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Italy's Ancient Stone Villages

WHAT TO SEE A 15th-century fresco of the club-wielding, hirsute "wild man" draws visitors to the Museo dell'Homo Salvadego (Località Sacco, Valgerola; 39-0342/617-028), a tiny museum in a former hayloft that celebrates the legendary European figure.

Middle Valtellina

Twisting roads wind though the vineyards and apple orchards between Morbegno and Tirano in the Middle Valtellina. Sondrio, the largest town (population 23,000), is known for its quaint boutiques and chic main piazza. Ponte in Valtellina, a rambling village, contains some of the best-preserved rural architecture in the Alps. Head to the ancient village of Teglio to visit churches, towers, and exhibitions at the frescoed Palazzo Besta—one of the Valtellina's most breathtaking Renaissance buildings. Tirano's unspoiled historic center is home to many of the region's aristocrats.

WHERE TO STAY Who would suspect that Albergo Altavilla (46 Via Ai Monti, Bianzone; 39-0342/720-355; www.altavilla.info; doubles from $55), a modest pensione in the quiet village of Bianzone, near Tirano, houses some of the Valtellina's most delightfully renovated rooms?Downstairs, artists and intellectuals gather in the intimate wood-paneled restaurant. • Classical music fills the air at the three-room Nur (56 Via Selve, Contrada Piedo, Tresivio; 39-0342/430-583; www.nbnb.it; doubles from $54). Book the Red Room, which has a private bath and vineyard views. The barrel-vaulted living room doubles as the local Baha'i center; owners Annamaria Betti and Arnaldo Dal Cer are both practitioners. • For the ultimate waterfront hideaway, hop across the border, two miles from Tirano, to Switzerland's 28-room Hotel Le Prese (CH-7746 Le Prese, Poschiavo; 41-81/844-0333; www.hotelleprese.com; doubles from $197). The green-shuttered 19th-century villa has rowboats that guests can use to explore Lake Poschiavo.

WHERE TO EAT Traditional Treats Off a twisting cobblestoned street and up a 17th-century staircase, Ristorante Cerere (7 Via Guicciardi, Ponte in Valtellina; 39-0342/482-294; dinner for two $90) is named for the asteroid Ceres, which was discovered in 1801 by native-son astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi. The dining room has sweeping views of the Alps. In season, try the venison with red currant sauce. • At Hotel Combolo (5 Via Roma, Teglio; 39-0342/780-083; dinner for two $65), Severina and Beatrice Valli have been hand-rolling buckwheat noodlesfor decades. Their restaurant has gilt-framed mirrors, molded cornices, and candelabra. The Next Generation Valtellina's emerging chefs would never be caught in a supermarket. That's why five of them recently established Slow Cooking, which, following the principles of the Slow Food movement, encourages locals to grow potatoes, gather honey, and rear goats. One of the members is Luca Grigis, chef at Sondrio's Sale e Pepe (13 Piazza Cavour, Sondrio; 39-0342/212-210; dinner for two $65). Besides his hearty platters he serves lighter delicacies, such as octopus-and-prawn terrine. • Tucked beneath the ruins of a medieval castle in a vineyard is Valtellina's most spectacular restaurant, Ristorante Castel Grumello (Montagna; 39-0342/380-994; dinner for two $105). During the summer, guests eat under the vine-covered pergola; on cooler nights they're ushered into the intimate dining room. Chef Gianni Testini cooks only what's in season. Come May and June, you'll find asparagus risotto; in September it's local mushrooms with slivers of Parmesan and mâche. • Atop a steep stone pathway is Fracia (Località Fracia, near Ponte in Valtellina; 39-0342/482-671; dinner for two $56), which showcases wines from the historic vineyard Nino Negri. In the evenings, maître d' Roberto Mossinelli advises on vintage blends from Nino Negri's cellar (by day, he's a librarian at Sondrio's Valtellina Museum). Young chefs Luca Cantoni and Leonardo Bassola whip up innovative dishes like thick buckwheat spaghetti in an herb-and-liver sauce.

WHERE TO GO OUT The rustic mountain village of Tresivio seems an unlikely location for Osteria del Chioso Jom Bar (42 Via Chioso, Tresivio; 39-0342/430-609), with its 1930's wooden bar and candlelit terrace. Don't miss the generous buffet (6-9 p.m.). Any day now, owner Pietro Pedrazzoli is opening a second bar that will also serve a mix of traditional Italian food, raw fish, and fusion dishes, in a palazzo just down the road. • The wine bar Vineria (25 Via XX Settembre, Tirano; 39-0342/701-920), in an old stable, almost feels like the setting for a Nativity scene—until a lively young group charges in,clutching steaks and sausages to cook on the open-air grill. Sample wines from the 250 labels stacked around the wooden bar. • Valtellina's newest gathering spot is Caffè San Martino (39 Via XX Settembre, Tirano; 39-0342/706-441), a clean-lined space with wenge-wood tables beneath white-painted beams.

WHERE TO SHOP Food You may bump into some of Valtellina's top restaurateurs at the shop of fromagier Luigi Paroli (25 Via Rusconi, Tresivio; 39-0342/430-096), who makes creamy white goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, bundled in fresh hay, or rolled in ashes. • Gianpiero "Peter" Moltoni and his wife, Renata Parolo, recently opened Mieleria Moltoni (1 Via Sonvico, Villa di Tirano; 39-0342/702-686), a honey-tasting laboratory and shop in a former dairy. Drop by for a tour of the production facilities, then pick up a pot of their lime-flower, chestnut, or Alpine meadow honey. Wine and Spirits It's hard to imagine a more elegant setting than the frescoed Palazzo Salis (3 Piazza Salis, Tirano; 39-0342/710-446; by appointment), with its Italianate gardens and vaulted cellars. Rumor has it that the owner, Cesare Sertoli Salis, plans to open several suites in his palazzo to paying guests sometime in the next few years. (See below for his favorite insider places.) • Book an appointment with Domenico Triacca (121 Via Nazionale, Villa di Tirano; 39-0342/701-352), who will take you to La Gatta, a former Dominican convent, to sample his best vintages. Try the prized Sforzato San Domenico or the Prestigio, which tastes like Christmas cake. • At the grappa distillery Schenatti (22 Via IV Novembre, Tirano; 39-0342/702-545; by appointment), skinny bottles sit on shelves like pieces of art. Best are the liqueurs flavored with wild strawberries or green apples. Housewares Stone-carver Floriana Palmieri will welcome you into her atelier, La Pietra Ollare (5 Via Venosta, Sondrio; 39-0342/212-005), where she and her aunt craft objects from the smooth local green-gray pietra ollare stone. Among the kitschy bas-relief themes (angels, Madonnas), you'll find boxes and vases with stylish geometric designs. • As you navigate the single-lane, winding mountain road to the hamlet of Fontaniva, you may wonder whether it's worth the harrowing drive. But at the weaving workshop of Daniela Toppi (37 Via Fontaniva, Fontaniva, Arigna di Ponte; 39-0342/482-872), your doubts will disappear. Stelio and his wife, Daniela, are among the last artisans making pezzotti (traditional rag rugs) on handlooms. Antiques Locals ransack the drawers at Laboratorio Maurizio Marcato (8 Via De Simoni, Sondrio; 39-0342/210-300). If luck strikes, they find prize engravings by German artist I. I. Majar or Valtellina maps by 17th-century French cartographer Melchior Tavernier. Jewelry Collectors from Japan and the United States flock to La Pietra (29 Via Beccaria, Sondrio; 39-0342/213-356), a store specializing in the many stones of the Valmalenco. Those who prefer to wear their rocks can pick up a necklace of veined green serpentine, or earrings in Valmalenco jade, discovered by the store's owner, Pietro Nana, just nine years ago. Beauty Como's Villa d'Este and the Cipriani in Venice are among the hotels that commission bathroom products from Erboristeria Helleboro (77 Viale Italia, Tirano; 39-0342/701-067), which concocts lotions and potions from Alpine herbs and flowers. Stroll through the garden to the store, housed in a small chalet. Hint: The face cream, with beeswax, honey, and lilies, is magical.


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