Because of this balmy Mediterranean weather and the vegetation it can support, Italy calls itself the garden of Europe. All along the highways, in small towns, and everywhere in between, the country is teeming with azaleas, bougainvillea, roses, grapes, and palm trees. The hills are alive with olives, citrus, chestnuts, mushrooms, watermelons, cherries, pears, and apples. Corner vegetable stands overflow with locally grown bright yellow peppers, green onions, purple eggplant, many varieties of ripe tomatoes (in at least three different shapes), apricots, artichokes, green and white asparagus, and avocados. If you locked yourself in the kitchen with a full day’s worth of groceries, you could prepare everything in your favorite cookbook and still have much of the bounty left over. It may seem a little odd to begin a section on flora and fauna with a grocery list, but in a country where most available land is devoted to agriculture, flora and fauna mean food. the shoreline of Lake Como
Fauna, especially. Coming to Italy from Vermont, where it seems a new species of animal crosses in front of your headlights every evening, I can’t help but notice that almost the only mammals you see in Italy are livestock: sheep, goats, some cattle, and pigs. In fact, the only wild mammal I can remember seeing is the ubiquitous cinghiale, or wild boar, best-known for its starring role in stews and sausages.
If you want to spot a mammal in Italy that’s not synonymous with a local specialty, Italy’s network of national parks can offer at least a few. One of my favorites is the Gran Sasso park, in Abruzzo. On your hike up the tallest peaks in the Apennines, you’ll see plenty of chamois, and possibly a wolf or bear. Many of the Italian hikers you’ll see in those mountains, running down the spine of the peninsula, are there to spot the fauna: again, mostly for food. Several varieties of edible mushrooms grow in the Apennines, making it a sort of national hobby on par with chestnut-gathering. The other precious flora is the truffle, whose hunters are there for the big payout that comes with every tiny tuber.
Italy has such a wide spectrum of altitudes and terrain in such a tight space that in a single day you can start off seeing tropical species in the morning, move through a stand of temperate, deciduous trees in the afternoon, and be in the midst of a boreal forest by dinner. The lakes region, especially the shores of Como and Maggiore, has a bizarre microclimate where palm trees and snow-covered firs fit in the same panorama. It’s no wonder that camera-toting tourists flock to these shores.