Travels in Europe 2016
An Alpine Tour
This year we were heading for the Dolomites in north east Italy in part, at least, to try to get some better pictures of some familiar plants. This is, however, a long journey which for us means many stops in other alpine regions both on the way out and on the return journey. As we travelled down through France and into Switzerland the flooding that had been in our news broadcasts was still quite evident in the swollen rivers and flooded fields. Heavy rain at low altitudes can also mean large snowfalls at higher levels and there were certainly signs of this in the flowering of some plants. There were, however, no closed passes on our chosen routes either out or back. We went through Switzerland both going out and coming back but it is convenient to deal with all areas together.
We managed a walk on the Julier Pass (see picture above) on the way to Italy. As usual there were fine specimens of a variety of primulas, P. elatior, P. hirsuta, P. latifolia and P.integrifolia being the species concerned. The last two of these were even better on the Fluella Pass (see picture left) on our way back the ground being coloured pink in places because of the size of the colonies of P.integrifolia in particular. Sizeable colonies of Soldanella pusilla added to the effect. Primula integrifolia is shown below.
On the Julier Pass the range of flowers seen was greater. Good plants of Pulsatilla alpina apiifolia and P. vernalis were seen along with the bright blue patches of both Gentiana verna and G. acaulis. One plant of the latter was particularly unusual having almost white flowers with just a few pale blue stripes (picture below). In the past the likes of Reginald Farrer would undoubtedly have reached for the trowel rather than the camera! An unexpected find in an area where the plants suggested acidic soils was Pritzelago (Hutchinsia) alpina which was growing on rocks just above the water of a fast-flowing stream.
On our return journey we also used the Susten Pass and I was disappointed to find that the small colony of Eritrichium nanum I had previously seen just above the tunnel seems to have died out (though it is probably still to be found higher up). There were also many fewer plants of Saxifraga cotyledon by the road lower down and we wondered if it has suffered from road improvements (we were continually held up in Switzerland this year by extensive road works).
I had intended to return to the Bernina Pass from our campsite but it was further into Italy than expected and the weather was wet so we continued our journey eventually reaching the Passo Croce Domini at about midday – it was still raining! Driving down the very narrow road with no stopping places was frustrating as there seemed to be fritillaries amongst other flowers above the road. We eventually found a spot for lunch and one nearby spot had good colonies of Pinguicula alpina and Ranunculus thora the latter being unusual for its rounded leaves. The rain stopped (temporarily) and in the absence of other stopping places we investigated the hillside above us. This proved to be most rewarding as the fritillary, F.tubaeformis (right) was found here growing with Pulsatilla alpina, Anemone narcissiflora, Primula halleri and an acaulis like gentian that may be G. angustifolia. Many plants of Saxifraga hostii were also seen but had yet to flower. It still surprizes me to find a saxifrage of this type in a meadow. Gentiana verna often displayed purple flowers here though few were open and we were soon forced to retreat to the van again.
The following day found us following more narrow roads to Passo Tremalzo where we again walked part of the well-known track to find Daphne petraea. This turned out to be third time lucky as this time we found some plants in good flower (picture left) even if they were in somewhat inaccessible positions. We were also fortunate that the poor weather we had set off in gradually improved.
The other plants here were familiar to us but the colonies of Primula auricula and P.spectabilis seem to have increased and were quite spectacular particularly where they grew together as shown here. By contrast there seemed to be fewer plants of Viola dubyana. The white flowered Ranunculus bilobus was in good condition and a fine Chamaecytisus sp. (possibly C.polytrichus ) was also seen. Plants of Physoplexis comosa, Saxifraga caesia, and Paedarota bonarota were not in flower which was a hint at what we would find later. Unusually a sedge, Carex baldensis also particularly caught our attention.
On the way back down from the pass we stopped to look at an unusual aquilegia, A. einseliana growing in an open grassy area and I was surprized and pleased to find a few flowers on Cyclamen purpurascens. A second aquilegia species, A. atrata was abundant in the woodland but it does not seem to hybridize with A. einseleana.
We next travelled via Madonna di Campiglio in the hope that at least one of the many cable cars and chair lifts would be working but as is often the case in Italy in June none was and everything was deserted. This at least meant that the fine plants of Cypripedium calceolus found growing close to the road may have escaped others attention (unlike those later seen on the Rolle Pass and shown here most of which disappeared within a day or two).
We now moved on to the Dolomites and en route stopped on Passo Tonale which proved to be quite disappointing apart from Polygala chamaebuxus in both white and red forms and a good range of orchids. Occasional showers again restricted us. Malga Ciapela should have been an excellent centre but as we were still too early for the cable car up the Marmolade to be operating it was not as good as we had hoped. Another wet morning saw us going over the Rolle Pass and finding the aforementioned cypripediums and we decided to risk a walk from the top in the afternoon. In spite of having to walk through mist we stayed dry and managed to reach the site for Primula tyrolensis (above left) which was fortunately in reasonably good condition. P.minima was looking even better and with Crocus vernus, Primula farinosa, Pulsatilla alpina, Soldanella alpina and S.pusilla along with a range of other good plants it proved to be a worthwhile effort and we just made it back before the rain started again.
The Sottoguda Gorge (right) had been recommended by Vic and Janet Aspland and is a fascinating place with a wide range of the local speciality plants present though most had yet to flower and it is possible that many flower poorly in such a deep gorge. The road used to run through it which was no doubt an interesting experience if you met much traffic. Now a “land train” which would not look out of place on Weston sea front will carry you up from the local village but we walked down and back as the upper entrance was very close to our camp site. You pay a small fee now towards the upkeep and the protection of the ecosystem. We had the gorge to ourselves (the “train” was empty) so it needs a lot of summer visitors to pay for more than the cost of the attendants!
As this was very early we had plenty of time to go on to the Passo di Giau (left) where we had a short walk amongst a wealth of flowers with Rhodothamnus chamaebuxus in particularly good condition (as it was also at Passo Falzarego later). Primula auricula was flowering well on the rocks with, as is usual in the area, no white centre in the flowers.
Once again the weather was not brilliant and we decided that, after one more walk, we would try our luck further south. The weather was better for our trip via the Sella Pass to the Vallunga and the walk up the valley is relatively easy. We had a reminder, however, of just how bad the weather had been when we found one area occupied by a lake we have not previously seen and with water still running into it. Good finds here included Soldanella minima, Gentiana clusii and Achillea clavennae but it was the red form of Polygala chamaebuxus (right) that stood out (the white form is also present but not flowering as well).
Once again it was clear that plants such as Saxifraga squarrosa, Paedarota bonarota and Physoplexis comosa were not about to flower soon (the latter even at the old Wolkenstein castle described by Michael Baron as a favoured early site where one may risk life and limb to see it close up!). Fortunately the view was worth the steep climb and the danger seemed to have been overstated in the case of the non-flowering plants I saw). The good view to be seen from Wolkenstein castle is shown here. Strange goings on near the path up to the castle are pictured at the end of this account.
The Lago della Stua is on the very southern edge of the Dolomites and after a woodland walk in the morning with little of great interest (the cyclamen here were not flowering) and after lunch in the van I went to look at the low cliffs by the road. To my delight and surprize it had a sizeable colony of Physoplexis comosa in flower (the species, shown on the right, was not mentioned in our reference for the area).
At a stop further down the valley we discovered Hemerocallis lilio-asphodelus (left) an introduced species naturalised here and growing almost submerged in the river (the Canzoi). The discovery a little later of a large tick embedded in my arm requiring a visit to the local hospital made this an even more memorable day.
The following day we went up the Passo di San Baldo but were unable to explore as we had hoped as the road on the steep southern side now goes through several tunnels controlled by traffic lights. We found good plants of Lilium bulbiferum (right) but little else and so we tried heading for the Casere Crosetta parking when the road became a track (in terms of width it was little better before). From here we managed a pleasant walk at altitudes between about 1,500 and 1,600m. There was a mixed flora with some good orchids notably Orchis militaris and Neottia nidus-avis, and a handsome lousewort that I have yet to identify. Saxifraga hostii and S.crustata were also notable finds but there were many other attractive plants.
As we had spent less time in the Dolomites than intended we decided to head for Slovenia and, in particular, to see if we could get up the Mangart road again. I may have mentioned before that one can get problems travelling on a Sunday and on this occasion it was an amateur bike tour of roads including the ascent of Vrsic which was closed for a time and very slow going when reopened! The good thing was the range of roadside flowers with a great range of orchids including Cephalanthera rubra, C.longifolia, Epipactis atrorubens, and Gymnadenia conopsea. One particularly attractive field (see picture) was notable for the stands of Neotinia ustulata growing amongst white flowered Dianthus sternbergii (this is sometimes pink but always has a very striking dark eye). We managed a quite interesting walk though not the one planned and noticed plants of Lilium carniolicum near to flowering and we were able to return two days later when one or two flowers were open.
The following day again started with poor weather so we were not able to stop at the top of the road at Vrsic for our intended walk. Instead we tried a road on the map (old) which had changed and now led only to a ski centre. We did, however, find a handsome iris, I. cengialtii (right) in the very floriferous meadows.
With plenty of time to spare we decided to visit Mangart a day early. The weather did improve a bit and the road seemed to be open and fortunately not busy (it is very narrow with tunnels and other hazards). Unfortunately we were premature in thinking all was well as the road was still blocked with snow in its upper stretches and we had to make do with lower slopes. A range of good plants were found with Paedarota lutea (left) perhaps being the pick with plants flowering well in the cliffs by the road.
Rhodothamnus chamaecistus (right) was again superb as it had been in the Dolomites. Another plant seen on the roadside cliffs was Potentilla nitida one plant having just three flowers the only ones we saw this time. We may have to try this road again later in the year. Further pictures from the visit to Mangart are at the end of the article.
Fortunately the weather did improve the following day and we managed a decent walk up from Vrsic. The most impressive plant found was Thlaspi rotundifolia (cepaeifolia rotundifolia) growing as, for this plant, quite extensive mats (see picture) and with some having white flowers. Soldanella minima was growing nearby forming quite extensive colonies. Earlier we had seen Gentiana clusii, G.verna, Ranunculus alpestris and Linaria alpina. The saxifrages were not in flower (Saxifraga crustata is common in the area) and nor was Campanula zoysii but this was expected. And so on to Austria where the first occurrence of note was the minor accident that made using the van a little more difficult but not impossible. (More pictures from Slovenia can be seen at the end).
The weather finally seemed to turn better for us in Austria and we were able to have a very good day on the Grossglockner Pass making several stops to explore for plants. The first stop was for a hillside (picture right) with globe flowers, pulsatillas and most notably very good stands of Gentiana punctata. Other gentians appeared further up with G. clusii, G.verna and another verna type that may have been G. brachyphylla but it did not entirely seem to fit this or any other form and it still has me beaten. The best of the primulas was P.minima but P.farinosa and P.elatior were also present. The pulsatillas mentioned before were what used to be P.alba but I think are now P.alpina alba.
Higher up where snow had only recently melted we found P.vernalis. Here also were Callianthemum coriandrifolium, Silene acaulis, Saxifraga androsacea, S.caesia, S.bryoides, S.paniculata and S.rudolfiana (S.oppositifolia murithiana when I first saw it); I think the former is now the correct name. This plant (left) has remarkably tiny leaves but the flowers are much like other forms of the purple saxifrage. Amongst the many other finds were some confusing white buttercups with both Ranunculus alpestris and R.crenatus apparently growing together with some plants seeming to be somewhat intermediate between them. Gagea lutea was also found amongst these other essentially snowmelt plants.
Our final stop was for some of the most extensive mats of Kalmia (Loiseleuria) procumbens that we have ever seen (right). Had we had more time a second or even third day could usefully be spent in this area. It is more crowded than in the past with many “tourist attractions” close to the road (the geological exhibit was worthwhile) but there is still a vast area of unspoilt high ground to explore.
We moved on to a site not far from the Zillertal where we knew there would be many cable cars so we hoped some would be working and as it turned out, most were open. After visiting a tourist office we decided on Isskogel and, for once, decided to take our lunch with us. In good weather we had a pleasant walk from the top station to a lake (pictured) and then on a little further. The views were superb. This is a very developed ski area which in summer caters for activities such as mountain biking as well as walking so is not as pristine as some places but there was the bonus of a seat for our lunch!
The flowers were good in places with Gentiana aculis forming good colonies with one nearly white form. The unusual large lousewort Pedicularis recutita was growing near the lake and was quite striking with its dark maroon, almost black, flower spikes. Both Soldanella pusilla and S. minima were seen, neither in large numbers. Most of the area was clearly on acidic rocks with members of the Ericaceae often dominating however a rock outcrop above the lake was clearly different. Here were Dryas octopetala (right), Saxifraga caesia, S.paniculata and Viola biflora. There was nothing very spectacular here but it was a really enjoyable relatively easy walk with plenty to see on the way. From here it was off to Switzerland which has already been described, and home.
Strange activity near Wolkenstein castle.
This apparent photoshoot was set up on the hillside near the path up to the castle but what it was for I have no idea. Can anybody enlighten me?
More pictures from Slovenia
Daphne mezereum on Mangart
Soldanella minima colony
More from the Grossglockner Pass
More from Isskogel
An unusual seat with a great view.