Val Canzoi Nature Trail: Educational Trail Among the Rugged Nature of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park.

The Val Canzoi Nature Trail: General Presentation.

The Val Canzoi (or Val di Canzoi) is an archaic and picturesque microcosm originating from the confluence of a network of steep, craggy valleys crossing the southern slopes of the Cimònega group (2,547 m); it is a valley system situated in the heart of the Park, deeply incised in its southernmost range. As it is often true for ancient valleys, it is a complex environmental system whose morphological evolution depended on glaciers, rivers, slopes’ degradation processes (landslides and erosion) and, locally, Karst corrosion too. Among the noteworthy valleys of the Park, the Val Canzoi distinguishes itself for the quality of its natural environments (woods, clearings, alluvial shores, Karst springs - see an image of a side stream above), enriched by the sober presence of small rural settlements (Montagne, Le Ave, etc.) and several traces of past and recent human activities (trails, mule-tracks, cultivated areas, rural buildings, ‘casere’, dry-stone walls, terraced areas, charcoal kilns).

The vegetal landscape is very varied: sub-montane woods with Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia); drier slopes with Scots’ Pine (Pinus sylvestris); meadow areas; rocky outcrops and gullies subject to landslides, colonised by pioneer plants. Numerous are the occasions to admire rare or particularly significant species such as Veselskyi Campion (Silene veselskyii), Dolomite Spleenwort (Asplenium seelosii), Moonwort (or Honesty, Lunaria rediviva), Golden-rayed Lily (Lilium bulbiferum), Bluebells (such as Campanula carnica, Adenophora liliifolia and others) and the poisonous Black False Hellebore (Veratrum nigrum). Broad-leaved woodlands are home to several passerine bird species, while the meadows – especially in spring – house Roe-deer (Capreolus capreolus) and Mouflon (Ovis orientalis). Characteristic inhabitants of the Caorame stream and the Lago della Stua are Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), White-Throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) and Toads, which – in their hundreds – reach the lake shores from the surrounding wooded slopes each spring.

The Val Canzoi is among the Park’s best loved areas, and it is the gateway to three natural ‘paradises’: the Vette di Feltre, the Cimònega mountain range (2,547 m; pictured below) and the Erera-Brendòl-Piani Eterni Plateau. The Val Canzoi Nature Trail is a circular route running at medium altitude without any challenging elevation gains, which offers hikers a chance to appreciate Nature by walking under shady woods or in the sunny meadows, and skirting – in the higher section – the small Stua Lake (Lago della Stua). The main stations along the trail are described below. Enjoy your discovery!

Geology and Geo-morphology.

The Val Canzoi is a complex valley, sculpted by the action of water currents, of Quaternary glaciers and by Karst phenomena. At the valley’s head we can see a group of incisions that carve the southern slopes of the Cimònega Dolomite range  (max alt. 2,547 m; pictured above from along the Val Canzoi Nature Trail as it approaches the Lago della Stua dam) with steep outlines. Main Dolomite (sometimes also referred to as ‘Dolostone’) frequently surfaces along the trail; this stone is the result of marine sedimentation deposited here between 220-205 million years ago, and it forms today imposing stratifications. The valley also crosses all the way through what geologists call the ‘Anticlinale Coppolo-Pelf’ – the great fold formed by the rising of the Feltre (‘Vette Feltrine’) and Belluno Dolomites (Dolomiti Bellunesi). Small side valleys with craggy morphological traits in constant evolution have also formed along the numerous faults and fractures.

Flora and Vegetation.

The Val Canzoi Nature Trail crosses environments of great botanic interest and offers many chances to admire rare or highly significant plants – such as Veselskyi Campion (Silene veselskyii), Dolomite Spleenwort (Asplenium seelosii), Perennial Honesty (Lunaria rediviva), Golden Lily (Lilium bulbiferum), Fragrant Bellflower (Adenophora liliifolia) and the poisonous Black Veratrum (Veratrum nigrum). The complex orography (land outline) of the places and their anthropisation (humanisation) processes are reflected in a variegated landscape of plants: landslides and scree colonised by pioneer plants; sub-montane woods with Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia) and Beech (Fagus sylvatica, while the more arid slopes host Scots’ Pine instead); meadows and craggy habitats populated by plants that thrive on rock. There are also many other aspects worth taking into account, in an alternation of quite ‘natural’ habitats – including strips of Beech forest and plants that live in rocks and ravines – that intermingle with areas inhabited by man, like managed woodlands, meadows and reforested patches.


The most representative fauna habitats to be observed along the Val Canzoi Nature Trail are its broad-leaved forests, Pine forests, meadows and agricultural areas, wetlands, riverbeds, small marshes and rock formations. The broad-leaved forests are home to many species of passerine birds, Roe-deer and – with a stroke of luck – one can even run into a chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra). Some birds have specialised to live in the canopies of the Norway Spruce (Picea abies) plantations that have been part of man’s reforestation efforts over time. Both Roe-deer (Capreolus capreolus) and Mouflon (Ovis orientalis) can be spotted in the meadows at springtime, during the early hours of the morning, in the evening and even at night (for the really dedicated!). The most common tenants of the Caorame stream are Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) and White-Throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus). Another fascinating phenomenon is the migration, every spring, of toads that arrive on the shores of the Stua lake (Lago della Stua; pictured below as is bing skirted by the Val Canzoi Nature Trail) in their hundreds from the surrounding woods.

The Lime Kilns (‘calchère’).

Are these miniature towers we see? Could these odd circular buildings be the homes of fantastic beings? No, they are ‘calchère’, lime kilns – the ancient furnaces that once baked limestone for days on end in order to transform it into quicklime. And here, there are more than 30 of them scattered throughout the valley (along the Val Canzoi Nature Trail) – sign of a time-honoured tradition.

The Val Canzoi Nature Trail Stations.

1) Rock Collapses and ‘Ghosts of Algae’.

Shelters under the rocks and small caves are shapes that are frequently seen on the calcareous walls of Dolomite. The alternation of freezing and thawing cycles – along with the collapse of rocks and Karst phenomena of a chemical nature – are at the origin of the formation of these ravines. It is not unusual to observe ‘ghosts of algae’ on Dolomite walls – the so-called ‘stromatolites’. These are thin, rippled stratifications of rock that are known as the remnants of ancient carpets of algae that were deposited over 200 million years ago on an enormous tropical marine plane, subject to the periodic oscillation of the tides. This hot tropical environment, similar to the one that can be seen in the Bahamas today, was once the stage for the deposit of sedimentations that have evolved into the Dolomia Principale (Main Dolomite, or ‘Dolostone’), as we still see it today (for more on this, refer to the Dolomites Geology page).

Two small rarities: an outcrop of Main Dolomite along the path reserves a couple of botanical surprises that increase the area’s naturalistic value: two very inconspicuous species that deserve attention since they are particularly rare and vulnerable (for more information on plants, refer to the Flora of the Dolomiti Bellunesi page).

Veselskyi Campion (Silene veselskyii)

This plant takes its name from the Bohemian florist and mycologist F. Veselskyi (1813-66). It belongs to the same family as carnations – Caryophyllaceae – and is very similar to the more common Campion that blossoms in the fields in spring, Silene quadridentata, from which it differentiates for its living conditions and a thick, velvety appearance, due to the simple outgrowth of hairs on stems and leaves. It is a little plant typical of areas that do not receive direct rainfall; it is therefore found in niches of rocky walls and caverns. This Campion can be considered an endemism of the South-eastern Alps, since it is found only on the southern slopes of the Alps that stretch from nearby Slovenia to the Italian regions of Trentino and South Tyrol.

Dolomite Spleenwort (Asplenium seelosii)

This plant (pictured below) is dedicated to G. Seelos (1831-1911), an engineer and naturalist from Bressanone/Brixen in South Tyrol. It is a tiny, unusual fern with a characteristic, reduced leaf blade that only contains three jagged segments. It is typical of the cliffs of Dolomite that are particularly sheltered from the winds, and it grows at moderate altitudes. This species develops in the Western Mediterranean and it is a very rare plant that is most often found in the mountain chains of the eastern calcareous Alps, being more frequent in the areas which were not subject to glaciations.

2) The Charcoal Kiln.

The first charcoal kiln started around mid-August. It needed to be guarded throughout the night in order to avoid the fire from going out or – to the contrary – that it burned too brightly and quickly. It would be a pity if the wood collected with such commitment turned into a mound of ashes instead of coal! The tasks of the ‘carboner’ (charcoal maker) included this also: Marco and Mattio sat in the dark in front of the lodge for many nights, watching the reflection of the fire on top of the kiln, and the starry sky above their heads”. (From ‘Marco e Mattio’, by Sebastiano Vassalli).

Sites like these are called ‘ère’ or ‘ajàl’, and were prepared in flat areas during the summer. Pieces of wood about one metre long (‘stele’) were carefully stacked on top of each other to form the charcoal kiln (‘pojàt’); the stack was then covered with leaves and earth, and the central funnel filled with blazing coal. The carbonisation process lasted no less than a week, and the coal thus obtained was placed in baskets to be worn by the workers and taken to the valley floor; sometimes the coal was also transported by sleds (known as ‘musse’): this is how Beech and Hop Hornbeam wood were put to good use. These two trees live in the wood formations known as ‘Ostryo-fagetum’ that are very widespread within the territory of the Park at an altitude comprised between 600 and 1,100 metres. Beech can be found at higher altitudes and in cooler areas, while the drier and hotter areas host mainly Hop Hornbeam. Hornbeam also produces an extraordinary amount of shoots; it can thrive where deforestation has taken place, and becomes established there. These observations are only a couple of examples of the many stories demonstrating that these woods have a lot to tell to those who know how to listen and ‘read’ them: the kind of climate in that area, the type of terrain one is walking upon, and the way man used these woodlands in the past.

3) A Wound in the Mountain.

This crevice is a cut – a clear incision set into a weak point within the mountain. It was formed in correspondence to a fault, where rigid calcareous Dolomite (‘Dolostone’) was fractured more intensely, making it more erodible. The riverbed is cluttered with pebbles, blocks and rock boulders that have fallen from the surrounding mountainsides, abandoned by local glaciers (as moraine deposits) and later recovered and deposited further down in the valley by the creek during flood events. The overlooking crests take on shapes that are typical of Dolomite landscapes: jagged gullies, pinnacles and towers. These forms are frequently seen in this sculpted mountain relief made of Main Dolomite or ‘Dolostone’, where the rock layers are affected by a thick network of vertical fractures.

Plant Pioneers

This pebbly gorge offers hikers a chance to observe some plants known as ‘pioneers’: those which found a way to colonise the most primitive and hostile environments. These species are capable of taking root very quickly, beating other more demanding plants to the punch! For example, three different types of Willow – pioneer plants by definition – can be detected here: Osier Willow (Salix eleagnos), a bush often found in Alpine creeks; Hairless Willow (S. glabra), which colonises the warmer screes, and Large-leaved Willow (S. appendiculata) that can be found also on denser terrain (like former meadows). In such situations, it is easy to come across high altitude species that are dragged to the valley floor along with rubble by the streams’ waters; among these plants, we can notice the elegant Einsele’s Columbine (Aquilegia einseleana), the stout Sedge grass Carex firma (leading species of the Caricetum firmae association – also called Firmetum –, which is an important plant community in the Alpine zone over calcareous rock) and the miniature Dwarf Rhododendron, Rhodothamnus chamaecistus.

4) An Unusual Natural Siphon.

Once the Val Casole stream has been passed and the plain dotted with blocks of ‘Dolostone’ that follows is left behind too, the hiker can quickly climb up from there to the ‘Bus del Caoròn’ by way of a small valley. If you arrive at the right time, you may see an abundant, bubbling stream gushing forth: this is an important Karst spring made up of a narrow conduit that bursts to the surface. The spring is often dry as it is located at an altitude superior to the average level of groundwater, but it will quickly bubble up again in case of heavy rainfall and during thawing. It is fed by subterranean waters circulating through the intricate, extensive maze of fractures, crevices, conduits and wells that perforate the Karst massif of Erera-Brendòl.

The ‘Fire Fairy’

The periodic flow of water and the presence of woodland create a cool micro-climate that is particularly suited for certain animals, amphibians in particular (frogs, toads and salamanders). The Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra), with its odd, shiny black colour and yellow spots, can easily be seen on rainy days when it comes out from under the leaves or from hidden ravines. It feeds on insects, worms and snails. Salamander larvae – initially of a brown-greyish colour – are deposited and develop in water; they then go into hibernation from November to March. An ancient Celtic legend considered this tiny animal a ‘Fairy of Fire’, capable of walking through the flames. On the opposite, we now know that when far from water or damp places, salamanders’ skin is extremely vulnerable to sources of heat and prone to potential desiccation. It is partially true, however, the belief according to which salamander would be poisonous: its glands can in fact exude toxic skin secretions, which are irritant to the mucosa.

5) Perennial Honesty.

Perennial Honesty (Lunaria rediviva) is a plant that can grow up to a metre in height, with jagged leaves and fragrant pale purple flowers; it is also known as the ‘Coins of the Pope’ for the characteristic shape of its fruits. It can be found in shady Beech woods where the terrain is rather damp, generally at low altitudes (300-1,000 metres). It is present throughout Europe, even though it is rather sporadic in the Alps and scattered in the territory of the Park, with good populations in the Val di Lamen, Val di San Agapito, Val Vescovà, Val dell’Ardo and Val dei Ross. Beech woods extend for almost 6,000 hectares in the Park, and make up one third of the forests of the protected area. The Beech forest truly is the ‘forest of the Park’; its diffusion by altimetric standards is remarkable, and for this reason it presents many different aspects. At the foothills (or ‘sub-montane band’; 600-1,200 metres), Beech are interspersed with Hop Hornbeam; at moderate mountain levels (‘montane band’; 1,200-1,400 metres), Beech woods are either pure or also host Silver Fir, while the Beech woods at higher altitudes (‘upper montane band’; 1,400-1,600 metres) often stand side by side with Norway Spruce (Picea abies).

A ‘Condominium’ for Birds

Woods like these are home to many species of birds. Some live here throughout the year, while others stay in spring and summer only. Species that are similar to one another – like tits – share the space by occupying the tree canopies at different levels, so to put a limit to competition: the woods thus truly become a ‘condominium’ for birds. The birds that are most commonly seen or heard during the various seasons of the year are listed on a chart on site and include Sparrow-hawk (Accipiter nisus), Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus), Coal Tit (Periparus ater), Great Tit (Parus major), Marsh Tit (Poecile palustris), Jay (there are several species, all in the Corvidae family), Spotted Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes) and Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula): these species are present all year round. Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), Western Bonelli's Warbler (Phylloscopus bonelli) and Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) are only visible in spring and summer, while Blackbird (Turdus merula) and Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) have been sighted also in autumn, but then leave for the coldest months.

6. The Meadows of the Roe Deer.

The meadows at the heart of the Val Canzoi Nature Trail (the areas known as Cansech, Fallegana, Faibon, Tomitano and Frassen) are most satisfying for the Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Aside from being an essential source of nutrition for this animal (since so many herbaceous plants grow here), these meadows are the places where the females give birth to their young, carefully hiding them in the tall grass to defend them from predators, while they go off to look for food. Unfortunately, some people take the fawns away with them – thinking that they have been abandoned by their mother; however, a fawn that has not lived with its mother during that critical period will never be capable of adapting to life in the wild, and would be forced to live the rest of its existence in captivity. Please remember that your odour will alarm the mother; therefore do not, for any reason, touch the fawns! Preferably, also, leave the area, as the mother is definitely observing her offsprings from nearby.

The Roe Deer ‘Identity Card’

Name: Capreolus capreolus; length: 95-135 cm; height: 60-75 cm at the withers; weight: 15-26 kg; colour: reddish in summer, grey-brown in winter; voice: the male emits a kind of ‘barking’ sound; habitat: woodlands with clearings for grazing and undergrowth rich in different species. The Roe deer can be found throughout the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, with the exception of the more inaccessible, higher areas. Nutrition: grass, leaves and buds; unlike Deer, it is much more demanding and selective; behaviour: usually active from sunset and at night; it is not a very social animal and lives in small groups during the winter. Reproduction: mating takes place in August and 1 or 2 fawns are born in late May the following year; they will be nursed for 2-3 months. Traces: the easiest one to recognise are the faces – dark little balls about 15-20 mm long.

7. A Woodland ‘Out of Fashion’.

In the southern section of the Alps – and therefore also in the Dolomiti Bellunesi – there are no extensive forests of Norway Spruce (Picea abies). As a matter of fact, the local climate – rather rainy – is more congenial to Beech and Silver Fir (Abies alba) than Spruce; the presence of the latter, therefore, is often the result of human interventions which have favoured it in plantations for the good characteristics of its timber and the rapidity of growth. Many of the surfaces now covered by Spruce plantations were in fact once regularly scythed meadows which, with the regression of zoo-technical activities – especially during the 1960s and 1970s – have lost their original motive (that is, the production of hay). A Spruce plantation is therefore an artificial woodland that, without appropriate management and periodic clearings, can create some problems: if it is too thick, the light does not filter through; the soil becomes becomes too acidic, and the undergrowth becomes poorer as a result. In this type of woodlands one can intervene with clearings and ameliorating cuts that facilitate the progressive re-introduction of Beech and of the ‘noble’ broadleaves species (Maple, Ash, Hornbeam), thus re-establishing a woodland composition closer to the original.

Small Animals Around the Trees

Despite their limited naturalistic value, even the reforested areas can nonetheless offer food availability for some animals. Amongst the birds, two species that can frequently be spotted while they are intent at looking for spiders and small insects are Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) and Coal Tit (Periparus ater). Goldcrest can easily be recognised for its very small dimensions: with its 9 cm, it is the smallest European bird. It is of a green colour, and it displays a characteristic yellow band with a black edge on the head. Coal Tit, instead, is only a little bigger (11 cm), with a black head and white parts on the cheeks and behind the neck. It feeds on insects (it is a worm-eater) but, during wintertime, it integrates its diet with seeds, thus managing to remain in the same areas throughout the year, even when the animals on which it normally feeds are not present.   

A Karstic Spring and the ‘Fairy of Fire’

Once the stream at Val Casole – and the plain dotted with blocks of Dolostones that follows – have been passed, the hiker can climb up to the ‘Bus del Caoron’ by way of a small side valley. If you arrive at the right time, you can see an abundant, bubbling stream – an important Karstic spring made up of a narrow conduit that bursts to the surface. The spring is usually dry because it is located at an altitude superior to the average level of groundwater, but it will bubble up if there have been heavy rainfall or during thawing. It is fed by subterranean waters circulating through the intricate and extended maze of fractures, crevices, conduits and wells that perforate the Karst massif of Erera-Brendol. The periodic flow of water and the presence of woodland create a cool microclimate that is quite pleasant for certain animals – amphibians in particular (frogs, toads and salamanders).

Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra) – with its odd, shiny black colour and yellow spots – can easily be spotted on rainy days, when it comes out from under the leaves or hidden ravines. It feeds on insects, worms and snails. Salamander larvae – initially of a brown-greyish colour – are deposited and develop in water; they then go into hibernation from November through to March. The ancient Celtic considered this tiny animal a ‘fairy of fire’, capable of walking through fire; we now know that when far from water or damp places, the salamander’s skin is in fact extremely vulnerable to sources of heat and the risk of desiccation. It is partially true, however, that the salamander is poisonous: its glands exude toxic skin secretions.

8. Two Plants of the Park.

Scots’ Pine (Pinus sylvestris)

There are two species of pine trees living in the park: Scots’ Pine (Pinus sylvestris) and European Black Pine (Pinus nigra). There is a Scots’ Pine forest also along the Val Canzoi Nature Trail. Scots’ Pine can be found throughout Europe, all the way to Siberia, and it is easily recognized thanks to the orange-coloured bark in the upper part of its trunk. Black Pine, on the contrary,  has a dark brown-grey bark for its entire length and very long, dark green needles. It is an Illyrian species – that is, from the Balkans. It is for this reason that it can only be seen in the eastern portion of the park – right up to the Mis valley, in which the westernmost spontaneous nuclei of the entire Alpine range are present. The pines are pioneer plants because they ‘conquer’ ancient landslides, consolidated debris and rocky areas. For the most part, the Pine forest undergrowth hosts species which thrive in arid environments, such as Heather (Erica carnea), Laburnum (Chamaecytisus purpureus), Broom (Genista germanica), Southern Greenweed (Genista radiata; described below), Grass-leaved Scabious (Scabiosa graminifolia) and, among the other trees or shrubs, Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia), Flowering Ash (Fraxinus ornus) and Snowy Mespilus (Amelanchier ovalis). 

Southern Greenweed (Genista radiata)

This plant gets its name from the singular arrangement – similar to beams – of its branches and leaves around the trunk (stem). The intense yellow colour of Southern Greenweed livens up the landscape of the Belluno Dolomites, especially in June. This bright leguminous plant fills the grassy-rocky slopes facing south (from as low as 300 to 1,600 metres of altitude), often preferring the slopes touched by currents of warm air. The Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park hosts dense expanses of Southern Greenweed on Monte Talvena and Monte Cirvoi, where it is often found associated with Alpine Fescue (Festuca alpestris) – a lovely grass that grows in dense, spiky tufts, which can be present in large amounts in the undergrowth of Scots’ Pine and Black Pine forests. Southern Greenweed is of southern European phytogeography (provenance) – meaning that it grows in most mountain chains of southern Europe – but it can also be found in the Italian Alps, Alpine foothills, and in the Northern-central Apennines, albeit in a rather discontinuous manner.

The Val Canzoi Shorter Nature Trail

This trail is the first in a series of ten new routes realised by the Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi within the project “Due passi alle porte del Parco (literally, ‘Two Steps at the Park’s Gateway’), co-financed by the Regione del Veneto (Veneto region). The project, which concerns the area of the Dolomites’ Pre-Alps between Feltre and Belluno, involves ten ‘comuni’ (municipalities); in each of them the Park has individuated a didactic route.

The itineraries are articulated along the foothills of the Val Belluna, and are destined to a wide range of users – not necessarily to experienced hikers and excursionists only. The new trails have been realised with interventions of re-qualification and betterment of already existing tracks. The objective is to offer tourists and residents alike a series of undemanding paths; to discover and get to know the ‘gateways’ of the Park – the so-called “Porte del Parco”, precisely: territories near the protected area but external to its borders, where most residential, agricultural, zoo-technical and forestry activities concentrate.

For this project, the Park Authority has intervened with the ordinary and extraordinary maintenance of the paths, thus offering visitors new opportunities to get to know better areas that, before the collapse of the traditional forms of land use (scythed meadows, pastures, woodland cuts, etc.), entertained strict links with the territory now included within the Park. These are areas that offer extraordinary landscapes and  enshrine several naturalistic or historic-cultural features of great interest. The realisation of ten new itineraries in these valley floor areas allows therefore a chance to immerse in the beauty of these mountains even to those who do not wish or cannot engage in demanding excursions.

This brief loop in the setting of the Val Canzoi valley floor can be easily walked by people of all abilities, and allows one to discover – along the banks of the Caorame stream – a great variety of habitats. Along the trail, ten boards illustrate not just the naturalistic aspects, but also those connected to the history of these places and the legendary creatures that – according to popular belief – inhabit them. The texts of these boards are also intended as a homage to Cesare Dalfreddo – a teacher and naturalist with a profound knowledge of this valley, who died prematurely in 2009.

1) Freshwater Snails. They live in the tranquil waters of lakes, pools and brooks of the Val Canzoi. Some breathe with their gills and always live under water – as for instance the small snails of the genera Viviparus and Planorbis; others have to emerge instead, to get some fresh air and fill their lungs before going back to the water. On the shores of the small lakes here we can also see many snails belonging to genus Lymnaea, with their spiraling shells displaying a characteristic pointed top: these are the small-lunged freshwater snails that can be more easily seen here.

Escargots’ and Land Snails. Land molluscs are widespread in all continents (apart from the poles), and they have to survive every day in living conditions that are much harsher that those which have to be endured by their cousins living in water. These are very little studied animals – and very little known, for that matter. We often only remember them because of the fact that some species can be eaten (such as, precisely, the ‘escargots’ – famous in the French high cuisine) or, more prosaically, notice them as we find them nibbling at our garden salad… .

Nevertheless, these small animals have a very important ecological role – being the ‘food’ of many more animals, and admiring – and studying – them is one of the greatest and most beautiful discoveries that can be made about the rich biodiversity of these mountains. We should take the chance to remember the difference between the two distinct groups of land (or terrestrial) molluscs: the ‘escargots’ are born, grow and die attached to their shell (or case); snails, instead, are naked, tender and also slightly stinking – just as a way of dissuading those predators who would wish to feed on them! Some of the species that can be seen here include those belonging to genera Airon and Limax – long woodland snails of grey, black or brown colour, locally known as ‘Slecanc’ or ‘Slacagn’: a preferred food especially for toads.

Chilostoma. Here, they are the famous as ‘S’ciosele del Diaol’ (‘the Devil’s Snails’); they are rock snails with a flattened shell, in order to better climb on rock walls, and for their capacity of entering into narrow cracks.

Helicodonta. Small woodland snails, with a husk covered in hairs that collect morsels from the ground and thus increase their mimetic aspect.

Cepea. Beautiful meadow snails of a yellow, white or pink colour, with many circular lines patterned on the shell.

Clausilia. Small rock snails with a narrow and elongated shell, with an irregular opening which they have developed as a protection against the intrusion of insects that may want to eat them.

Helix. The famous ‘S’cios’, they can live up to ten years – unless they meet a firefly larvae, or a large wood beetle that creeps into the shell, thus eating the inside of the snail as if it were an apple!

2) The ‘Anguane’. Related to the nymphs of Greek mythology, and ‘cousins’ of the sirens of the sea, these are particular “fairies-witches” linked to the presence of freshwater, from high altitude springs to large rivers running over the plains. The ‘Anguane’ are, in fact, girls with a fairy skin – as the white calcareous stones of the torrents and streams which they inhabit, with strange goat’s feet, green hair and eyes, and a dress made out of finely woven algae. Beautiful, shy and reserved, they hide during the day in the small lakes and pools transformed into water snakes, or in fresher woodlands as salamanders; during the night – instead – they come out and organize incredible feasts with music, bonfires and magic potions that they prepare in enormous copper cauldrons.

From time to time, the ‘Anguane’ fall in love with a handsome woodsman – but these love stories are always complicated by the strange look of these magical creatures. ‘Ciàn Bolpìn’ knew all too well about it: he himself was half man and half fox, and lost his love for the Queen of the ‘Anguane– precisely as he had boasted at the inn with his fellows; the same thing had already happened to a more than one woodsman, who had allowed themselves to mock the ‘Anguane’ that they had taken as wives for their strange goat’s feet. These sweet creatures, instead, only ask to be left in peace, free to swim in the water of the mountain streams – in places where there are no pollution or disturbances of any sort. Whether we believe in their presence or not, they nonetheless point to a fragile balance that we should be able to maintain and preserve, for them and for us, so to always have – as in the famous sonnet by Petrarca – “chiare, fresche e dolci acque”.

3) Water snakes. These timid animals – that like the snails also have different common names in the local patois – have no poison and are completely harmless creatures. Nevertheless, water snakes are the important predators of invertebrates, amphibians and small rodents, as well as – sometimes – being themselves the ‘meal’ of larger animals (such as other serpents or birds of prey). In the quiet of sunny days, these creatures can be met in the woodlands, or they can be admired while they take a plunge in the small lakes and pools of the Val Canzoi, where they can go in apnoea for periods as long as 45 minutes.

Water snakes – as well as other reptiles belonging to genus Natrix – precisely as they do not have any poison with which to protect themselves, use a series of skilful techniques in order to discourage predators: for instance, they fake themselves dead by remaining immobile for a long time, while opening their mouth and also secreting a red liquid resembling blood; alternatively, they secrete an incredibly stinking substance that would discourage even the most keen and hungriest of predators. But equally – with their elegant, sinuous movements – these animals really do recall the mythical ‘Anguane’ of popular belief, who are precisely said to transform (in daylight hours) into beautiful water snakes.

4. Frogs, Amphibians and Co. Fresh and clean waters, flying insects, aquatic plants and humid woodlands in the vicinity? The Val Canzoi really is a paradise for amphibians! These are strange – and very delicate – animals; it is relatively easy to encounter them in different habitats and to observe them quietly, considering that they are not very fast – neither in water nor on land. Salamanders, newts, frogs, toads and tree frogs can be seen around much more easily at night – or during daylight hours, if it is about to rain. These creatures (as for instance ‘escargots’ and snails) must always keep humid and fresh, or they risk drying up under the heat of the sun. As a defense against predators, their skin secretes substances which are slightly toxic, so that there are very few animals that manage to eat them! The ‘magic’ yellow and black salamander – for example – displays its showy colours precisely to warn predators to keep away from it, while the more timid toads and frogs prefer to be camouflaged amongst leaves and mud, so not to be seen by any other creature.  

5) Macro-invertebrates. Among the little animals that live between streams, small lakes, pools and brooks, the macro-invertebrates are amongst the most important guardians of the quality of water. The more the species of larvae of Perlae, Ephemeryds and Trycopterous present, the better the purity of water, and the guarantee that these environments are natural and healthy. In fact, besides the chemical analysis on the micro-elements that are present, in order to know if the waters of a certain area are clean, it is necessary to carry out the count of the small insects that are being born and grow only in pure waters, to then fly over and around it as adults like small flies. By delicately uplifting some stones from the water and turning them inside out, we will discover little larvae with strange shapes – almost like mysterious aliens: the silvery Perlae – with two small tails and gills all along their body –; the short and dark Ephemeryds, with three small terminal tails, and the astonishing Trycopterous – the ‘construction workers’ of the water world, which manage to cement small pebbles, pieces of driftwood and shells of old snails in order to prepare a predator-proof shell-house for themselves! A small hidden world opens up for us, as if it were a fantastic book.

6) The ‘Mazarol’. In ancient times, there lived here – in the thickest and least accessible woods, and in the more impervious valleys of the Val Canzoi – a small goblin, known as ‘Mazarol’. He was completely dressed in red, including the hood and the pointed shoes; with a beard and long, tangled hair and a wrinkly, mischievous face. He would live in wide ‘covoli’ (shelters), and was so shy as to shun any contact with man. A bad adventure would befall he that inadvertently put his foot where the ‘Mazarol’ had left his invisible footsteps: the unlucky person would almost magically be obliged to follow them, and get lost for a few days in the remotest of places.

The ‘Mazarolalso possessed extraordinary skills as shepherd and cheese-maker (‘malgaro’); he would take care of his livestock (goat, sheep and cattle) in an exemplary way: he would feed them regularly and take them to the pastures, making them grow at a glance. It is narrated that – made curious by so much secrecy and all those strange prerogatives – some youngsters from the village would lie in wait along the trails where the ‘Mazarol’ used to pass and, once caught sight of him, would follow him furtively. While on his traces, they reached the ‘covolo’ where he used to live, and they remained hidden in silence. At that point, they saw him milking his cows, and then pour the milk in large wooden bowls with a flat bottom. After a bit of rest, he would skim the milk, and with the cream poured into the strainer, he would make butter. He would heat the skimmed milk in a copper cauldron, then – once taken it off the fire – he would add vegetal or animal rennet in order to coagulate the milk; then he would let it cool down, break the curd and, once heated up again at a higher temperature, he would obtain a mass immersed in the buttermilk. The ‘Mazarol’ would then pick it up with a hemp canvas and place it in a wooden mould, into which he would then press it, and… he had made cheese! The ingenious goblin would then take the buttermilk and boil it again in order to make it curdle; thanks to a mixture of buttermilk and milk, which was left there to acidify – he would thus obtain the ‘puina’ (or ‘ricotta’ – that is, literally, “cooked twice”).

The inhabitants of the village – who knew absolutely nothing of all this – could not refrain from manifesting their amazement, and came out of their hiding place yelling. But the ‘Mazarol’, annoyed for having been spied upon, told them: “You fools, if you just had a little more patience, you would have discovered that, after the ‘ricotta’, with the residue of milk it is possible to obtain yet more useful produce, like wax”. With this new important knowledge – but equally with the regret of having lost, partly, a unique occasion – the youngsters went back to the village. However, still today, when walking in the woodlands, one has to be very careful not to trod upon the ‘Mazarol’s footsteps!

7) The Legend of St. Eustachius and of the Magic Deer. There are no certain information on the life of St. Eustachius, but it is generally conveyed – through various legends – a life that underlies the centrality of his conversion (as well as that of his family) to the Christian faith. Placidus – this was Eustachius's name before conversion – was born around half the 1st Century AC. A noble Roman patrician, dedicated to the art of weaponry, he reached the elevated rank of ‘magister militumin the Roman Army and, as such, was called by the Emperor Trajan to command a legion sent to Asia Minor for military operations, where he distinguished himself for his heroism. According to legend, however, during a hunt chase Placidus saw a cross shine amongst the stags of a deer. Deeply affected by this vision, he converted himself – and with him also his wife Teopista and his sons took up the new faith: the whole family thus received Baptism; in this circumstance, he changed his name into Eustachius.

Stricken by misfortune – because of the grave difficulties that the entire family had to face following conversion to Christianity – Eustachius lost all his possessions and was obliged to leave Rome, taking refuge in Egypt, where – it seems – his wife and children were abducted. After a few years – having the power struggle in Asia Minor re-ignited – the Emperor Trajan looked for the heroic general, as he wanted him to fight again at the head of the Roman Militia. Eustachius thus took command again and scored splendid victories – so much so that he was greeted triumphantly in Rome, where he found again, to his great joy, his dispersed family (or, at least, so the legend goes). But Trajan’s successor – Emperor Hadrian – in front of the accusations that were directed to Eustachius of being Christian, ordered him to offer a sacrifice to the Gods of Rome. At his refusal, he condemned him – together with his wife and children – to death in a bull-shaped red-hot tin can container.

The coincidence of some significant elements that recur in several of the legends that are narrated throughout Europe recall a story that does not seem to be only the fruit of popular fantasy. St. Eustachius is in fact one of the fourteen auxiliary saints; that is, those saints that are invoked for particular needs – especially during epidemics (it seems that this tradition dates back to the times of the big pestilences of the 14th Century). During the Middle Ages, numerous poems were derived from the legend of this saint; in those poems, the figure of the deer takes centre stage as a symbol of purity and charity.

8. The Woodland of the Orchids. Orchids are present in the Park with more than 40 species. Orchids – with their beautiful and complex flowers – are found in all habitats except rocks, from the plains until above 2,500 metres of altitude. Some of them are very rare; others, instead, are distributed in great numbers; in any case, all are protected – not just inside the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, but in all of Italy. With dimensions that are very different from species to species – from a few centimetres to almost one meter long – Orchids maintain similar morphological characteristics: they generally possess a basal rosette of leaves with parallel veins of oval-, lance- (lanceolate) or spatulated shape (spatula-shaped); more rarely, they are pointed – as in Cephalantera longifolia. The leaves are distributed along the stem in an alternated fashion; sometimes they are spotted (as in Dactylorhiza fuchsi); in some other cases, they can appear as real stem sheaths, or as squama – or they may be completely absent.

The unmistakable flowers of Orchids are zigomorphous – that is, symmetric in respect to a middle axis (like our face) – and possess shapes and colours that are very different from species to species. All orchids display a showy central petal (labellum), which is much more developed than the lateral and superior petals. The labellum can take on morphologies and colours incredibly similar to bees (as in Oprhys apifera and O. insectifera); some other species, instead, have scents that are highly reminiscent of vanilla (for instance, Nigritella nigra) or honey; otherwise, they emanate unpleasant and penetrating odours such as that of crushed insects (bed-bugs) – always with the goal of attracting the pollinating insects by deceiving them. Flowering is mostly concentrated from April to June, depending on the altitude and the trend of the individual season.

Not all orchids possess chlorophyll; this characteristic is evident in Epipogium aphyllum, Limodorum abortivum and Neottia nidus-avis – flowers that have no green coloration and do not possess leaves; these flowers are saprophilous – like mushrooms and toadstools – as they absorb nourishment from the soil with their root system (the soil is notoriously rich in decomposed organic matter). A peculiar characteristic of orchids is the very long time that is necessary for germination of the seeds to take place; these, in fact, have to be ‘mychorryhzed’; that is, colonised by particular fungi of the soil that stimulate their sprouting – an additional reason why this family (Orchideaceae) is so fragile, important and protected amongst the plants of the world (and in the local flora as a result).

9. The Woodland of the Fairies. Flower fairies: small and very beautiful, the flower fairies are ‘fairy-witches’ with butterfly wings and dressed in a thousand colours. They pass their days sleeping inside flowers with a ‘big belly’ – such as Bellflowers, Dragon-mouths and plants belonging to the Labiatae family. Flower fairies only come out at night, flying about lightly while liberating a streak of light that makes them often be mistaken with fireflies. However, they must never be disturbed, as they are very reserved and can be mischievous. They become especially irritated if somebody picks up the flowers or tries to capture their ‘cousins’ the butterflies. The most famous fairies live in the flowers growing over the rocks – such as the Campanula morettiana, symbol of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park. You may be lucky enough – by passing near them – to hear them sing their magic melodies in unknown idioms: songs so sweet to make your ascent to the mountains lighter.

Facilities in the Val Canzoi: the “Casa al Frassen”. 

In 2000 the Park acquired from the ULSS No. 2 in Feltre over 700 hectares of meadow, woodland and rock (‘crode’) in the Val Canzoi. The property extends from 750 m above sea level in the valley floor to the 2,547 m of the top of Sass de Mura, the highest peak in the Cimonega range. Inside the property, in one of the areas of major value from a landscape and environmental point of view, is found the “Casa al Frassen” (Frassen House), a three-story building dating back to the first half of the 20th Century. This was the highest permanent residence in the entire Val Canzoi, home to the Bastiani family (known as Frassenòt); it was later to be used as clubhouse by the employees of the Feltre hospital. After the purchase, the Park had the building renovated, and converted it into a guest house for hikers, as well as environmental education centre for students, groups and associations.

This building, like all the others built or renovated by the Park, is part of a “Fossil Free” project that envisages the exclusive use of renewable energy sources within the protected area: the electric energy necessary to keep the guest house running is produced by photovoltaic solar panels installed on the roof, while the heating system runs on a biomass boiler. The guest house sleeps up to 22 people, and it includes bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a small classroom for educational activities and a spacious dining room with a fireplace. In 2012, the “Casa al Frassen” was awarded an ‘Ecolabel’ mark by the EU; this recognition is given to those facilities committed to safeguarding the environment by reducing water and energy consumption, limiting pollution, and managing waste collection correctly. 


Return from Val Canzoi Nature Trail to Val Canzoi

Return from Val Canzoi Nature Trail to Italy-Tours-in-Nature

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