Italy's Ancient Stone Villages
In the remote valleys of Valtellina and Valchiavenna, near Lake Como, Valerie Waterhouse succumbs to the allure of the region's ancient stone villages and vineyard-covered peaks, its stylish inns and innovative restaurants.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHERE TO EAT Traditional Treats Pork cutlets and potatoes served in a pan are the specialty at Al Cenacolo (16 Via Pedretti, Chiavenna; 39-0343/32123; dinner for two $78), a stylishly renovated restaurant with a small terrace overlooking the river. Alternatively, try the taróz, a comforting mix of mashed potatoes, vegetables, butter, and cheese. Upstairs, owner Silvano Scinetti organizes exhibitions of cutting-edge Swiss and Italian art. • Feminists take note: service at Passerini (128 Via Dolzino, Chiavenna; 39-0343/36166; dinner for two $104) is old-fashioned; female guests receive menus without prices. Still, it's worth swallowing your principles for the heavenly bread, flavored with squid ink and almonds or onions and bell peppers. The Next Generation Brothers Andrea and Antonio Tonola opened Lanterna Verde (7 Frazione San Barnaba, Villa di Chiavenna; 39-0343/38588; dinner for two $117), close to their father's renowned fish farm, in 1982. Their trout menu—featuring a mousse, a ravioli, and a whole fish cooked on the local pietra ollare stone—helped win the restaurant a Michelin star. Other popular dishes include chestnut pasta with chamomile flowers and ravioli with polenta and minced hare. • You'll find two restaurants in one at Crotasc (67 Via Don Primo Lucchinetti, Mese; 39-0343/41003; dinner for two $84), under the savvy management of Michela Prevostini, whose grandmother founded the place in 1928. Today, families head for the 18th-century dining room (stone slab floors, copper pans above a blazing log fire), while young couples prefer the designer salon (blond wood fittings,jazzy sound track). The creative menu—under award-winning chef Marino Lanfredini—is the same in both rooms. Try chickpea soup, Alpine ricotta, and wines made by Michela's brothers, Mamete and Paolo Prevostini.
WHERE TO SHOP Food Wander through the 164-foot-long cave at Crotto Ombra (14 Viale Pratogiano, Chiavenna; 39-0343/33403) to view 4,500 giant wheels of pungent cow's milk cheese. • Sisters Monica and Simonetta Del Curto are the latest keepers of a secret 17th-century biscuit recipe for biscottini di Prosto that has been handed down through their family for generations. Head to their bakery, Simonetta Del Curto (3 Via alla Chiesa, Prosto di Piuro; 39-0343/32733), and attempt to work out exactly what combination of wheat flour, sugar, and butter could produce such amazing results. • Whenever Valchiavenna's grandmothers suffer a bout of indigestion, they whip up a pot of tea brewed from erba iva, which grows high in the Alps. For a pack of the freshly gathered herbs, drop by Erboristeria I Naturali (10 Via Bossi, Chiavenna; 39-0343/35569), where owner Annamaria Perrone mixes tisanes from 200 kinds of dried plants. Beer and Wine Below Crotasc, his family's restaurant, Mamete Prevostini (63 Via Don Primo Lucchinetti, Mese; 39-0343/41003) matures his wine the old-fashioned way: in a natural cave. He is best known for Sassella reds, but he has had recent success with his Opera Chardonnay. • In the 1800's, Valchiavenna was home to nine breweries—which also used the valley's caves, as a cooling system—but all of them closed when modern refrigeration was introduced. Recently, two young artisans have revived the tradition, incorporating fresh spring water in the process. At Giandomenico Marrocchi's Birrificio Spluga (12 Via degli Emigranti, Gordona; 39-0343/41397), you'll find a collection of beer-related memorabilia and an osteria serving pasta alongside the delicious unpasteurized brews. Try the beer flavored with honey. • Davide Viale began making his unfiltered beers for Arte Giana (66 Via Spluga, San Cassiano-Prata; 39-0343/20458) in 1999. Step inside this modern building near Chiavenna for tastings of spicy double-malt bitter and creamy black stout. Housewares Popes and politicos have been among the proud owners of stone-and-copper cooking pots by Roberto Lucchinetti (5 Via alla Chiesa, Prosto di Piuro; 39-0343/35905). "Until the eighteenth century, there were hundreds of artisans making stone pans around Chiavenna," says the self-taught Lucchinetti. "Now I'm the only one left." Another must-have item from his orderly workshop is a carved stone chalice ($110). His atelier is also a mini museum: Ask to see the 1,000-year-old rock watch, one of only three pocket sundials from this era in Italy. Next door, Lucchinetti's wife, Paola De Pedrini, weaves scarves and hats from homegrown linen; later this year, the enterprising couple is opening a four-room B&B. Antiques For an instant history lesson on the Valchiavenna, flick through the stacks of prints at Il Tarlo (42 Via Pedretti, Chiavenna; 39-0343/32109). You may find a picture of Piuro's 1618 landslide.
WHAT TO SEE Wood-carved ceilings, frescoes of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and terraced gardens are among the attractions at the Renaissance Palazzo Vertemate Franchi (Località Cortinaccio, Prosto di Piuro; 39-0343/36384). The museum also has a portrait of Aloiso Vertemate de Franchi, a Don Giovanni type said to haunt the place. • Museo del Tesoro di San Lorenzo (3 Piazza Bormetti, Chiavenna; 39-0343/37152) is home to La Pace, one of the world's best pieces of medieval goldsmithery: the 955-year-old wood-and-gold Bible is encrusted with 94 pearls and 97 gemstones.
VALERIE WATERHOUSE is the Italy correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
• Italy's answer to the Great Wall of China: 1,242 miles of stone supports the vineyard terraces on the southern-facing slopes of the Middle Valtellina. Paola Pizzini (39-329/005-2523) organizes guided walks.
• During the Festival of Crotti (September 9-11; 39-0342/601-140), locals serve wine and food in Chiavenna's many stone caves.
• A secret bathing spot is La Pozza, a thermal pool on the road from Bormio to Isolaccia. To find it, follow the path next to the waterfall below the Hotel Bagni Vecchi.
• The mountains of Valchiavenna are perfect for hiking or canyoneering. The outfitter of choice: Italy's first female Alpine guide, Renata Rossi (39-333/190-5081).
• Extreme skier Marco Confortola (39-339/729-4318) takes less-than-expert walkers on gentle excursions through the shady larch woods near Bormio.
Known to area residents as il conte, Cesare Sertoli Salis became the Valtellina's highest-profile wine producer when he revived his aristocratic family's centuries-old vineyard in 1989. Today, hotels and restaurants around the world (including New York's San Domenico) fight to get the most prestigious bottles of Conti Sertoli Salis, like the award-winning Sforzato Canua. Here, il conte reveals his favorite places in the Valtellina: "In the village of Grosotto, near Tirano, Hotel Le Corti [73 Via Patrioti; 39-0342/848-624; doubles from $70] is simple, stylish, and well run." • "Altavilla [46 Via Ai Monti, Bianzone; 39-0342/720-355; dinner for two $65] makes the Valtellina's best sciatt. The restaurant is tiny, but it has four hundred wines and a vast selection of olive oils." • "The venison steaks at Sassella [2 Via Roma, Grosio; 39-0342/847-272; dinner for two $76] are cooked in one of our red wines, with thyme, marjoram, and wild sage." • "I buy homemade smoked bresaola from Macelleria Poretti [1 Largo Pretorio, Tirano; 39-0342/701-216]."
From mid-July through the end of August, the valleys of Valtellina and Valchiavenna are overcrowded. It's best to visit in spring or early fall, when the weather is good and visitors have the area practically to themselves.
Trains to Sondrio or Tirano leave just about every two hours from Milan's Centrale Station. The trip takes about two-and-a-half hours by train. Or you can drive there in three hours.
Another way to arrive is by helicopter. Flights from Malpensa, Linate, or Orio al Serio (Bergamo) airport arrive in Chiavenna, Sondrio, or Bormio. Or while you're in the area, book a panoramic flight ($830 for up to five people) over Pizzo Bernina, Valtellina's highest peak. $3,700 FOR A FIVE-PERSON HELICOPTER CHARTER FROM LINATE TO BORMIO. 39-0342/213-336
If you'd rather see the area in style, hire a car and driver from this Sondrio-based company. (Note: Italian-speakers only.) FROM $102 FOR TWO PER DAY, INCLUDING AIRPORT TRANSFER FROM MALPENSA. 39-0342/216-220
This Milan-based agency has facilities in the Valtellina—and English-speaking drivers. FROM $230 PER DAY. 39-02/6129-0742; www.minervalimousine.it
Tre Laghi Creative European Travel
For travelers who like to end a hard day of hiking with a gourmet meal and a feather-soft bed, Tre Laghi can book the entire trip. An eight-day tour takes in the Valchiavenna, Lake Como, and Switzerland's Engadine region. FROM $3,570 PER PERSON, INCLUDING ACCOMMODATIONS, MEALS, AND WINE. 800/293-1117 OR 503/227-2434; www.trelaghi.com
A PERFECT ITINERARY
Lower and Middle Valtellina
3 to 5 days. Stay in Ardenno, Sondrio, Tresivio, or Bianzone. Follow the Panoramica dei Castelli from Sondrio to Teglio, through vineyards, rural hamlets, and towns like Tresivio. Take the main SS38 route to Tirano. Shop for wine, food, and jewelry, explore cultural sites, and indulge in the local cuisine. Catch the Bernina Express train from Tirano to St. Moritz for a daylong side trip. Drive or hike around some of the area's lateral valleys (Valgerola, Valmalenco, Valmasino, Valdimello).
2 to 5 days. Stay in the spa resort of Bormio and explore the historic town. Tour the Braulio cellars, hike in the dramatic Upper Valley, and examine the primitive carvings at Grosio. You can easily visit Tirano's wine producers from here. Tip: Avoid weekends.
3 to 5 days. Stay in Chiavenna. Explore the valley's churches, museums, antique palazzi, restaurants, and artisanal stores. Take one all-day hike.
Hotel Combolo Restaurant
Ristorante Cerere di Marino Frato
Ristorante Castel Grumello
Sondrio's Sale e Pepe
Vecchio Ristorante Fiume
On the menu: potato pizzoccheri (a tagliatelle-like local favorite) expertly prepared by chef Max Tusetti and served in an intimate, stone-walled dining room.
Hotel Le Corti
Hotel Bagni Vecchi
Grand Hotel Bagni Nuovi
Check into the 74-room, 19th-century Art Nouveau–style property that's long been the preferred mountain hideaway of Italian A-listers (soccer star Alberto Gilardino and Bond girl Maria Grazia Cucinotta rank among recent guests). Don't miss the hotel's 53,800-square-foot spa, where you can relax in one of 30 open-air thermal baths while taking in the surrounding wooded hills and craggy peaks.