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Italy's Ancient Stone Villages

When Leonardo Da Vinci visited the valleys of Valtellina and Valchiavenna in the 1480's, he was captivated by this Alpine region in the north of Italy. "[Valtellina] produces a great quantity of strong wine," he wrote in his diary, though he noted that the area produced even larger amounts of creamy milk. He described the "lofty and terrible mountains," the ample vineyards, the native bears, and the hardy locals, who clambered up the craggy peaks using both hands and feet.

It's remarkable how many of Leonardo's observations still hold true 520 years later. Terraced vineyards blanket the south-facing slopes of Valtellina, while herds of brown cattle graze the pastures. True, the bears have disappeared, but the essence of the place remains unchanged. Yet, when I moved to the area 10 years ago to join my Italian boyfriend, I couldn't help feeling that something was amiss. I had previously lived in Milan; transferring to a remote Alpine ski town had never been part of the plan. For the first couple of years, I commuted between the city—for dinner parties and fashion events—and our quiet mountain village.

Over time, my appreciation for the area grew. My daughter, Isabel, grew up picking wild strawberries and chasing her cousins through meadows—like children on a muesli box, except that this was real. We'd take long hikes and then dive into a family-run restaurant for platters of handmade pizzoccheri (buckwheat noodles) or polenta and goat cheese. On weekends we'd visit far-flung artisan workshops, Baroque churches, ruined castles, and frescoed villas—places that outsiders usually stumble across only by chance. Perhaps one day I'll even learn to love snow.

Milanese and Como-based tourists have been coming here since the 1960's in search of perfect ski slopes in winter and fresh air in summer. But lately, Manolo Blahniks have appeared alongside hiking boots as a sophisticated international crowd has discovered all the new restaurants, luxurious spa hotels, and designer bed-and-breakfasts. And experts say that one of the hottest Italian wines to emerge over the past decade is Valtellina's Sforzato, a dry red made from Nebbiolo grapes.

On the following pages, I've spilled the copious contents of my personal address book. To make things easier, I've divided the addresses by area—from the Lower Valtellina, east of Lake Como, to the Valchiavenna in the north. Many of the places listed will require some ingenuity to find (pestering lonely goatherds for directions; driving up precipitous mountain roads), but every single one is worth the hunt.

Lower Valtellina

Warehouses and sprawling supermarkets line the busy road stretching from Lake Como through the Lower Valtellina. But beyond the hustle and bustle lie pristine towns and valleys, like Valgerola, home to the famed Bitto cheese—a piquant blend of cow's and goat's milk. Shopaholics flock to the winding cobbled streets of Morbegno for everything from herbal teas to handmade jewelry.

WHERE TO STAY In a centuries-old palazzo, Altro (10 Via Cavour, Ardenno; 39-0342/662-219; www.t-altro.com; doubles from $260) has two chic rooms designed by owner Marco Gorini: think teak floors, tatami beds, sandstone bathrooms. Guests can take a helicopter trip to a farmhouse atop a nearby peak for a lunch of polenta. Or they can head downstairs to the slick hotel restaurant (dinner for two $153), which serves up simple dishes such as squid with broad-bean mash.

WHERE TO EAT The area's hearty mountain dishes won't win any awards for lean cuisine: buckwheat noodles are served with melted cheese, green vegetables, potatoes, and butter; sciatt (cheese balls) come deep-fried. Homegrown ingredients guarantee that the dishes at Vecchio Ristorante Fiume (1 Contrada di Cima alle Case, Morbegno; 39-0342/610-248; dinner for two $90) couldn't be fresher. Try the warm focaccia and the pickles, served as appetizers, or pancakes with radicchio and Bitto cheese.

WHERE TO GO OUT Black-clad hipsters frequent Osteria San Giovanni (8 Via Nani, Morbegno; 39-0342/601-120), a candlelit wine bar. The hottest night is Friday, when bands play jazz and rock.

WHERE TO SHOP Food More a museum than a store, Fratelli Ciapponi (23 Piazza III Novembre, Morbegno; 39-0342/610-223) began selling cheese and wine in these rambling passageways in 1883. Brothers Primo and Dario carry on the tradition. Their seasoned Bitto is indisputably the valley's best. And in the well-stocked vaulted wine cellars, more than 1,000 recent vintages sit beside ancient corkscrews and antique flasks draped with cobwebs. • Chocolate lovers screech to a stop when they spot the sign for Choco Alpi (1H Via Tavani, Strada Statale, Delebio; 39-0342/682-188) on the main route through the Valtellina. The draw: candies made from South American cacao beans and melt-in-your-mouth cinnamon-flavored milk chocolate. Housewares Three generations have fashioned shiny kettles, pans, and jugs from glowing copper at Mazzoleni (8 Via Damiani, Morbegno; 39-0342/611-005). The current incumbent, Giovanni, has no heir, so hurry here for miniature milk churns ($208), or frying pans ($50) that are ideal for crafting the perfect sunny-side up egg. Ask nicely and Giovanni might give you a tour of his forge and workshop behind the store. Antiques No relation to the London market, Portobello Road (31 Via Garibaldi, Morbegno; 39-0342/615-215) stocks a mix of locally sourced vintage finds, from a wooden coffee grinder ($78) to an umbrella with a mother-of-pearl handle ($156). Jewelry It's hard to believe that the ultramodern design of Valtellina's traditional gold earrings—a semi-hoop with an adjoining circle—hasn't changed one iota since the 17th century. But the four sisters behind the counters at Federico Vitali (6 Piazza Marconi, Morbegno; 39-0342/610-139; or 97 Via Roma, Bormio; 39-0342/901-396) swear that this is absolutely true. • When he's not jetting off to the United States to collect private commissions for his finely crafted pieces, you'll find Davide Canton and his wife, Chiara Degiovanni, in their atelier at Bottega Orafa Canton (26 Via Garibaldi, Morbegno; 39-0342/613-265). Snap up a pair of earrings shaped like bees, with river-pearl bodies and sculpted gold wings ($274), or a ring of woven vine leaves ($1,500). • Until 1974, Alessandra and Stefano Manzocchi's father owned the largest stonecutting workshop in Europe. Today, his offspring create exquisite jewelry from precious gems and gold at Manzocchi (8 Via Ninguarda, Morbegno; 39-0342/613-340). Ask to see the rings: a large citrine quartz set in a diamond-studded white gold band can be had for $2,297. Or rummage through the vintage jewelry case for antique charm bracelets and necklaces.

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