Force of Nature
By Maureen Littlejohn
Throughout Italy, majestic wooded reserves and dramatic waterfalls attract outdoor enthusiasts and those on the hunt for natural beauty. Hikers, cyclists and people seeking a break from congested cities are drawn to these spectacular destinations where they can breathe fresh air, clear their heads and commune with nature. From the fairy-tale-like setting of Bosco del Sasseto in Tuscany, to the bucolic beauty of Umbra Forest in Puglia, to the sanctity of Bosco di Sant’Antonio in Abruzzo, the forest setting has long provided refuge for humans and wildlife alike. Waterfalls, on the other hand, bring a rush of excitement. Cascate del Serio in Lombardy and Cascata Lequarci e Lecorci in Sardinia put on stunning, spring-fed displays, while the engineered falls at Cascata delle Marmore in Umbria dance with an evening LED light show.
Bosco del Sasseto, Toscana
There’s a magical emerald glow throughout this fairy-tale forest, where rocks are carpeted in moss and twisted trees are covered in lichen. Blanketing an ancient volcanic system, the woods are filled with oak, linden, beech and chestnut trees, many of which are more than a metre in diameter and 25 metres high. Nestled amongst these giants is a Neogothic mausoleum, where Edoardo Cahen was buried in 1894. Cahen was a late 19th century banker who purchased the castle of Torre Alfina and the surrounding woodland, Bosco del Sasseto. He treated it as his own private garden and designed several paths that still run through the dense foliage. Wind your way along a trail and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into the setting for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Little Red Riding Hood.
Umbra Forest, Puglia
A 400-hectare natural reserve flanking Gargano National Park, the Umbra forest is considered one of the most beautiful in the country. Smooth, straight beech trees rise from the bottom of the valley amidst a sea of soft green ferns. Maple, turkey oak and hazelnut trees also populate this wildlife haven, which is home to deer, foxes and wandering cattle belonging to nearby farmers. Hike along one of the marked trails and you’ll note the air is filled with the sound of birdsong and cowbells. The name Umbra is a bit confusing since this forest is in Puglia, in the province of Foggia, and not in the region of Umbria. Cesare Brandi, author of the book Terre d’Italia, thinks it comes from the Italian word imber, meaning rain. Perhaps it was named for the sound of the forest’s whispering leaves? Others speculate it is derived from ombra, meaning shadow, since the reserve offers much shade.
Cascasta Lequarci e Lecorci, Sardegna
Cascading down a sheer rock face, waters surge from natural springs and underground streams found deep within the high, limestone buttes on the central-eastern side of the island in the Ogliastra area near the town of Ulassai. The show is especially dramatic after heavy rainfall. The falls of Lecorci, half a kilometre from the town of the same name, emerge beneath the cave of Su Marmuri. The largest cave on the island is nearly a kilometre long. The water continues downstream and eventually joins the falls of Lequarci, which descend from a limestone cliff, jump 100 metres and rush for another 75 metres before spilling out into a number of little lakes. Visitors who come to view the falls also enjoy Ulassai’s karst-strewn landscape—a haven for trekkers and free climbers.
Cascata delle Marmore, Umbria
The water here is controlled and used for hydro-electrical energy, but there are times, especially in the summer, when the flow is at its maximum and is very dramatic. In summer, visitors in the evening are treated to a special LED light show that follows the movement of the rushing white foam. Romans created this waterfall in 271 BC, tapping the waters of the Velino river, which was responsible for frequent, destructive flooding. Rerouting the water also helped transform disease-ridden swamps. Since then, many engineering refinements have been made, and the area is now a park with guided tours, trails and workshops. The falls can be viewed in Cascada Park from March until December with admission tickets available online.
Bosco di Sant’Antonio, Abruzzo
This ancient, sacred forest was first dedicated to Jupiter; it was consecrated to Saint Anthony in the Middle Ages. The saint’s hermitage was built here in the 14th century and can be found on the ancient road connecting Pescocostanzo to Cansano. Located in the province of L’Aquila, this 550-hectare nature reserve is part of the Majella National Park. Home to many ancient trees called “patriarchs,” the forest features 17 hectares of magnificent beech trees. It is also filled with maple, cherry and wild pear trees. Other flora rooted here include peonies, primroses, cyclamens, gentians and the rare Epipactis purpurata orchid. Visitors come to hike, ride horses and even cross-country ski in winter. One of the best times to visit is autumn, when the forest is ablaze with fiery red and orange changing leaves.
Cascate del Serio, Lombardia
Located in the alpine Lombardy region of northern Italy, 100 kilometres north of Milan, these falls are the tallest in the country. Broken into three main steps, they can be found in Valbondione, in the province of Bergamo. The three steps are respectively 166, 74 and 75 metres in height with a combined drop of 315 metres. Formed by the Serio River, the falls are close to the river’s source in the Bergamo Alps. Local legend has it that the waterfall sprang from the tears of a beautiful girl when a jealous noblewoman kept her away from her lover. Featured in a more modern love story, you may recall seeing them in the 2017 Oscar-winning movie Call Me By Your Name by Italian film director Luca Guadagnino.