The Extensive Plains of Veneto and the Eastern Alps
Italy’s north-eastern corner is a naturalist’s dream and a politician’s nightmare. The country’s most extensive lagoons make it a bird watching Mecca, and inland – where the Alps make their final bow – you can uncover some of the wildest, most beautiful parts of Italy. For centuries this whole area has been one of Europe’s political hotspots.
Today the meeting point of three international borders, this region has been a crossroads of trade and peoples since Pre-history. Italy, Austria and Slovenia meet at a point of passage formerly used by the Celts, Romans, Avars, Istrians, Lombards, Slavs, Byzantines, Hungarians – and, in the remotest of times, even by the ‘Barbarian’ Goths and Vandals – on a land giving home to present-day Venetians, Friulans, Ladins as well as Slovenian and German-speaking minorities.
All of these peoples poured through a breach in the Eastern Alps to close the book on the Roman Empire and left their mark on the landscape – the Austrians most noticeably in the Veneto and Friuli, which they ruled until 1866, and the Slavs in the Venezia Giulia, where an agreement (and a border settlement with former Yugoslavia) was not reached until 1975.
Walkers will find the most obvious evidence of past political passions in the area around the Italian’s skiing capital, Cortina d’Ampezzo, which remained in Austrian hands until as late as 1919. This part of Northern Veneto contains some of the great Dolomite massifs – Cristallo, Pelmo, Civetta – and during WW1 it saw some of the most bitter fights that can ever have taken place in an area of high wilderness. The front-line ran along some of the highest ridges, and traces of it are still visible (especially around the Cinque Torri and Lagazuoi areas); stories are told to this day of the extraordinary feats performed by men condemned to fight for many months on rock, ice and snow.
Today the wild traveller can straddle freely upon borders that have tested and exposed the folly of politicians for centuries. A trip from west to east will take you round to the edge of the Balkan peninsula, of which Trieste can be considered by right the geographic, cultural as well as linguistic gateway – no passport required today, at last. On the contrary, from north to south you will pass within a few miles from the grandest mountains of the Alps – leading into Central Europe – to the lagoons of Venice, crossing not only cultural boundaries but also several landscape zones and vegetation bands, from the Alpine to the maritime.
A backdrop of mountains curtains the whole of north-east Italy. As the Alps taper off towards Slovenia and the Hungarian plains, they share their final ridges between the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The northern Veneto claims the last and highest of the Dolomite massifs (see Antelao and Marmolada); the old WW1 battlegrounds now invaded by herds of summer hikers and winter holiday-makers.
Friuli picks up the thread where the Dolomites give way to the lower, narrower (and much less frequented) chains of the eastern Alps. The most extensive of these mountains are the Alpi Carniche, which run for some 200 km (120 miles) along the Austrian border; they take their name from the area in which they rise, Carnia – a wilderness largely devoid of roads or habitation. At last, tacked on to the very end – almost as Italy’s scenic finale – are the Alpi Giulie (Julian Alps), in whose setting are situated the secluded Valle di Resia and the atmospheric Lakes of Fusine, almost at the border with Slovenia.
One level down from the Alps lies a landscape zone known as the Pre-Alps: a bland misnomer that does little justice to the gorgeous and almost entirely overlooked pockets of wilderness that can still be found there – more so than in the Alps proper, in fact. In the Veneto, the Dolomiti Bellunesi are lower but also quieter than their northern, more famous counterparts; together with the botanically rich Monti Lessini and Monte Baldo mountains to the south-west and the Cansiglio plateau – the region’s largest area of ancient woodland – just to the east, these areas provide much-needed protection for the local fauna, which has long been some of the most impoverished in the country. Nearby is also the interesting geological and historical site of the Grotte del Caglieron.
Between the mountains and the coast lies an area that is something of a vacuum for foreign visitors. Few people have any idea of what happens within the enormous triangle occupied by the vast plains between Verona, Trieste and Venice – bar the notable exceptions of Padua and the Colli Euganei (home also to an incredible flora), Vicenza and the Monti Berici and the odd Palladian villa here and there. Despite that, these huge areas of flatlands are not always uninteresting – even though large parts of the Veneto are in fact irreparably damaged by now, and reduced to an endless, nondescript suburban sprawl devoid of any fascination, as this area is one of the most densely populated in the country. Especially fascinating are some parts of western Friuli, which have been compared to the prairies of the American Mid-West: these are the so-called magredi; large, dry river-beds which occupy the westernmost section of the region, west of the wide Tagliamento river.
Running to the sea over the plains of both regions are the rivers that have done so much to shape the Adriatic coastline: the Po, Adige, Brenta, Piave, Tagliamento and Isonzo. Vast areas around the mouths of these rivers – the Po particularly – have progressively been lost to land reclamation and poisoned by effluent, but a surprising amount of wild country still remains.
Along the great arc of coastline shared by the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia stretches an almost unbroken belt of marsh and lagoon. From the vast Po Delta, this flat, wind-swept landscape takes you across the more famous Venetian lagoons, through to the lesser known Caorle lagoons and Marano wetlands, then it curves round the northern Adriatic gulf before rising to the modest – but very beautiful – cliffs on the last leg down to Trieste: the Falesie di Duino (Duino Cliffs). For birds in their millions, these lagoons and wetlands continue to be crucial aquatic stepping stones on the Adriatic migration route to and from Central Europe.
For the most exciting wildlife, however, you must go to the Julian Alps: to places like the Valle di Resia, the Foresta di Tarvisio (Tarvisio Forest) and the jewel-like turquoise expanses of the Lakes of Fusine, in the farthest-flung corner of north-east Italy. If truth be told, the richness of flora and fauna has here less to do with Italy than with Slovenia and the Balkans, for it is from the wilderness over the border that most of the finest animals have strayed.
Something similar can be said for another area of Venezia Giulia, the Carso: this tongue of limestone connecting Trieste with the rest of Italy provides a fantastically complex habitat for flora and fauna that owe their characteristics as much to Central Europe and the Balkans as to Italy.