The ‘Key’. That’s what its name means. ‘Chiavenna’, or ‘Clavis’ in Roman times, then ‘Ciavenna’ at the times of Leonardo da Vinci, when the Tuscan genius visited the small town and registered its visit in one of his pages. Ciavenna, or ‘ciavv’, key in Lombard: a clear descendant from Latin, just turn ‘l’ into ‘i’ – an easy mistake we all can experience daily – and you have it! An a key Chiavenna is, as a matter of fact.
For thousands of years now – ever since the Roman legionnaires put their feet in this area – this small town at the crossing of two alpine valleys and passes has been the place for traders and merchants between North and South of the Alps. A hub, we would call it our days.
Coming in from South, or from the Po valley, and further south Rome, and then the Mediterranean and the Northern shores of Africa, caravans would see the long and winding paths to the Splugen Pass, their left, and the one to the Maloja Pass, just as long and winding, to their right. Both roads would open the way to the Northern side of the Alps, to the Rhine region (Splugen Pass) or to the Danube. Carts and animals carrying olive oil, wine, salt, silks and other precious goods typical of the Mediterranean regions would climb up northbound, while other carts and animal would cross their paths the other side carrying fish and precious gems from the Baltics, like amber, or other handcrafted goods in iron and stones Romans loved so much. Chiavenna was clearly the key to all this, the last chance for supply and rest for those going north, before taking on the steepy slopes, the first hospice for those descending the Alps and looking for rest after the fatigues of crossing ewither pass.
Those days – and the days after till our own times – rest and supply would mean eat and drink: Clavis would then be filled up with lots of tabernae, taverns in Latin, where traders and merchants, travellers and their servants could find what they needed. A tradition that has crossed the ages and come to us straight away. Only the name is different: crotto, as they started to call them in the Middle Ages. Tabernae or crottos, there is no difference, they are both evidence of the traditional hospitality culture in this town.
Crottos are caves in the mountains, either natural or man-made. They are characterized by a particular ecosystem, such that keeps a steady temperature and humidity year round. They can be found all over the Alps, but Chiavenna’s crottos have something more: a soft, steady, breeze that comes across them from insie the mountains and helps give salumi and cheese their typical plus in taste.
There are some 96 crottos today, in Chiavenna and its immediate neighborhood. Most are private, open only during the yearly Festa dei Crotti (Crottos Feast) held in September. Only a few are public places, where anyone can sit and taste the specialties of the area: cheese, salami, pizzoccheri chiavennaschi (pizzoccheri chiavenna style, to differ them from pizzoccheri valtellina style), sciatt (breaded, fried cheese molded to remind a toad, or sciatt in Lombard), the well known brisaola, dried meat, a traditional food for villagers and shepherds on the mountains. Wine, of course. You can find them at Pratoggiano, just next to the bus and train station: you can easily ride your train from Milan through Lecco, change in Colico and then one more last short train to Chiavenna, walk 1′ to the right of the station to Pratoggiano and there you are, watching the line of crottos ready to present you with their best products. Pick any of them, they’re all good: believe me, I tried them all over the years!
Chiavenna is not only food and wine: this small Alpine town is good at culture, too, with several proposals you cannot miss! A small walk from Pratoggiano is the Collegiata, a masterpiece of religious architecture, open every day, with precious pieces from medieval times, as early as the 1100s. A tombstone is the evidence of the strong connection between this area and the Iberian peninsula, with the memory of Anna Nunes, a Lusitan woman who died here in 1549, when the Kings of Spain ruled the area. A bit hidden from your eyes, in a small courtyard, a museum with the memories of the town.
Another short walk is the Castle. Imposing, massive, strong-looking. Walk around it, taking the narrow street to the left, and you will find the Giardino Botanico, botanic garden: a must during Spring and Summer, when you can enjoy the blossoming of the many flowers and plants. The trailpath takes you to the top of the first stony hill, and then to the other cross a wood and iron bridge.
This used to be one hill only, but since pre-Roman times men have carved the heart of the hill until they cut it through and made two hills out of one. They used to carve stones to be used in the making of pots. Banners and signs tell you the story of the carving, while all over the place you can see thousands of these little stones carved out.
You walk in Chiavenna is not over yet; there is still a lot to see, either walking downtown or strolling along the riverbanks. Here you can find houses and buildings built on the remains of the defensive walls Milan erected: no use, as fifteen years later only the Grigions swept the town, the valley and the whole of the region.
Signs of the Swiss domination can still be found in the architecture of the town and in the character of the people: where else in Italy can you find young guys riding their motorbikes who stops at pedestrian crossings and let you pass first?