From the stunning Palazzo Vertemate Franchi and tasty Bresaola and Bitto cheese to the natural beauty of the Acquafraggia waterfalls and stunning mountain scenery, Chiavenna is a town that needs to be seen.
If you’re spending time in Milan this summer, be sure to make time to visit the gorgeous alpine town of Chiavenna in Lombardy. I really don’t know how this dreamy little town has remained a secret for so long.
Chiavenna is a pretty mountain town that’s easily reached by train or car and is a lovely place for a day trip from Milan or Lake Como. It has everything you need for a perfect day trip or short break. Think history, culture, stunning mountain scenery and a charming location. Chiavenna also has a raft of culinary offerings so your tastebuds are in for a treat too.
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Because Chiavenna isn’t a well-known tourist haunt, at least not yet, you can enjoy all the charm of the more popular Italian towns without the crowds.
We visited Chiavenna during a tour of Lombardy’s towns and villages and it was one of my favourite places. Read on to discover why I fell in love with Chiavenna and some of the fascinating things to do when you visit this romantic Alpine town.
Where is Chiavenna?
The dreamy town of Chiavenna lies at the northernmost reach of Lake Como, less than 10 miles from the Swiss border. And together with nearby Valtellina, it forms the area of ValChiavenna, a mountainous area at the foot of the Maloja Pass in the Sondrio province of Lombardy, Italy.
Chiavenna nestles cosily among the Italian Alps, surrounded by peaks reaching as high as 3000m which means there’s an outrageously gorgeous view in just about every direction.
What is Chiavenna known For?
Chiavenna is known for:
- Palazzo Vertemate Franchi – a beautiful palazzo and the only remaining villa of the Vertemati family
- The Crotti – caves which are naturally cooled cellars used to age cheese and store produce
- The Acquafraggia waterfalls – a double waterfall cascading 1800 metres down a rock face
- Dì della Brisaola (Bresaola Day) the chance to try the best air-dried, salted beef from dozens of different producers
- Bitto Cheese and Gnocchetti di Chiavenna – yes, there’s cheese!
The history of Chiavenna
Chiavenna has a long and storied history of wealth tempered with tragedy. This mountain town used to lie on a key trading route between Milan and Munich, and its castle was an important strategic point.
The town’s location made it a prime target, and it has changed hands several times since Roman times. At various points in its history, Chiavenna has been part of the Byzantine Empire, Napoleon’s Cisalpine Republic and the Habsburg Empire.
Chiavenna’s most wealthy and influential merchant families invested heavily in art and culture, creating the beautiful Renaissance-style villas, gardens and vineyards that once filled the town. But all that changed on 25th August 1618, when the area was destroyed by one of the worst landslides in history.
Over 1000 people were killed, and most of the town of Chiavenna was destroyed. Only one building survived – the Vertemate Franchi family’s summer villa, which is now known as Palazzo Vertemate Franchi.
How to pronounce Chiavenna
One of the first questions I asked our guide, Aurora, was ‘how do you pronounce Chiavenna?’ She was happy to tell me that in Italian, the Ch gives a hard C sound at the beginning of a word, so it’s closer to Kia-VENN-a. Of course it sounds a lot better said in her lilting Italian accent than my English one.
The original Roman name for Chiavenna was Clavenna. Popular folklore says the town’s name was derived from the Roman word clavis (keys), signifying that Chiavenna is the key to the surrounding mountains. True? Probably not but I think I rather like that explanation.
Your Guide to Chiavenna
If you’re looking for a guide to show you around then I can highly recommend Aurora. She’s local, incredibly knowledgeable, a lot of fun and made our visit thoroughly enjoyable and very memorable. Her contact is [email protected].
The best things to do in Chiavenna
Chiavenna isn’t well-known as a holiday destination for foreign tourists, so the only visitors tend to be those day-tripping from Milan or popping over the Swiss border to stock up on a few local specialities. In winter it’s a good base for a ski holiday.
This means the town has maintained its authenticity, making it the perfect location to enjoy a stroll through the old town, a little Italian culture and some excellent Italian cuisine. I’m thinking mountain cheese and bresaola but more about the food later – I promise you it’s worth the wait.
The following shouldn’t be missed on your visit to Chiavenna in Lombardy.
Palazzo Vertemate Franchi
Palazzo Vertemate Franchi might not look overly impressive from the outside, but once you step inside, the interior will seriously take your breath away. Inside this Renaissance villa, you’ll find stunning frescos, intricately carved wooden ceilings and stucco decorations that date back to before the landslide of 1618.
The palazzo was built to take advantage of the sun’s light and heat which poured through the windows the day we visited. The rooms and frescos were infused with warmth which brought them to life. Themes of astronomical, seasonal and Ovid’s metamorphosis adorn the walls and there’s humour too.
In one room the frescoes depict women as pillars supporting the ceiling. Above the doorway there’s less room so the woman painted here gets to sit. She has a smirk on her face and all the standing women are giving her envious looks!
Head outside the Palazzo to explore a beautiful Italian garden with typical Renaissance-style geometric lines, fish pond, orchard and a chestnut wood. It’s also the home of the only walled vineyard in the Italian Alps. There’s a tiny frescoed chapel in the grounds.
Make time to see two pre-1618 paintings to give you an idea of how the area would’ve looked before the landslide. Family portraits hang nearby including one of Niccolò who’s amorous ghost is said to walk the corridors in search of young women.
The Palazzo is in Prosto di Piuro, about 3-miles outside Chiavenna, and was originally one of eight homes owned by one of Chiavenna’s wealthiest families. All except this building were destroyed in the landslide, but visiting the Palazzo Vertemate Franchi is the best place to get an idea of what the life of a wealthy family in the valley must once have been like.
A visit to Palazzo Vertemate Franchi is one of the best things to do in Chiavenna.
The Acquafraggia waterfalls are just a short drive or half an hour’s walk from Palazzo Vertemate Franchi. The torrent of water cascades down over 1800 metres, its journey broken by several cliffs that give the falls their Latin-based name (aqua fracta – broken water). The final part of the water’s descent creates a beautiful double waterfall which is one of the most beautiful Alpine falls.
We couldn’t decide which side the falls looked better from so here are shots of both. You decide.
This scenic area is ideal for hiking, rockclimbing and cycling. Several beautiful hikes start from the Acquafraggia waterfalls, including one that follows a winding mule track up to the ancient village of Savogno.
If you’ve arrived in Chiavenna by train you could hire e-bikes in the town and ride up to the waterfalls and Palazzo Vertemate Franchi.
The Crotti in Chiavenna
The Crotti are caves and ravines set in the hills and mountains of Valchiavenna. There are hundreds, some naturally formed and others which have been hewn into the rock by human hand. All have one thing in common – The Sorèl.
This current of cool air gently blows through the caves and crevices at a constant temperature of 7-8° C all year round. These natural cellars are like fridges and are the ideal places to store cold meats, wine, fresh produce and to age cheese. I can tell you there’s a lot of good cheese in Chiavenna!
Many of the crotti in Chiavenna are family owned and are passed down through the generations. Several have a restaurant attached like the one we visited, Crotto Ubiali, which dates back to 1789. We sat outside on a sun-drenched terrace for an incredible lunch of traditional Chiavenna dishes and locally produced wine. This was my absolute favourite meal during our 10-days exploring the towns and villages of Lombardy. More about our meal later…
Collegiate church of San Lorenzo
The Collegiata di San Lorenzo is Chiavenna’s main church, which dates back to at least the 10th century and has stunning interior decoration. The church is famous for its Romanesque baptismal font and the Pace di Chiavenna, a golden Bible cover that dates back to the 11th century.
The baptismal font was carved from a single block of soapstone in 1156, and its intricate sculpted decorations depict the baptism ceremony.
And if you have room on your Chiavenna itinerary, it’s worth taking time to explore the Collegiata’s cloister and peaceful gardens.
Museo del Tesoro (Museum of Treasures)
Next to the Collegiata di San Lorenzo, you’ll find the Museo del Tesoro – Chiavenna’s Museum of Treasures. And that name is very apt, as the museum is filled with Chiavenna’s most important religious objects from medieval times through to the 18th century.
The museum contains church ornaments and vestments, many of which were gifted to the church by migrants over the centuries.
Il Pace di Chiavenna (The Peace of Chiavenna) is a stunning goldwork Gospel cover from the 11th century that used to be held at San Lorenzo but is now preserved by the Museo del Tesoro. It’s made from a walnut panel covered with 23 sheets of gold and decorated with pearls and gemstones.
The Old Town, Chiavenna
Chiavenna is a wonderfully photogenic town with plenty of Instagram-worthy locations. Wander through the Old Town, past carefully-preserved facades that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, visit stone courtyards and take a photo from the bridge on the river Mera, with water bubbling beneath you and the mountains providing a dramatic backdrop.
Ponte del Mera
The picturesque bridge over the gushing Mera river connects Piazza Pestalozzi to Via Bossi. Ponte del Mera commemorates a Czech preacher at the court of King Wenceslas in the 1300s, the patron saint of people in danger of drowning.
His statue appears on the bridge along with many other bridges throughout the area once controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. If the statue looks familiar then Charles Bridge in Prague might jog your memory – the statues on the Charles bridge are by the same artist.
Chiavenna’s Bresaola Festival
As luck would have it, our visit to Chiavenna coincided with the annual Bresaola festival (Di della Bresaola) which takes place in October each year.
But first, what is bresaola? Bresaola (spelt brisaola in Chiavenna), is cured, air-dried beef. Bresaola production originates in Valchiavenna and dates back as far as the 15th century when it was necessary to store food for the winter months. Nowadays it’s mainly served as antipasto.
A very lean cut of beef is rubbed with a mix of salt and a mix of spices, individual to each producer. The beef is then air dried from two to four months until it becomes hard and dark red in colour.
What does bresaola taste like? The beef is sliced very finely, like proscuitto, and tastes slightly salty with hints of the herbs and spices used on the crust. There can be huge variations in flavour.
At the festival you can buy a wristband which allows you a taste of Bresaola from each of the stalls set around the town. We consulted our map of the town and made it our mission to visit each of the different bresaola producers for a sample of their wares. We made it round all twelve!
The bresaola festival is a lively, fun event with visitors and locals enjoying the wealth of Chiavenna’s delicious culinary offerings, live music and a carnival atmosphere.
Choose from Heaven or Hell at Paradiso Botanical Garden
Head to the hilltop Paradiso botanical garden to enjoy panoramic view over the historic town centre. Two hills ‘Paradiso’ and ‘Castellaccio’ overlook the town with a bridge connecting the two – one hill represents paradise and the other hell.
It’s up to you which side you choose to stay on but either way be sure to head to the ruined fort at the top for epic views over the town, through the valley and to the horseshoe of mountains behind.
At the base of the hills Castellaccio museum takes you over an ancient potstone quarry used since Roman times to produce cooking pots.
Sagra dei Crotti food festival
If you plan to visit Chiavenna in early September, you can join in with the Sagra dei Crotti. This is a fantastic food festival that takes place over the first two weekends of September.
The crotti fling open their doors to celebrate the fantastic local produce, and everyone gathers together to eat, drink, have fun and celebrate the crotti culture with traditional Valchiavenna food and wine. Stalls line the streets and guided tours visit various crotti and food producers. It’s gourmet heaven and a great way to sample all the excellent food that Chiavenna brings to the table. Talking of which…
Food you need to try in Chiavenna
A visit to Chiavenna would not be complete without trying some of Valchiavenna’s traditional dishes. We’ve learned about the crotti and the food they produce but let’s dive into the dishes they serve up.
Bitto, named after the river that runs through the region, is a hard cheese which can be aged anywhere from six weeks to three years, usually in the crotti. The DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) cheese is made with cow’s milk and 10-20% of goat’s milk.
Before it matures the bitto has a soft texture similar to Gouda. As it ages the taste sharpens and it hardens to make a good cooking cheese which has a strong taste due to the goat’s milk. If the Bitto is matured and conserved well it can be used for around 10 years. As if that would ever actually happen in our house…
This is the meal we tucked into at Crotto Ubiali in Chiavenna…
Bitto is used in dishes like Sciatt, a typical starter or appetizer. The cheese is coated in buckwheat batter and deep fried in oil. Sciatt are deliciously light and crispy and make a perfect hot cheesy nibble. Our sciatt was served with a selection of salumi and bresaola.
Pizzoccheri della Valtellina
This Valtellina dish, also known as ‘Pizzoccheri Bianchi’, is hearty mountain food and typical of the Valchiavenna region.
Pizzoccheri are short strips of pasta made with 80% buckwheat and 20% white flour. They are cooked and then added to lashings of butter and bitto or casera cheese seasoned with sage and garlic.
Pizzoccheri della Valtellina also includes potatoes for a double carb hit and there’s cabbage to ensure there’s something that’s actually healthy included. It’s brought to the table with the cheese bubbling away and is totally impossible to resist. If this wasn’t carb fest enough our Primi Piatti was served with….
Gnocchetti di Chiavenna
This dish is very similar to Pizzoccheri ella Valtellina above. The difference is that the pasta is replaced with small dumplings made from breadcrumbs, flour and milk. There’s no cabbage. However, you’ll be happy to learn that the copious amounts of cheese, butter, garlic and sage remain the same. Yum!
Our ‘secondi piatti’ (main course) consisted of succulent ribs served with polenta zola, that’s polenta with, you guessed it, more cheese! This time it’s gorgonzola hence the name zola. The polenta was perfect for mopping up all the juices from the ribs.
Our meal paired beautifully with a bottle of very good wine called Sasella Sommarovina Valtellina Superiore from nearby winery Mamete Prevostini. This rich red wine offered hints of spices with berry undertones and perfectly complemented our meal.
Desserts were on the menu too but we didn’t have room – not even for gelato.
Getting to Chiavenna
The easiest way to get to Chiavenna is to take the train. Regional trains take two hours to reach Chiavenna from the nearest airport city, Milan, and there’s no need to reserve your tickets ahead of your visit. You’ll find Chiavenna train station conveniently located in the centre of town.
Chiavenna is also well-connected by bus to the Swiss cities of Splugen, Lugano and St. Moritz.
If you plan to explore the local area, you might prefer to hire a car and drive to Chiavenna. The scenic drive along Lake Como’s eastern shore takes around two hours from Milan. But bear in mind that driving in Italy can be…interesting as the mountain roads around Chiavenna are steep, narrow and twisty.
The weather in Chiavenna
Chiavenna has a typical European climate, so it is warm in the summer and cold in the winter. The average temperature reaches 23°C in July and drops as low as -5°C in January. We enjoyed glorious sunshine and temperatures of 24°C in early October.
The mountain location means that Chiavenna sees rain and snow reasonably frequently throughout the year, but the summer months generally see more dry days.
When is the best time to visit Chiavenna?
Unless you are planning to visit one of Chiavenna’s food festivals, the best time of year to visit would be in late Spring or through the summer months. This is when the weather is warmest, and there’s a better chance that you’ll have dry weather.
Alternatively, you may prefer to visit the area in the winter months and spend a day skiing in Madesimo, a ski resort within an hour or so of Chiavenna.
Getting around in Chiavenna
If you’re mainly planning to stay in the town, it’s easy enough to get around Chiavenna on foot. This will allow you to see most of the main sites like the Old Town, the church of San Lorenzo and the Museo del Tesoro.
If you plan to go further afield, hiring a bike would allow you to visit the Palazzo Vertemate Franchi and the Acquafraggia waterfalls. You could also take the cycle path down the Mera River to Lake Como or visit the suspension bridge at Bondo, around 9 miles from Chiavenna.
And of course, you could also hire a car to explore the local area, but don’t forget those twisty mountain roads. If you miss your turn-off you could get stuck in a road tunnel for miles – I’m speaking from experience here…
Where to stay in Chiavenna
Chiavenna is a fairly small town, but there are several options for accommodation, including family-run hotels, holiday homes and B&Bs.
Here are a few options for accommodation:
The Hotel San Lorenzo is just a few minutes walk from the train station, so it’s ideally placed for exploring Chiavenna. The air-conditioned rooms all have a TV and complimentary toiletries, and most have a hydromassage shower. Some rooms enjoy a balcony or mountain view, and the hotel’s onsite restaurant serves local cuisine.
If you are hiring a car or bikes, you might prefer to look further afield for accommodation. The Foresteria B&B Vecchiascuola in Pianazzola is around 3 miles from Chiavenna and has amazing views over the town. Each room at this B&B has a fully-equipped private bathroom, and you can choose between buffet and Italian breakfasts.
Check rates and availability at Foresteria B&B Vecchiascuola
Or, if you prefer self-contained accommodation, the Clavis Luxury Apartments are modern and comfortable, with excellent facilities. Each apartment has a fully-equipped kitchen, a private bathroom with complimentary toiletries, flat-screen TV, and free WiFi. There is private parking on site and even a ski storage space!
Check rates and availability at Clavis Luxury Apartments
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This article was written in collaboration with iambassador for the ‘Viaggio Italiano’ Project (Italian National Tourist Board, Ministry of Tourism & Conference of Regions and Autonomous Provinces). All opinions and newfound love of Lombardia in Italy remain entirely my own.