Day 1 – Saturday
It’s a bright sunny day with temperatures in the early teens when we arrive in Tirano. Having just traversed over the snow-covered Swiss Alps, through frosty valleys and icicle-clad hills, the warmth is a pleasant surprise. The Bernina Express was our main focus of this weekend trip and how we’ve ended up in Tirano. The panoramic train ride takes four hours, from Chur to Tirano and is a marvel of engineering and also a UNESCO world heritage attraction.
If it weren’t for the Bernina Express, I doubt this small pocket of northern Italy would be much visited. It’s off the beaten track, apart from the small amount of tourists who arrive off the train to spend a night before heading to Milan, as we’re doing.
Tirano lies in an alpine valley close to the border of Switzerland, surrounded on all sides by impressive mountains. We spy isolated houses and medieval villages clinging to hillsides with no obvious roads or tracks leading up to access them, donkeys are required perhaps, who knows?
There are under 10,000 people living here and there’s a sleepy atmosphere punctuated by the fresh bubbling river Adda cutting through the middle.
We’re staying on the north side of the river at B&B Sweet Home which is situated very close to the train line we came in on. It’s a cute four storeyed pink brick building with a Juliet balcony, which I’m delighted to find out is ours, affording views of the main street and mountains beyond.
Cristina, our host, gives us a map, which is helpful for exploring. Across the river is the Old Town, once fortified, and which still bears the remains of a couple of 15th century gates. She marks a few points of interest on the map; a recommended restaurant, a winery, a church.
After relaxing and freshening up we head out again, following the incredibly long stretch of Viale Italia to Piazza Basilica and its ornate church, San Giacomo.
During the walk up to the church the Bernina Express comes slowly snaking across the road off to St. Moritz, a ski resort two hours away in Switzerland. A local licking an ice cream motions and says “Non ritorno”, which I gather to mean that it’s a one way trip, at least for today.
On the way back we stop off at Lollipop a casual bar and restaurant franchise which also sells massive ice cream sundaes. Since we haven’t had lunch we settle for a burger and fries, though the ice creams do look amazing. The girls are friendly and seem to know everyone that drops in, stopping their work to chat and laugh.
Re-energized we head over the bridge to the Old Town and try to find the restaurant on the map. It’s a pleasant wander down cobblestone lanes, discovering one of the old gates, an ancient drinking fountain and lovely buildings bathed in the soft glow of the slowly setting sun.
The restaurant, Parravicini, when we find it, does look nice but it’s quite expensive as well. Chris wonders what ‘pizzoccheri’ is, and a nearby couple overhears, the boyfriend tells us it’s the local pasta. Oh so not a pizza then like I thought it was.
Funnily enough we end up having pizza for dinner after all, from a local shop across the road from the B&B. There are numerous pizza joints in Tirano, giving the churches a run for their money.
Day 2 – Sunday
The next day we’re at a loose end until 3pm when our train for Milan leaves. We check out the map and spy a short hike up to a church on a small hill to the west of the town. After a sumptuous breakfast at B&B Sweet Home, we check-out and make our way back towards Piazza Basilica. The town is buzzing with locals off to church and tour groups milling about in the piazza.
The hike up to Santa Perpetua winds up through rows of grapevines which must be glorious in the spring and summer but are now just brown stalks. Valtellina Valley has been producing wine for over 2000 years thanks to the Etruscans who started fermenting grape juice. Apparently even Leonardo da Vinci described the local wines as “powerful and exciting”.
Puffing and hot, I stop at intervals to take off layer by layer until I’m just wearing a T-shirt. The problem with only taking a small pack for this weekend’s trip is that we’re carrying everything with us on the walk, including coats, hats, scarves and gloves.
Eventually we reach the top and are rewarded by a stunning mountainous panorama and a bird’s eye view of Tirano and the stately tower of San Giacomo jutting up in the foreground with its bells chiming across the valley.
We cool off in the fresh mountain air and head back down to the town by way of the road, a few other walkers have the same idea too.
We have an hour before our train so have lunch at the Bernina Hotel across from the station. We partake of a couple of the delicious local pasta dishes, including the pizzoccheri pasta, and some lipsmackingly good desserts, all served on a crisp white linen table cloth and highly polished silverware.
I spy Valtellina wine on the menu at eye watering prices and go for an orange juice instead, sorry Leonardo!