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Italy's Ancient Stone Villages

WHAT TO SEE The Virgin Mary is believed to have touched down in the 16th-century at the Basilica della Madonna di Tirano (Piazza Basilica, Tirano), a church with a no-holds-barred Baroque interior. • Take a lesson in Roman mythology at the 500-year-old Palazzo Besta (7 Via Besta, Teglio; 39-0342/781-208), whose colorful courtyard contains frescoes depicting scenes from Virgil's Aeneid. • For a lazy day of watching the scenery whoosh by, ride the Bernina Express (Piazzale della Stazione, Tirano; 39-0342/701-353), a little red train, up the mountain to St. Moritz.

Upper Valtellina

The easternmost section of the Valtellina—beyond Tirano to Grosio, Bormio, and Livigno—is also its most unspoiled. Alpine pastures take the place of vineyards; villages are few and far between. The area's most attractive town is the spa-and-ski resort of Bormio.

WHERE TO STAY The Valtellina's elite heaved a collective sigh of relief when the historic Grand Hotel Bagni Nuovi (Località Bagni Nuovi, Valdidentro-Bormio; 39-0342/910-131; www.bagnidibormio.it; doubles from $365) reopened in December 2003 after an 11-year restoration and a 27-year closure. Once a mecca for Europe's royals—including Princess Elena of Orléans and Italy's King Vittorio Emanuele III—the hotel is popular with fashion types and celebrities, who helicopter in for the indoor-outdoor spa facilities, such as hot waterfalls, aromatic saunas, alfresco mud baths, and a thermal pool. Afterward, they sample simple Italian fare (artichoke risotto, venison with apple) in the former ballroom or take a stroll in the hotel's 99-acre park to view natural steaming torrents gushing down the mountainside. Most of the 46 rooms have a mix of antique and modern furniture, and white marble baths (with dangerously slippery floors). A new building with 80 additional rooms will open by 2007. • Across the park from the Bagni Nuovi, its medieval sister property, Hotel Bagni Vecchi (Località Bagni Vecchi, Valdidentro-Bormio; 39-0342/910-131; www.bagnidibormio.it; doubles from $220), has 16 rooms with striped stone bathrooms and fabulous valley views. Guests descend directly from their rooms to the spa, which features a heated outdoor pool and a 164-foot-long warm-water cave tunnel. Be warned: The spa allows up to 170 outside guests, meaning that at busy times (weekends, the last two weeks of July, all of August) you can feel like a sardine in a can. It's better to book midweek or in the off-season.

WHERE TO EAT Judging by its surroundings, you'd think that Al Filò (6 Via Dante, Bormio; 39-0342/901-732; dinner for two $65)—in a barrel-vaulted, stone-walled hay cellar—would serve only the most traditional Valtellinese cuisine. So it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover that chef Max Tusetti, another member of the Slow Cooking association, has included waistfriendly dishes such as sliced apple with vegetable "tartare" and caviar along with the ubiquitous pizzoccheri and sciatt.

WHERE TO SHOP Food There's no sign above the door at Eredi Romani (31 Via Roma, Bormio; 39-0342/901-323), but the line for the bakery's cakes and bilberry tarts can stretch down the street. Spirits When it's time to mix the 16 herbs that make up braulio, Bormio's signature tipple, Egidio Tarantola Peloni and his son Edoardo disappear into a locked room at Braulio (27 Via Roma, Bormio; 39-0342/904-785) to follow the secret recipe handed down from Egidio's grandfather, who invented this supposedly medicinal concoction in 1875. Book a tour of the medieval cellars. Antiques Tucked into the back of a fashion boutique is Il Rigattiere (94 Via Roma, Bormio; 39-0342/905-045), which stocks rustic housewares (butter churns, spice containers). Fashion In these style-starved parts, Grizzly (36 Via Roma, Bormio; 39-0342/904-772) is a real discovery. The little store carries embroidered jackets by the avant-garde Milanese label Ai Lov Iu, felt hats and bags by Gazèl, and chunky sweaters, hats, and scarves hand-knit by the store's stylish owners, sisters Barbara and Valeria Dalla Valle.

WHAT TO SEE At the Parco delle Incisioni Rupestri (Grosio; 39-0342/847-454), check out the 5,500 ancient rock carvings, which depict the valley's early inhabitants engaged in the sports of the day: hunting, praying, weaving cloth.

Valchiavenna

From Erasmus of Rotterdam to Hans Christian Andersen, travelers have been passing through this 37-mile-long valley—which runs north of Lake Como to the Splugen Pass and Switzerland—since Roman times. The hub is quaint Chiavenna, known for its serious restaurants, many built around natural caves known as crotti. Within a stone's throw are a number of tiny villages, including Mese, Gordona, and San Cassiano-Prata. In 1618, a landslide obliterated the once-bustling town of Piuro, now nothing more than several clusters of houses and a church. The river Mera, which runs through the valley, spills into Lake Como.

WHERE TO STAY A former residence of a local noble family, the two-bedroom Palazzo Salis (Piazza Castello, Chiavenna; 39-0343/32283; www.palazzosalis.it; doubles from $143) is now run by Alberto and Graziella Carnazza as a B&B. Request the room with the white-and-gold Rococo ceiling and wrought-iron bed. In summer, the Carnazzas serve breakfast against a backdrop of Alps in the palm tree-dotted garden, or in the frescoed hall of this fading but splendid Baroque villa.

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