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Quiet Val Blenio cuts north from Biasca, off the main Leventina routes, a broad open valley that basks in generous sunshine and has limitless opportunities for walking exploration. The valley floor is dotted with villages, themselves marked by rustici, stone-built peasant dwellings, sometimes little more than shacks, that are topped with rough slate roofs. A lot of these are now holiday cottages, renovated and rented out for tidy sums to nature-starved northerners, but the valley has nonetheless made sure to protect its most valuable assets – peace, quiet and unspoilt natural beauty. Oddly enough, the Bleniesi have been known throughout Europe for centuries as foodie entrepreneurs, a skill probably picked up in Milan sometime in the Middle Ages and passed on through the generations. In 1600 one Signor Bianchini from the valley was no less than head chef to the King of Spain; in 1849, a Signor Baggi won an award for selling the best ice cream in France; while the Gatti family – also from the Blenio – owned and managed 230 restaurants and cafés throughout late-Victorian England. Locals will have you believe that fully three-quarters of all chestnut sellers in Switzerland today are from the Val Blenio.
The Sentiero Basso is the main valley-floor path: the walk from Biasca to Acquarossa on the west bank of the river is a gently rising 13km, taking a little under four hours. Acquarossa is also home to the valley’s tourist office on Via Lucomagno, open limited weekday hours only (091/871 17 65). On the east bank just north of Biasca is Malvaglia, whose village church boasts a gigantic fresco of St Christopher; from here a tortuous branch road climbs in a series of hairpins into the lonesome gorge of the Val Malvaglia amidst tremendous scenery of steep wooded slopes dropping away into a seemingly bottomless ravine. From a point on the road, it’s possible to park and walk across a bridge spanning the valley, on the other side of which a dramatic mule track penetrates for a couple of hours’ walk to Dagro, a hamlet on the northern side of the valley with broad views.
As you rise into the Blenio, the lush green slopes begin to close in. The main town at the head of the valley, below the sharp-peaked Sosto on one side and the Töira on the other, is OLIVONE, an utterly tranquil little place some 24km north of Biasca that reflects the valley’s once-noble pretensions in its array of grandiose, if worn, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mansions and villas – rather out of place amidst the orchards and increasingly wild high-valley scenery. Up in the village is the Osteria Centrale (091/872 11 07; a), meeting place for the locals, which serves tasty home-cooked fare and has a few simple rooms. Down a short hill beside the main road is the post office and bus stop with, alongside, the Albergo San Martino (091/872 15 21, fax 872 26 62; a), a slightly more upmarket proposition, also with excellent traditional food and pizzas plus a choice of en-suite or shared-bath rooms. A five-hour walk from Olivone climbs to the Lucomagno Pass (1914m); the road over the pass to Disentis/Mustér in Graubünden is perhaps the most scenic route in and out of Ticino.
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