industrial scale, thus causing irriversible damage to the landscape. Luckily, since about 30 years, a process of dismantling the quarries has started, and a series of measures have been taken in order to protect this outstandingly beautiful territory. This process culminated with the institution of the newborn Parco Regionale dei Colli Euganei in 1989.      

 

The Parco Regionale dei Colli Euganei

The Parco Regionale dei Colli Euganei (Colli Euganei Regional Parkcan be considered a permanent laboratory in the field of environmental protection, with about 50,000 residents within its perimeter and as many more living in the buffer zone. Among the tasks of this institution, the main ones are the protection of the naturalistic, historic and cultural heritage of this territory, as well as the promotion – also via the medium of technical and financial support – of traditional activities, compatible with the needs of environmental protection. The Environmental Plan of the Park (“Piano Ambientale del Parco”) has individuated and delimited the areas where different degrees of restriction are to be enforced – from those of so-called “controlled urbanization” to those of “integral natural reserve”. Hunting is forbidden within the territory of the Park, as well as the use of vehicles in the off-piste tracks; harvesting mushrooms foraging on edible plants is also strictly regulated. The municipalities inside the perimeter of the Park are (in alphabetical order): Arquà Petrarca, Abano T, Battaglia T, Baone, Cervarese Santa Croce, Cinto Euganeo, Este, Galzignano T, Lozzo Atestino, Monselice, Montegrotto T, Rovolon, Teolo, Torreglia and Vò. Each and every one of these ‘comuni’ nominates three counselors who, together with five representatives of the Provincial Administration (the Province of Padova), constitute the so-called “Consiglio del Parco” (Park Council), inside which is an Executive Committee (composed of six members) and the President of the Park.

 

The Origins of the Landscape of the Colli Euganei

The district of the Colli Euganei is now formed of about 100 hills, all different for shape and height, which occupy an area of around 18,695 hectares, with a perimeter that can be reconducted to an ellipsis of roughly 65 km. Monte Venda – with its 601 m of altitude – is the center and major elevation within this system of hills. The geological history derives from a complex set of volcanic manifestations going back to the Tertiary Era. The first eruptions date to the Superior Eocene (circa 43 million years ago): vulcanism here was of a subterranean type, and the lava – fluid and rich in gases and vapours – expanded rapidly on the sea floor, thus forming extensive and little elevated lava fields. The water and the high pressure of the magmatic gases triggered intense explosive phases during which were produced large quantities of ashes, lapilli and lava shreds that, by depositing themselves, formed a thick covering of tufa rock. After a period of relative quiet, lasted about 10 million years, at the beginning of the Oligocene (circa 35 million years ago) there was a strong reprise of the magmatic activity, which  for the entity of the phenomena expressed and the quantity of material emitted  represented the moment of formation of the Colli Euganei as such. The hydrostatic push of a strongly viscous magma uplifted and fractured in the most diverse ways the ancient strata on the sea bottom: slow but powerful lava flows crossed and covered – partly – the volcanic sediments and the basaltic vulcanites, thus producing a series of apparatuses that confer a unique and atmospheric outlook to the morphology of the Colli Euganei.

Each and every one of the steep cones that characterise the landscape of these hills was born out of individual volcanic events, from the accumulation of lava in the vicinity of the fractures where the emissions took place, above and around the new-born structures. Each hill/cone is therefore a unique product, differing from all the surrounding ones, and it conserves in its profile and furrows a unique, original physiognomy: a strong and absolute character, just in part softened by the erosion lasted millions of years. A good deal of the magma – because of the high viscosity and the relatively low temperatures – did not manage to cross the sea floor, but stopped at a shallow depth, thus expanding inside the stratification layers of the calcareous rocks, which were slowly uplifted and shaped in the guise of ‘domes’. In this way, rounded hills were formed, with outlines that connect gently to the line of the surrounding plains. By the end of this cycle, the highest hills had emerged, and went on to form – in the ancient sea now occupied by the Po valley plains – an archipelago of steep islands.

Besides the family of the volcanic rocks, the district of the Colli Euganei boasts a notheworthy series of sedimentary rocks – such as the Rosso Ammonitico, which contains several types of ammonites; the Biancone; the Scaglia Rossa (the latter is rich in various species of sea urchins and sharks’ teeth); the Euganean Marls (‘marne euganee’), whose extraction in the area of Monselice, Rivadolmo and Cinto Euganeo has served in the past for the production of cement; and lastly the Argillite Nerastra  a blackish clay that came to the surface also in the area of Cinto Euganeo, and from which a rich pelagic fauna typical of a tropical environment was extracted: this constitutes one of the most interesting paleonthological finds in Italy (the uncovered material – together with a rich documentation on the geology of the Colli Euganei – has been ordered and put on display at the Museum of Cava Bomba, set up in the evocative rooms of a former lime furnace). After emerging from the sea, a selective erosion lasted millions of years has produced a highly varied and tormented landscape, by disaggregating and partly removing the soft sedimentary cover, thus showing the hard volcanic body of rock underneath, with slender and polished conical shapes.


Climate, Vegetation and Fauna

The main characters of the climate of the Colli Euganei do not differ much from those of the surrounding plains: average rainfall and mean annual temperatures of about 13 C. In general, the climate here is quite mild: this is demonstrated also by the thermal regime of the area, which presents very modest annual excursions between the hills and the surrounding plains. In the hills one can have lower absolute minima temperatures than over the plains, but as a rule the monthly minima temperatures are higher; this explains why over the Colli Euganei one can see thriving olive trees, cypress, bay-trees, broom and other species more typical of the Mediterranean flora. During the winter one can enjoy splendid days with dry air and a spring-like feel, with limpid atmosphere and clear skies, and temperatures some degrees higher in relation to the surrounding plains, often shrouded in mists and fogs. This phenomenon – also known as “thermal inversion” – facilitates the life of the termophile (warmth-loving) vegetation. During the summer, on the other hand, the climate on the hills is fresher and less humid when compared to the plains. These climatic differences are determined by the morphology of the relief, the aspect and also the inclination of the slopes: the values of highest warming can be reached on the slopes exposed to the south, where the gradient is higher than 45°. The contrary happens for the slopes exposed to the north, or those found inside narrow valleys, where the quantity of solar energy falls down to about one fourth in respect to the more favorably exposed locations. Thus, on the opposite sides of a hill, one will notice environmental conditions characterised by very diverse micro-climates: of a Mediterranean type on the slopes facing south, and of ‘montane’ or ‘sub-montane’ type on the opposite side, facing north.

The flora of the Colli Euganei – as it is represented schematically at the Museum of Villa Beatrice d’Este on Monte Gemola – is characterised by a surprising number of species. The different origin and chemical composition of the soils; the rugged and singular morphology of the relief – responsible for the different micro-climates and contrasting biotopes –; the isolation from other mountain groups; the alternate events connected with the glacial cycles and the post-glacial period are the main causes of such floral plenty. On the basis of the nature of the terrain and the local climatic differences, one can individuate in the vegetational layout of the Colli Euganei some plant associations that can be ascribable to five main types: 1) Mediterranean scrub; 2) meadowlands, with the few precious stations left of Haplophyllum patavinum (Rue of Padua) – the most important species in the floristic heritage of the Colli Euganei – as well as about 20 orchid species that come in the most diverse, evocative and bizarre shapes, splendidly coloured, amongst which are Greater Butterfly-Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha ssp. chlorantha), Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera), Lady Orchid (Orchis purpurea), Monkey Orchid (Orchis simia), Adriatic Lizard Orchid (Himantoglossum adriaticum), Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea) and Violet Limodore, (Limodorum abortivum); 3) Chestnut groves; 4) termophile Oak woodland and 5) Locust tree thickets.

While the flora did keep quite well, the same cannot be said for the fauna, which has suffered – over time – a substantial empoverishment. Nevertheless, the Colli Euganei still constitute a diversified environment for the fauna too. Amongst the small mammals feeding on insects are Common Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), Mole (Talpa europaea) and Eurasian Shrew (Sorex araneus); amongst the rodents, Fat Dormouse (Glis glis) and Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius); Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and Badger (Meles meles) are also present. The reptiles count amongst their numbers some species of Lizard, such as Common Lizard (Lacerta vivipara) and Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis), which are visible in the warmest and driest spots, while Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis) prefers fresher and damper areas. Amongst the serpents, quite widespread is Green Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus), coming in the black variety (and locally known as ‘scarbonasso’); less common is Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus). Present is also Grass Snake (Natrix natrix), together with Dice Snake (Natrix tessellata), while Common European Viper (Vipera berus) is regularly reported in the more elevated and tranquil locations.

The humid areas host European Tree Frog (Hyla arborea), Common Frog (Rana temporaria), Common Toad (Bufo bufo) and the rare Yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina variegata), as well as European Green Toad (Bufo viridis). In some biotopes of stagnating water Alpine Newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris) and Common Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) can be seen; Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) is also present in the undergrowth, near springs and water courses.

Amongst the birds, during the winter months the woods host Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), Redwing (Turdus iliacus) and Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), while among the low vegetation can be seen Wren (Troglodytes sp.), European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), European Greenfinch (Chloris chloris) and several species of Tit. In spring arrive Hoopoe (Upupa epops), Eurasian Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus), Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) and Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus); great numbers of finch (such as European Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis), Eurasian Siskin (Spinus spinus) and the beautiful Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) are present all year round. In the meadowlands are easily observable Calandra Lark (Melanocorypha calandra), Crested Lark (Galerida cristata) and, during the summer, the curious European Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus), known in Italian as ‘succiacapre’ (literally ‘goatsucker’): a bird of crepuscular habits that nests on the ground, with a flight similar to a small hawk. The diurnal birds of prey are well represented by Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo); present are also Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and sometimes even Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo). Recently, the nesting presence of Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) has confirmed the naturalistic and faunistic potentiality of the Colli Euganei. Among the nocturnal birds of prey, it is sometimes possible to spot Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo), Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and Tawny Owl (Strix aluco).

Among the numerous invertebrates, some of which are endemic, one can be reminded here of the one with the largest dimensions: River Shrimp (Macrobrachium sp.) – a crustacean about 20 cm long, once actively sought after by the locals as a delicacy, which for that reason is now endangered and localised in just a few water courses: the cleanest and least accessible streams in the central section of the Colli Euganei.

Since a few years, another large animal has become quite widespread too: it is the wild boar (Sus scrofa), introduced by man, which is causing quite substantial damage at the moment.


The Spas

The properities of the water of the spas of the Colli Euganei were already known in Roman times. Chemical analysis have established that this water is meteoric in nature, and that it touches the ground (as rain) in an area situated at an average height of 1,500 m, in a mountainous region individuated in the territory of the so-called ‘Piccole Dolomiti’ (Recoaro, Valdagno, Monte Pasubio). Here the water starts an underground journey within a system of fractures inside the sedimentary rocks, and for the natural heat of the earth it constantly rises in temperature and increases in radioactivity, thus becoming charged with certain salts, while dissolving the more soluble minerals picked up in the rocks along the way.

The presence of thermo-mineral water in the area of the Colli Euganei is usually attributed to the obstacle created in the depths by the lavic masses and to the existence of a series of fractures that favour the quick resurgence of water, pushed up by hydraulic pressure within the entire subterranean basin. In the warmest pools – which can reach the temperature of 87 C – the dissolved mineral substances are in the order of 56 g/l. The most common chemical elements found in this water are sodium, potassium, chlorine, magnesium, sulphur, bromine, iodine and silica. This spa water is also instrumental in the preparation – in dedicated pools – of vegetal-mineral mud: the therapeutic element specific to this particular spa area, obtained by the spontaneous mineralisation of certain microscopic algae. The spa system of the Colli Euganei, and the uniqueness of its landscapes, make the spa towns of the Park – Abano T, Battaglia TGalzignano T, Montegrotto T, Teolo – among the most important at European level; in that respect, the Park and the five municipalities have also started the procedures in order to register for the EMAS Values & Recognition award.

 

The Products of the Park

The most ancient cultivations found in the territory of the Park are mainly vineyards and olive; to them, must be associated the harvesting of produce from the woodland – such as chestnut, wild strawberries and spontaneous herbs. Typical productions – besides their characteristics of origin and geographical localisation – are endowed with an evocative value, and owe their commercial success today (and perhaps even more so in the future) to the award of certifications of quality and typicality.

The wines of the region, for example, are protected by the ‘Consorzio dei Vini D.O.C. dei Colli Euganei’ and offer a wide selection, as well as the possibility of different combinations with dishes from both the local cuisine and otherwise. As for cheese, the local variant of the ‘Grana Padano’ – protected by the homonimous ‘Consorzio – vouches for the long tradition of the dairy industry in the area; less famous, but equally palatable, are the many soft cheeses known as ‘caciotte’, sometimes flavoured with wild herbs and to be eaten fresh.

As for other traditional products, the choice can easily fall on honey – from detoxing Acacia to Chestnut; from revitalizing ‘Millefiori’ (‘Thousand Flowers’) to the tonic and balsamic ‘Melata’. As for the fruit production, cherries are present in this territory with numerous varieties – at least six –, amongst which are the ‘marasche’ (sour cherries), basic ingredient of a famous liqueur that takes its name from them (‘Maraschino’). Amongst other typical produce are to be mentioned also the peas – especially the dwarf variety from Arquà Petrarca, of unique sweetness and characterised by very small, early-ripening pods (the town is also famous for its medlar and jujube production – the latter a dark brown sweet fruit, resembling an olive, that can be eaten either raw, dried or made into juices and even liquor).

Olive plantations – widespread in many areas of the Veneto – are unique in the Colli Euganei for their singular presence in association with Almond, Fig, Jujube (Ziziphus) and Pomegranate trees. The extra-virgin olive oil which is being produced in the district has a sweet, mellow taste, with hints of fruits and herbs; the yield – strong, but never too intense – reminds of the autumnal scents of its land of origin, while allowing for refined combinations with food and all other usual applications in the kitchen. A valuable quality production with a still living tradition, the local olive oil is nevertheless still awaiting the I.G.P. recognition.


Permanent Education and Guided Visits

The Park – since day one of its institution – has been strongly engaged in the promotion of culturally- and didactically-oriented activities in service of free time endeavours, always with a special eye for education. The ‘Ufficio di Educazione Naturalistica’ offers a rich and diversified range of activities of environmental education aimed at schools, groups and associations, in order to get to know this territory in a responsible manner and in an in-depth way. ‘Casa Marina’ – on Monte Venda – is a structure of the Park used as Centre for Environmental Education and Visitor Centre; it is well equipped with permanent laboratories and outfitted for hosting schools and groups.


Return from Colli Euganei Park to Colli Euganei

Return from Colli Euganei Park to Italy-Tours-in-Nature


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