The nature reserve of the Valle del Freddo (Valley of Cold)
Endine Gaiano | Itinerari e percorsi
The marvels of Alpine flora, without the need to climb to a great height
All the allure of mountain flora and fauna without the interminable hours of uphill climbing: this environmental rarity, a microclimate unique in Europe, is in effect a natural refrigerator. You don’t need crampons to admire the edelweiss and gentians in the Valle del Freddo – normally they can only be found at altitudes of 1,700 metres and above, but here you will find them at just 360 metres above sea-level, in the Solto Collina area. A highly-prized natural environment and an Alpine temperature are the perfect combination for investigating these summer-flowering plants – but take a sweatshirt!
After the retreat of the glaciers 20 thousand years ago, this area near the little lake of Gaiano remains a wonderful corner of mountain at low level. One can visit this extraordinary place, with its delicate Alpine microclimate, every year from May to July, following a path that winds among hornbeams and hazel trees.
Here in the Valle del Freddo there is no need to put on the air conditioners even at Ferragosto (August 15 – the Feast of the Assumption), at the height of August. The valley has its own unique climatic conditions: in summer, currents of air at a temperature of about 2°/ 4°C flow out from gaps in the floor of the valley, cooled by their passage across the great blocks of ice created underground during winter.
The valley was discovered thanks to an edelweiss. The botanist Guido Isnenghi discovered it in 1939, following the directions of a hunter who was wearing the flower in his hat and said he had picked it without having had to climb up high into the mountains.
Gentians, Erica (heather) and Globularia (globe daisies) are a few of the other floral species that one can admire, together with the thousands of colours of the natural orchids that grow along the valley: from fuchsia, to brown, to white and to the intense green of the Listera Ovata, a species of orchid that reaches up to 60cms in height.
If it is quiet enough during your visit, there will also be foxes, squirrels, weasels and hares to accompany you, and looking up above you will be able to see chaffinches, robin red-breasts, hoopoes and great tits. Should they decide not to emerge from behind the branches, you will still be able to hear them singing while you enjoy the fresh air… all without any need for mountaineering boots or hiking poles!
The duration of the visit is around 90 minutes.
FURTHER IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS:
Some information about the Valle del Freddo
At first appearance, the valley seems to be a simple depression in the ground, set in the high Val Cavallina, in the territory of the comune (municipal district) of Solto Collina. At a height of 360 metres above sea-level, however, the Valle del Freddo conceals something extraordinary. Passing it in 1939 on his way from Piangaiano, the botanist Guido Isnenghi was the first to notice an extraordinary phenomenon. He saw an edelweiss (usually found only above 1,700 metres altitude) on the hat of a hunter, who claimed to have picked it in the area where the nature reserve is today. The botanist Guido was initially sceptical, but went to the valley and was able to verify the presence of a number of other species typical of high altitudes. Since then, many researchers and experts have come to study the phenomenon.
The natural phenomenon
The reserve plays host to a particular microclimatic phenomenon that allows flora typical of high mountain areas to grow at a modest height. This is due to the ice-cold air (2° – 4°C) emanating from various “buche del freddo” (cold-holes) or “bocche”.
The singular structure of the terrain is such that in winter when it rains and snows, the water and snow penetrate the subsoil and come into contact with cold shingle, which transforms them into ice. The alluvial detritus keeps the air temperature low as it passes through the interior of the mountain, before then pouring out of the holes.
The Valle del Freddo is therefore characterised by two types of climate: one general climate and the “microclimate” present in the micro-thermic area, which is the area where the cold air pours out. This has resulted in the creation of four different habitats: Coppices, made up of broad-leaved trees such as hazel, flowering ash and black hornbeam; Pinewoods, made up of woodland or Scots pine (pinus sylvestris); Open Grassland, which is arid, and where we find species that survive in shallow, dry soil; and the Macereto (heaps) where one finds Saponaria (soapwort), Erba regina (queen grass), Selaginella helvetica (spikemoss) and Raponzolo di Scheuchzer or Phyteuma scheuchzeri (Scheuchzer’s rampion).
Measurements taken by the scholar Luigi Fenaroli in 1962 registered a thermal difference of as much as 27° between the atmosphere of the little valley and the air coming from the holes!
The flowers of the Freddo
In the floor of the valley, 32 species of vegetation characteristic of Alpine climates have been found, such as Edelweiss, Erba dei camosci (Pritzelago alpina or chamois grass), Camedrio alpino (Dryas octopetala or mountain avens) and Piangiucola alpina (Pinguicula alpina or alpine butterwort). Shrubs such as rhododendron, Pino mugo (mountain pine) and Salice stipolato (salix appendiculata Vill.) are also very common. In spring, profuse blossom from gentians, heather, thyme and Globularia (globe daisies) covers the slopes of the valley. Flowering later are Pero corvino (Amelanchier canadensis or Canadian serviceberry) and hawthorn, and the splendid and rare Peonia selvatica (Paeonia officinalis or common peony). More commonplace are cyclamen and red valerian. Lastly, and also noteworthy, is Listera ovate, an orchid that grows to between 30 – 60cms and which is characterised by small, yellow-green flowers.
The vegetation provides refuge to many species of animals: hares, weasels, foxes and badgers. Various species of dormice and squirrels make their nests in the recesses of the old trees, and the woods are also full of birds: blackbirds, great tits, chaffinches, shrikes and greenfinches. Less common are also jays, hoopoes and cuckoos.
Among the nocturnal birds of prey worth mentioning are the little owl and long-eared owl, while the blue rock-thrush is also a rare sight.
Several reptiles populate the Valle del Freddo too: adders, the coluber, Coronella austriaca (the horned snake) and Columbro di Esculapio (the Aesculapian snake).
It is possible to visit the Valle del Freddo during the months of May, June and July. Naturally, one must keep to the prescribed path – walking outside of the path is forbidden.
Access to the Reserve is regulated according to the Regional Council’s resolution no. 7/19213 of 29.10.2014, which stipulates that it is forbidden to:
Pick, remove or damage the natural flora;
Light fires in the open;
Disturb, damage, capture or kill wild animals; take away or destroy their nests, burrows or beds, damage or destroy their environment;
Carry out hunting;
Use the land for pasture;
Bring in dogs;
Bring in outside animal species or plants;
Carry out advertising activities, organise shows or sporting events, or use the land for camping;
Travel across the land with motor vehicles;
Leave the designated, well-marked paths in the areas of exceptional interest, as pin-pointed on the plan;
Carry out studies or research that entails collecting nature samples or other breaches to the rules;
Carry out any other activity, even temporary, that entails altering the quality of the environment or is incompatible with the aims of the Reserve, as indicated on the plan.
The management plan currently in effect further includes the following precepts, in addition to the regulations outlined above:
Zona del Freddo (Zone A) – Zona del Processo Microtermico (Zone B)
Entry is prohibited;
Deviating from the designated, well-trodden paths is strictly prohibited.
Rules for visiting
Visits by the public to zones A and B are allowed on foot only and accompanied by authorised persons, in groups of not more than 15 people and with a maximum number of 100 visitors per day, during the months of May – July, and at the following times:
- Saturday from 13.30 – 18.00, Sunday from 9.00 to 12.00, and from 13.30 – 18.00; From Monday to Friday visitors are requested to book in advance at the Offices of the Mountain Community of Alto Sebino (Uffici della Comunità Montana Alto Sebino), management body for the Reserve.
- Access to the rest of the zones of the Reserve, C and D, is free all year round, but only on foot;
- During visits the rules of the Reserve must be respected; in the event of infractions, those responsible will be removed from the Reserve as well as being subject to fixed penalties.
- Visits to the Valle del Freddo for scientific reasons are permitted, subject to application at least two months in advance to the Director of the Reserve, and in agreement with the Commissione Consultativa Permanente (Permanent Consultative Commission). The Director’s decision is final.