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Readers' World: Head in the clouds in the Italian Alps

11 October 2015 - 02:00 By Judy Croome

Judy Croome enjoys a self-catering holiday filled with miracles and wonder in Chiavenna, Italy After a busy week of business in Basel, Switzerland, where my husband attended a conference, we headed for Chiavenna, Italy.High in the Alps, Chiavenna lies close to the Swiss border. Already known in Roman times, this Italian town rose to prominence as an independent municipality in the year 1000 AD, before passing into the control of the Visconti and Sforza families in 1335.Leaving Basel by train, we overnighted in St Moritz, waking to find the surrounding mountains covered in the first winter snow. After a hearty breakfast, we travelled by bus to Chiavenna, driving through streets so narrow the yellow-and-red paint was almost scraped off our bus by the cheerful flowerboxes adorning stone-walled houses.After risking life and limb on the scenic (and scary) drive down hairpin bends, we arrived shaken, but not stirred, at the stazione in Chiavenna.As we tottered off the bus, the towering Alps loomed above us. The smells and sounds of the busy weekly market enticed us to linger.But Chiavenna, with its narrow streets and busy square, was not our final destination. Five kilometres back up the mountain, sheltered by forests of chestnut trees and tumbling terraces of grapevines, lies Pianazzola.story_article_left1In an effort to combat the awful exchange rate, we'd hired a self-catering apartment in this tiny village. For three bedrooms, a kitchen and living areas, one bathroom and a balcony with a panoramic view across the Val Chiavenna, a week cost us less than one night in a hotel.Pianazzola is a quaint and mystical place filled with cats and cobblestone paths winding between stone houses balancing precariously on the mountainside.With fewer than 50 inhabitants, whose English was as non-existent as our Italian, we had some interesting conversations as we explored the village and, at the altar of the small church of San Bernardino, lit two candles for our families: one for the souls of the living and one for the dead.From the oldest house, standing next to the church, "1585" carved into its lintel, to the house with the cracked and scarred door, adorned with a funereal wreath lamenting the most recent death in the village; from the mountain cemetery with its graves high among the clouds to the public wash house, still used by the older women to do their laundry, Pianazzola echoes with ancient footsteps.One day we walked in those footsteps, climbing down 2km of steep path through the grapevines until, exhausted by the heat and the narrow stone steps, we headed for the tar road, continuing our walk with relative ease until we found the River Mera running through the centre of Chiavenna and past the Church of San Lorenzo.mini_story_image_vright1Here we discovered a treasure trove of liturgical objets d'art, including a baptismal font, carved from a solid slab of pot-stone in 1156; and the magnificent Pace di Chiavenna. Kept in the Museum of Treasures behind the church, the "Pace", or the Peace of Chiavenna, is an 11th-century gold and walnut cover of a book of Christian gospels. A masterpiece of medieval goldsmith work, the Peace has delicate gold filigree work embossed with enamel miniatures and precious gems. Some of the gems date back to the Roman era (1st/2nd century AD), while one stone has the Arabic words for "blessings" engraved on its face.Our time in Pianazzola was too short to do justice to this remote region of Italy - the artistic and religious artefacts, the natural parks such as the Val di Mello, and the many historical buildings are an abundant playground for any traveller.Too soon, it was time to head to Milan for a concert at La Scala Opera House. Three nights in Milan, then a long train trip back to Zurich Airport and our journey home began.As we landed at OR Tambo airport, welcomed by smiling customs officials and the warm African sun, we carried within us both gratitude for a safe journey and hope that the echo of those ancient Arabic blessings adorning that Christian book might inspire our fragmented modern world to find a lasting peace between the different nations, races and religions that inhabit this small earth of ours.Share your travel experiences with us in 'Readers' World' and you could win R1,000We need YOUR high-res photo - at least 500KB in size - and a story of no more than 800 words. ALL winners receive R1,000. Please note only the winning entrants will be contacted. E-mail travelmag@sundaytimes.co.za..

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