Chiavenna, Italy. The mountain air sketches my breath into wistful clouds and they linger.
Linger between the views from a summery Italian dream: vineyards, frescoes and spires of crumbling stone. And yet here they all are. The figures of classical Italy, framed by snow-encrusted clouds.
As one of Valtellina’s main towns in Lombardy, Chiavenna frequently stars in lists involving day trips from Milan.
But it’s only when I’m standing here that I realise just how much deeper the character of the place runs than that.
Once one of the most important place on the Alpine route between Italy and Switzerland, Chiavenna has all the charm of, say, Verona, but in winter, none of the crowds.
How do you pronounce Chiavenna?
Chive – enna?! Cheee-AV – enna? No. It’s more like Key-VENna but the more lilting you can make it, the better.
With its stone courtyards and fountains, its twinkling lights and its sumptuous, great food, it’s perfect for a long weekend visit in winter, and as a base for surrounding Valtellina.
Marry the best of Italy (the history, the beauty, the food!) with the best of snowy mountains (snow sports, and, er, the guilt-free consumption of a lot of hot cheese.)
From the Romans to the Renaissance, with swaying bridges that dip into the sky, Chiavenna Italy stars as my surprise discovery in a country I thought I knew.
While many mountain towns look postcard pretty perfect, Chiavenna’s unique footprint of history and geology sets it apart.
It’s a story of Roman quarries and medieval trading routes. Of fame and wealth, decline and tradition. Reinvention and the introduction of motorised winter sports.
All fed, quite literally, on a platter of folding soft ham, hot cheese and unfairly good sweet treats.
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Stylishly just out of town in Chiuro, Palazzo Vertemate invites contradiction at every turn. With its own chapel, vineyards, Italianate and orchard gardens, not to mention an imposing entrance, it seems every inch the grand country manor.
Yet the original owners, the Vertemate Franchi brothers, designed this to be a simple, rustic kind of medieval mansion. The frescoes reflect the ties with nature and a desire for simplicity that seems a hard circle to square with the opulence of the zodiac room and stately polished wooden meeting room.
It offers a fascinating insight into life during the Renaissance, when wealthy families ran empires of trade, art and science across the gateways of Europe.
A painting upstairs shows just how prominent the family used to be.
And a painting opposite sheds light onto how it all came to an end so suddenly.
A great landslide in 1618 smothered the city to near completion. As merchants, two of the owners were out of the country on business. They returned to find the village destroyed, their family gone.
The last owner passed the land and grounds to the local people.
Summer sees concerts, exhibitions and family gatherings but it is still possible to visit in winter. Without the heating but with the stone and the view of the lilac, smoking mountains rising around, it’s as if those medieval ghosts seem poised to return.
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With over 1000 caves, Chiavenna is a crotti extravaganza.
While caves in mountains may not be new, the idea of caves as a luxury item may well be.
During the golden medieval heydays, refrigeration didn’t involve electricity and lights that beam at your face every time you’re bored and procrastinating.
Instead, food preservation required precision and it helped to have a damn good cave.
As technology progressed, the well off converted their caves into wine cellars and added heading to some sections to create well-established restaurants.
Now a key pastime is to sip an aperitivo in a crotto, while nibbling on Valtellina’s version of parma ham (shh, don’t tell them I said that, it's really air-dried, salted beef) bresaola.
Some hot sciat cheese balls help against the cold too. I’d highly recommend Crotto Ubiali but you’ll find several others to choose from dotted around the caveside of Chiavenna.
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Walk through the picturesque grounds of the San Lorenzo Monastery as the sun sets in winter for an enchanting look at the past (and the mountains behind.)
If the stone figures staring over the gushing Mera river seem familiar, it’s because they are. The sculptor was the same artist behind the iconic figures on Karluv Most, or Charles Bridge in Prague. (They featured pretty heavily in one of the original Mission Impossible films if you’re old enough to remember that far back guys…)
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When you hear about pasta, cheese and butter, it doesn’t sound too good. In fact, it sounds like the kind of thing a student would knock up because there wasn’t anything else left in the kitchen and they were too bored or busy or broke to go to McDonalds.
Well, luckily, my experience of food in Italy had already moved me beyond all of that.
In reality, the ingredients are 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour, cheese, garlic and butter.
So, yes. Cheese, carbs, butter. But if my tastebuds could turn into an emoji they’d be raining little hearts of skipping joy across your screen.
Pizzoccheri tastes amazing!
And even after spilling all these words onto the page, I simply can’t do it justice. You just have to head to Valtellina. And taste the stuff yourself. Crotti not obligatory (well not entirely.)
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Yes, this sounds like the gnocchi-ribbon-chestnut pasta dish I was talking about. But we’re not talking about food but a place this time.
Piannazzola lives just above the city of Chiavenna. But it is WAY above. As in, 635 metres, with a teetering, breathless, beautiful view of Chiavenna with ankle-twisting steep cobbled streets.
It’s barely even a hamlet (although the ham there is great.)
We dined at La Terrazza, a restaurant offering a small, but tasty menu of traditional meats, risotto and soup, and a twinkling view of the city below, with the cloaking velvet darkness of the mountains all around.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the Valtellina Wine Trail, a series of events that combine outdoor exercise with a well-respected reputation for wine. Or, you could skip the exercise part, and just enjoy the region's hard earned expertise as a key wine area. Up to you.
Travel to any Alpine mountain area and you’ll find yourself awash with cheese. It’s a result of having to survive in harsh conditions and making the most of the milk that you have. Take fondue for a more famous example.
The Italian Alps are no exception, except that here the cheese mixes and mingles with more glamorous company than some of its cousins to the north.
There is, ovviamente, more than one cheese here. But Bitto cheese is the main one: a hard, slightly bitter cheese produced up in the alpeggi summer huts in the mountains.
It’s then aged in cellars for up to 20 years (more about finding delicious versions of those in Morbegno below.)
The name comes from Bitto, the river.
So, technically, you could argue this has nothing to do with Chiavenna. Or, you could just enjoy the cheese and maybe plan to visit nearby Bitto the next time around.
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Madesimo is a ski resort within an hour or so of Chiavenna. If ski-ing and snowboarding is not for you, try your hand (and feet) at snow mobiling. You need a driving license that’s accepted in Italy and I’d recommend you bring your own helmet as few places have them.
Warm up afterwards with (what else?) pizzoccheri at La Sorgente.
If skidding around on the snow really isn’t for you, then visit local delicacy shop Ma! They run small, informal cooking lessons and are passionate about the art of food.
Here’s the spot to learn about another couple of delicacies you’ll find across Valtellina: sciat and bresaola.
Pronounced (unfortunately) as sh-at, move past the name to enjoy one of the hottest things around. Created from bitto mountain cheese and deep fried in home-made batter, these little balls come with cute tails that make them perfect for a mountainside appetiser. Visit Ma! in Madesimo for a cooking demonstration. The name comes from the fact that the names of the owners all begin with M. That, and, apparently "Ma!" means "let's see whether or not this will work."
If you haven’t heard of it before, this is Valtellina’s answer to parma ham. Each village, or perhaps even each producer, adds their own recipe to the crust so each tastes distinctly different. Ma! in Madesimo also offers a behind the scenes glimpse of the production process, fungus 'n' all. If you really enjoy it, it may be best to skip this! You'll never look at it in the same light again.
A curious spot if you have a car and enjoy the drive, is the hanging pedestrian bridge near Tartano.
Billed as the highest of its kind in Europe, it’s possible that others may just beat its record (the one in Sochi, for example. But then you’re into arguments about geopolitics that just don't seem worth it for a wobbly-legged experience on a bridge.)
However, it’s probably the highest Tibetan style bridge in Europe and once your’e standing on it, all 140 metres above the churning water, it seems less and less important to quibble over the finer details.
Designed to provide hikers and villagers with a less arduous commute, it’s now a tourist curio that offers some muscle-quivering mountain views.
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The mountainside village of Morbegno dovetails nicely with an excursion to see the Ponte nel Cielo.
All peeling-paint pretty with cobbled lanes to get lost in, Morbegno excels in its opportunities to indulge and call it a cultural experience.
In particular, look out for these two highlights:
As cosy as you might expect from a converted inn over 400 years old, Osteria del Zep serves up Valtellina's classics with a homemade, working club air. The curious memorabilia on display throughout the several levels adds to the mystique of the occasion.
It’s the last spot in this article, but it’s the top spot in my memories.
It was the sign that first caught my eye. I assumed it was a modern take on an old classic and was delighted to discover it was original.
Drogheria - Granaglie - Formaggi – Cordami. Four words that someone painted in hope and excitement at the launch of a new business venture. One they scarcely could have imagined someone would be visiting nearly a century and a half later – and broadcasting to the rest of the world.
Unprompted, they invited us to explore the three storeys of cellars and vaults that house wine and f shadowy lit reams of bitto cheese.
Milan is the closest airport city and has three airports of its own: Bergamo, Linate and Malpensa.
The train station is central and the journey straightforward (2 hours) from Milan so if you only plan to stay in Chiavenna, that may be the easiest way to go.
However, a car brings a lot of freedom to this area, connecting you easily to the resort area of Madesimo and the picturesque Tibetan bridge in Tartano. But be warned. Roads here are very narrow, very steep and very windy on the mountains. The drive from Milan is straightforward enough but once in the mountains, you need a strong stomach and laser-sharp eyes. Not for the faint of heart. I mean it!
Technically, Chiavenna is a municipality in the Lombardy region of Italy. Within that, it’s part of the Sondrio province.
So, what’s Valchiavenna? That’s the Alpine region that contains Chiavenna. Ah, place names. Throw in one or two thousand years of history and a mish-mash of crossing languages and linguistics, and sooner or later everyone ends up confused.
What does Chiavenna mean?
Rumour has it the word stems from “claves” for keys, meaning that Chiavenna is the key to the mountain. Given its importance to the region over the centuries, it’s tempting to believe this. Romantic, even. However, alas, it doesn’t entirely appear to be true…
Pizzoccheri - cheese, carbs and butter!
Bitto cheese - a hard, slightly bitter cheese 20 years in the making.
Sciat - created from bitto mountain cheese and deep fried in home-made batter.
Bresaola - soft, ribbony ham with an individual crust. Think parma ham or jamon iberico but with its own distinctive soul.
Conveniently located for train travel and walks into Chiavenna, Hotel San Lorenzo is a comfortable, clean and classic place to lay your head if you plan on staying for more than a day (which you should.) As a three star hotel, don’t expect runaway design, extravagant breakfasts or a turn down service but do expect a decent place to stay.
Did you know?
Chiavenna is part of the Cittaslow movement, inspired by the Slow Food Movement.
Disclosure: I visited Chiavenna through a project arranged by iAmbassador as part of their #inLombardia365 campaign with Lombardia Tourism. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Cheese and everything.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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