Tirano and Grosio: Italian Day Trips in the Pandino

When someone gives you the keys to their '91 Fiat Panda, you don't just shrug the offer off. You grab said keys, stick 'em in the ignition, and head off deliriously into the mountains and valleys of Northeast Italy.

(Fact.)
The beautiful panda, affectionately known as "Pandino." Take it and run
Teglio, the tiny mountain town on the outskirts of which John and I are currently volunteering, is the rustic neighbor to two also rustic mountain towns called Grosio and Tirano. All live in the happy province of Sondrio, which is also the name of the largest city in the area.
Overloooking Visconti Castle and the town of Grosio just before the skies opened up
If you're in Italy's Lombardy region or even Southeast Switzerland, Grosio and Tirano are two great day trip options running along the Italian-Swiss border.

Tirano
Heading up from Sondrio on SS38 you'll nudge your way into Tirano after about 15 miles of beautiful scenery that runs along the Adda River. The Basilica of the Santuario Madonna di Tirano is the grand landmark to let you know you've reached Tirano, so hop out of your car and walk around the cute square over which it presides.
Santuario della Madonna di Tirano
The Madonna di Tirano, which was begun in 1504 after the Virgin Mary herself appeared at a feast and requested that it be done.
This first area is Tirano's historical center and it has several restaurants with views of the square and surrounding mountains.
basilica di tirano
The stunning interior of the Madonna di Tirano...makes Tirano worth a visit all by itself
New York City tirano
And for some reason, there's also a shop with this complete replica of New York City off the square of the Old City
We stopped at Ristorante La Botte for the local specialty, pizzocheri (peas-oh-care-ee), a buckwheat pasta with a butter sauce, chunks of regional cheese, and usually savoy cabbage and potato mixed in. It is, essentially, the richest pasta dish you'll ever eat, and you absolutely mustn't miss it when you're in the Valtellina Valley region.
Handmade pizzocheri with oozing cheese chunks, potato, cabbage, and lots of butter. Thick, decadent, and beautiful
A pizza with tomato, red onion, olives, capers, and anchovies. Salt much?
About a half mile's walk past the historical center you'll come upon a more revamped Tirano with lots more shops and restaurants, but be forewarned that it's much less charming than the "old" section, as revamped things often tend to be.
Nothing, though, is as charming as this tiny dog in this tiny truck.
Tirano's main claim to fame is that the Bernina Express stops there and runs to and from Switzerland's Chur, crossing some of the Alps' most stunning vistas in the process. The train's huge windows allow you to see fantastic scenery from glaciers to mountain lakes; some sections even have the honor of being dubbed World Heritage Sites.
Another view of the cieling of the Madonna di Tirano. Can we go back to doing things like this?
Grosio
After a stroll and maybe some lunch in Tirano, continue on SS38 (and then SS78) for about 15 minutes until you arrive to Grosio. Now, I've told you to lunch in Tirano, because the main thing Grosio has going for it is the amazing Rock Engraving Park (Il Parco delle Incisioni Rupestri). Lack of restaurants aside, this town is absolutely worth a visit.
La Rupe Magna, 275 feet long by 115 wide, is majestically shaped like a breaching whale. It's covered with thousands of nearly-hidden engravings, and if you take off your shoes (which gives a nice primal feeling to everything) you're allowed to hunt them down yourself. 
The park is home to a huge rock with more than 5,000 engraved figures from between the Neolithic and Iron ages (IV mill. BC - I mill. BC) carved along its face. Set aside at least half an hour to search them out, though, because we struggled to find any at all. Just past the rock you'll find Castle Hill, which is dominated by the Old Castle of San Faustino (X - XI century) and its replacement, the "New" Visconti Castle (XIV century).
Incorporate your surroundings for good Feng Shui
They're not easy to spot at first, but here you can see a rake!
After nearly an hour we found this little antelope figure
castle rupe magna
I think someone chose a good castle location. 
Note: During some periods the park is only open on weekends or is not open at all. Be sure to call +39 346 333 1405 or e-mail info@parcoincisionigrosio.it for operating hours. Park entry is free.

After our primal rock hunting, we stopped in the town's Valentino Pub for an affogato, then headed back to Teglio for our dogs, vineyards, and more of Paolo's fantastic food.
Just a typical night with the big guys (seven others aren't pictured...)

Success.

(stay tuned for more!)

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