Monte Baldo: the “Garden of Italy”

Monte Baldo is characterized by a noteworthy geographical individuality. It is basically constituted of a long ridge that runs parallel to Lake Garda on one side and the Adige valley on the other (known in this section as Valle Lagarina).

The maximum height is reached at 2,218 metres at Cima Valdritta. The presence of calcareous rocks has favoured many karstic phenomena; in fact many of these are visible: especially monolites, basins – and more than anything sinkholes (natural depressions that open up onto complicated underground systems and caves).

Karrenfelds are also the result of erosion on karstic rocks; this also means that there are very few springs and running water on the mountain. But there is definitely one particular aspect for which Monte Baldo is renowned the world over: its botanical diversity.

Monte Baldo: a Botanical Haven for the Alpine Flora

Monte Baldo’s ridges run for nearly 40 km along the eastern coast of Lake Garda, cutting a fine profile as they rise sheer from the lake shore to Cima Telegrafo and Cima Valdritta, both over 2,000 metres.

These summits form a natural belvedere over much of western Veneto and eastern Lombardy – plus towards the lower part of Trentino – while broad panoramas over the Alps stretch as far as the Adamello-Brenta massifs.

Yet, it is not for these dramatic heights that this mountain is renowned, but for its flora: an immense botanical diversity, which earned Monte Baldo the title of ‘Hortus Italiae’ – the Garden of Italyas far back as the 16th century.

Monte Baldo owes its tremendous range of species to two main factors: the first is the wide geological variations, as the soil is mostly limestone broken up by basaltic lava, fossil-rich seams and more than 60 different types of marble.

The other factor is the broad range of microclimates: while the highest peaks have a distinctively Alpine feel, the lower slopes are subject to the benign climatic influence of Lake Garda – which acts like a natural greenhouse. In fact, the lake only froze once in recorded history (in 1701), and for its warm climate its shores host today a mix of olive and lemon trees, palms, cypress and other Mediterranean species.

Monte Baldo’s morphology is also highly varied: the slopes facing east towards the Adige are rounded and pastoral, while the lakeside is steep and cut by glacial cirques. During the Ice Ages the highest ridges stood out above the huge glacier that enveloped the area, and they remained unmodified by ice as a result: this is how their plant populations survived – isolated from their nearest neighbours – intact for several millennia.

Not surprisingly, endemic species evolved, many of which bear the epithet ‘baldense’ or ‘baldensis’ (literally, 'from Monte Baldo') to indicate their status; amongst these are, for example, a bedstraw (Galium baldense), a purple-flowered scabious (Knautia baldensis) and a sedge (Carex baldensis).

Some plants are labeled with this term because they were first discovered here (and so find here their 'locus calssicus'), but they are not necessarily confined to this mountain; perhaps the best known of these is the Monte Baldo anemone (Anemone baldensis).

In fact, from spring onwards, the grassy slopes of this incredible mountain display a wide variety of Alpine flora. Some of the rarest include the Spectacular Primrose (Primula spectabilis), the Single-flowered Cushion Saxifrage (Saxifraga burserana) – with tiny cushions of pin-like blue-green leaves and solitary white flowers – the beautiful magenta blooms of the rare, large-flowered Elisabeth's Catchfly (Silene elisabethae) and the gracious spherical heads of the Rock Bellflower (Campanula petraea).

Monte Baldo also possesses trees reputed to bring good luck, and springs said to have aphrodisiac qualities; such myths may have a basis in the mountain’s many medicinal plants – a natural pharmacy that has attracted herbalists from all over the world for centuries.

For example, the Purple-flowered Monkshood (Aconitum compactum) contains many alkaloids that – although poisonous – have found a use in homoeopathic medicine, while the bark of the Mezereon (Daphne mezereum) has been employed effectively in the treatment of snake-bite (also, chewing slices of the root of this plant is said to cure toothache).

Geology, Climate and Vegetation

In terms of its geology, Monte Baldo is formed mainly of sedimentary rocks – in particular limestone and Dolomite, deposited during the Triassic and the Oligocene in the Thetis sea, which covered this area once.

The rise of the chain started around 40 million years ago, during the Alpine orogenesis. One can also find sporadic veins of basalt and tufa that were modeled over time by the atmospheric agents, thus creating the actual shapes.

The western slopes – overlooking the lake – are softer in outlook and are usually preferred for hiking, while the eastern side is more impervious, broken and interrupted by several fault-lines. Volcanic rocks – as well as iron-rich aggregates – are also present, and surface here and there.

The climate of Monte Baldo varies greatly according to the aspect and altitude. The lake-facing side is certainly graced with a milder situation thanks to the influx of the lake, whose warm air ascends through the small side valleys. The western side is also drier and sunnier, and rarely sees snow lingering below 1,000 metres.

But it is really when it gets to flora that Monte Baldo displays all of its glory – and, certainly, one of the reasons why this mountain is held in such high esteem for its botanical variety is also because of these peculiar climatic characteristics, which combined with the morphologic situation allow all the vegetation bands from the Mediterranean to high Alpine to be present – something indeed quite rare in the Alps.

The Mediterranean band goes from the lake shores up to about 700 metres of altitude and is dominated by Holm oak (Quercus ilex), Manna ash (Fraxinus ornus), Pubescent oak (Quercus pubescens) and Hop hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) – all tree species that favour sunny and dry locations.

Along Lake Garda one can also admire olive groves, giving out a small but precious oil production – but even though it gives such a distinctive note to the landscape, this species was introduced by man. At slightly higher altitudes, another human introduction – albeit widely naturalized by now – is sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). Many other shrubs typical of the maquis (the Mediterranean scrub) also find their home here.

In the montane band beech woods are dominant instead, although mixed with limes and Hop hornbeam in the lower section, and with maple, Silver fir, spruce and larch in the upper sector, after which meadows and pastures open up.

These latter fade into the boreal band, which is dominated by Dwarf mountain pine (Pinus mugo) and other shrubby trees like whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and juniper (Juniperus communis): this is the area where some of the local beauties – such as Carex baldensis, Anemone baldensis and Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) – begin to show off.

The floral feast continues above 2,000 metres, where the narrow Alpine band starts, hosting a low-growing, mat-forming flora typical of the crags, amongst which one can admire many quintessentially Alpine plants; the outstanding endemic presence here is Galium baldense.

Fauna

Monte Baldo is also characterized by a great variety of wild fauna; because of the near presence of man and cultivated areas, however, this great variety is not supported in equal ways by quantity for each individual species.

There is a high number of invertebrate endemic species, such as a rare beetle (Cychrus cilindrocollis), which can only be found here and in the Preapls of Lombardy; there are also 2,085 types of moths – amounting to more than 40% of all species classified in Italy.

Birds are very numerous, and it is impossible to list them all here; amongst them are several birds of prey (eagle, kestrel, common, barn and eagle owl, sparrow-hawk, hoopoe). Among the many others – and just to mention a few – there are several species of woodpeckers, finches, tits, skylark, as well as the rare, elusive presence of the capercaille (Tetrao urogallus).

Among the mammals are chamois, deer, roe-deer, fox, marten, weasel, hermin, marmot, hare, hedgehog, badger, red squirrel and various species of bats. In 2007 and 2010 bears were also spotted; their traces were found on both sides of the mountain and they probably strayed off the woods of Adamello to the north, where they returned afterwards.

The highest reaches of Monte Baldo are crossed by an extensive network of paths which can rely on a numerous presence of mountain huts: there are eight in a relatively small area, two of which are above 2,000 metres of altitude (Rifugio Gaetano Barana; 2,147 m and Rifugio Damiano Chiesa, 2,060 m); many of the other huts are in fact at the foot of the mountain and can be used as a handy starting point for an excursion.

Upwards From Lake Garda

Steep climbs from Lake Garda can be avoided by taking the funicular at Malcesine. In the summer months, though, this funicular will bring hordes of tourists and walkers up from the shores to tramp the well-worn ridge path, which, as it overlooks the lake, is – and this is hardly surprising – also the most popular walk. Come off season, though, and you will only have nature, the views and the rawness of the elements for company.

The ridge path runs south from the funicular station to Rifugio Telegrafo (2,110 m) via Cima Valdritta (2,218 m), taking in all about 5 hours to complete, but there are also quieter trails on the northern and eastern flanks of Monte Baldo.

Walks on the eastern side of the mountain start from places as far away as Ferrara di Monte Baldo and reach Punta di Naole in about two hours; another path goes instead from Rifugio Novezzina (1,260 m) to Rifugio Telegrafo (2,110 m) in about three hours. This latter mountain hut can also be reached in five hours from Avio in the Adige valley with a steep ascent through the Cavallo di Novezza pass (1,433 metres).

Many old military roads offer excellent routes for cycling; skiing can also be practiced in the area, while Torbole (at the northern tip of Lake Garda) is the main water-sports centre of the region.

The only environmental protection on Monte Baldo is afforded by five tiny reserves, including Gardesana Orientale (a sanctuary for Mediterranean relic plants near the lake shores), Bes-Cornapiana near Navene and Lastoni-Selva Pezzi, dedicated to the protection of mountain species. Elsewhere, according to some experts, tourism has upset the natural balance, but fortunately not to an extent to have deprived this outstanding botanical haven of its uniqueness.

All in all, with its impressive lake views, its magnificent display of spring and summer Alpine flowers, its rich variety of animal life and its many botanical rarities, Monte Baldo qualifies as one of Italy’s foremost pre-Alpine chains.

The Alpi di Ledro

In the northernmost section of Lake Garda – above the town of Riva del Garda – there are rocky and still relatively untamed mountains where many of the floral species from Monte Baldo stray off.

One of such areas are the Alpi di Ledro, which one can access either from the Garda side or from the quieter Val di Ledro. This latter valley is also famous for its archaeological finds, and from there many paths climb up in altitude on the surrounding crags.

One suggestion is the ascent to Rifugio Nino Pernici, which can be easily accessed from Enguiso in the Val Concei, a small side valley (or from above Campi, near Riva del Garda – but this is a much longer option, which can only be walked on foot from Rifugio Grassi in about 1,30 h).

The Nino Pernici mountain hut (1,600 m) can be ideally used as a base for rewarding hikes in the surrounding peaks, in an area much quieter than the more renowned groups of the Brenta Dolomites and the Adamello, which are all visible from here.

The Alpi di Ledro are a splendid environment where rugged valleys alternate with thick woods and rocky outcrops, accessible in most seasons thanks to the mild climatic influence of nearby Lake Garda, and the moderately high altitude.

The Pernici mountain hut allows for solitary walks of botanic and panoramic interest on the peaks that crown the Val di Ledro as in a coronet: Corno di Picha (2,138 m), Gavardina (2,047 m) and Cadria (2,245 m) – the highest summit in the area. Towards the south, also, the trails meander on the grassy slopes that fall sheer above the turquoise water expanse of Lake Garda, allowing for breathtaking views on what looks from there almost like a Mediterranean fjord.


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