Discovering Lombardy: Valtellina, the Heart of the Alps

Fri, 01/31/2014 - 02:00

Often overshadowed by neighboring Trentino with its famous Dolomites, Valtellina, a vast area extending for 200 kilometers within the northern region of Lombardy, right in the middle of the Alps, is equally beautiful and has a lot to offer to lovers of the outdoors – not to mention its cultural heritage and delicious food.

Bordering with Switzerland in the north, Valtellina features a varied landscape, beginning at an altitude of 200 mt in the northern tip of Lake Como, reaching an height of 4000 mt at the Pizzo Bernina. As you ascend, the sun-bathed valley floor, cultivated with apples, is replaced by woods and terraced vineyards where Nebbiolo grapes produce excellent red wines like the Sforzato.

Park and natural reserves constitute more than a third of the Valtellina area, making it a paradise for those looking for active holidays: options include hiking in the Stelvio National Park and the Orobie Valtellinesi Park, biking along the Sentiero Valtellina and Ciclabile Valchiavenna, horse riding along the shores of the Adda river, rafting, skiing all year round along 436 km of pistes, snowmobiling at Madesimo on 70 km of trails.



A transit zone between northern and southern Europe, Valtellina has played an important role since Roman times thanks to its strategic position.

Evidence of human life goes back 10,000 years; a visit at sunset of the Rupe Magna di Grosio, a park with more than 5,000 rock engravings depicting thousand-old figures of warriors and animals, is a spell-binding experience.  

Centuries ago, the historic Via Valtellina was an important trade route where goods transported to and from the rest of Italy and Europe included wine, salted meat, chestnuts, salt, spices, and fabrics arriving from Venice. Today, it has been transformed into a multi-day trekking route that combines the pleasure of walking within a natural environment with the chance to experience many cultural attractions.

Its starting point is the village of Tirano, one of the most important political and economic crossroads of Valtellina, reaching its height between the 16th and 18th century.

The historic center of Tirano used to be surrounded by walls erected in 1497 by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, to defend the town from the Grigioni, who conquered Tirano and the entire Valtellina area in 1512. Three of the doors that made up the walls have been preserved.

The Basilica of the Madonna di Tirano is a pilgrimage destination since the 16th century, when, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to a local man who was praying for the end of the plague. The Virgin Mary asked that a sanctuary be built in her honor in the exact location where she appeared. Construction began in 1505. The three-aisle, Latin-cross shaped basilica is the most beautiful example of a Renaissance church in Valtellina.

Tirano is also famous as the departure point of the Trenino Rosso del Bernina (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The spectacular train ride across the Alps is not simply a connection between Italy and Switzerland; it’s an adventure in the middle of the mountains, traveling on an alpine railway that is the highest in Europe and one of the steepest in the world. Its panoramic carriages allow for a 360° view; the train travels across the Bernina Pass at 2,253 meters of altitude, before it descends toward St. Moritz.

Tirano is just one of the many historic villages and borghi that dot Valtellina with their extraordinary palaces and churches, towers and castles, exposing the influence of the different cultures that shaped the area throughout the centuries.


The 17th century Palazzo Salis in Tirano has remained the property of the Conti Sertoli Salis, once the governors and magistrates (podestà) for the Grigioni in Valtellina (the Grigioni dominated in Valtellina from the early 16th century to the late 18th century – they came from the territory to the north of the Alps).

The façade is framed by two towers with a central Baroque door. It features an Italian garden (giardino all’italiana), one of the most significant in Lombardy and the most known in Valtellina. 

Inside, the itinerary winds through ten decorated and frescoed rooms, including the "Saloncello", an important gathering point for the representatives of political power in Valtellina in the 17th and 18th centuries.

There is also a small Baroque family church dedicated to S. Carlo Borromeo, cardinal archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584.

Palazzo Besta in Teglio is a beautiful 15th century residence, architectural example of an age striving for beauty and love for life.

The heart of the palace is the magnificent interior courtyard surrounded by a portico whose walls are decorated with scenes from the Aeneid.

On the first floor, visitors can admire the salone d’onore (main hall) decorated with scenes from the “Orlando Furioso,” the Italian epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto.  

On the ground floor, the Antiquarium Tellinum Museum houses the vestiges of Valtellina civilization and art, including the three stones of "Caven," like the Mother Goddess of Fertility.

The Palazzo Vertemate Franchi is considered a masterpiece of the Renaissance. Located in Prosto di Piuro, near Chiavenna in Val Bregaglia, it was built in the second half of the 16th century by the brothers Guglielmo and Luigi Vertemate Franchi, members of a rich local family. It is the only building that survived the landslide of 1618, which flooded the village.

The palace is immersed in a beautiful environment, and the visit gives an idea of how an aristocratic family of the 16th-17th century lived. The front is simple and essential, surrounded by an Italian garden with a  fishpond, a chestnut grove, a fruit orchard, a vineyard, a kitchen garden and the garden sheds.

Inside, the decorations and paintings were carried out during the 16th century and represent subjects drawn from Greek and Roman mythology and from Ovid’s "Metamorphosis.”

The palace includes two “stüe,” rooms entirely paneled with wood in order to insulate them from the cold.  The stue and the frescoed ceilings are the most spectacular features of the palace, contributing to make you feel the atmosphere of ancient times.


How to reach Valtellina:

Nearest airports: Milan Linate, Milan Malpensa, Bergamo Orio al Serio

By train: from Milan to either Tirano or Chiavenna with Trenitalia and Trenord

For a ride on the Bernina Express:

By car: from Milan, S.S. 36 Spluga; from Como, S.S. 340 Regina; from St. Moritz, N. 29 Bernina (CH)

For more information, visit Valtellina Turismo.

Photos provided by Valtellina Turismo.