Hidden Europe – Livigno

Vitali Vitaliev discovers an alpine town high in the Retiche Alps, between the valleys of Valtellina and Engadina

Those interested in Europe’s little-known geopolitical curios, I today invite you to Livigno – a 13-kilometre-long Alpine valley in the Italian province of Sondrio – and a so-called “duty-free area”, excluded from the EU membership by a special protocol.

Livigno, located high in the Retiche Alps, between the valleys of Valtellina and Engadina, is officially part of the Danube Basin economic area, which is hundreds of miles away, and as such enjoys the right of free mooring in the Black Sea ports, although the number of its maritime vessels is “zero”!

With its 5000 residents, 105 hotels, 900 B&B apartments, 14 petrol stations (duty-free petrol was one of Livigno’s main trading items) and 33 chair lifts, Livigno had gone through numerous attempts to achieve sovereignty, starting from 1355, where the it was effectively administered by two nominees of the Mayor of Bormio. In the early 17th century, the valley enjoyed a short period of complete independence, when ruled by the Grigioni family, and a hundred years later it was given customs benefits by Napoleon (these were later confirmed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1818, by Italy in 1910 and by the EEC in 1960), who effectively made it into what it was now – a duty-free area within Italy.

My first impression of Livigno was that of an amazingly flat and long valley, lined with ski-slopes and dotted with duty-free shops.

Ski Run in Livigno

Before dropping me at my hotel, Gianluca, my driver, showed me directions to the tourism office and told me that all buses in Livigno were free for skiers. “But I am not a skier, I am a smoker,” said I gasping from considerable oxygen deficiency, also known as “altitude sickness” or “altitude dizziness”. Gianluca reassured me that buses were free for non-skiers too – a touch of high-altitude Alpine “communism”.

Skiers in their fancy snowsuits were cheerfully falling out of free “communist” buses outside my hotel. Slipping over snowdrifts, I trudged up the street to the first duty-free shop, selling, among other things, vodka and grappa for astounding €2 a litre. And although I had all but given up drinking spirits, I was unable to resist such amazing bargain and bought a litre of grappa to keep me warm.

Across the road, was a duty-free food shop, where I saw what could pass for the world’s largest Mortadella sausage, the size of the leading wheel of a steamroller. Next to the deli, was a Lavateria – “Launderette” (not a lavatory). I wondered whether it was duty-free too.

More duty-free shops, separated by several metres of snow were further up the street, their stock being roughly the same: perfumes, electronics, toiletries, clothes, rather expensive tobacco and extraordinarily cheap alcoholic drinks. Not a single customer (I didn’t count myself as one) was to be found in any of them.

Livigno sign

Image by Gianni Crestani from Pixabay

Loud bangs of church bells from a hidden basilica were floating over this snow-covered hub of consumerism. They sounded bizarre and out of place – like Chopin’s funereal march played at a wedding. My poor oxygen-deficient head was tolling in unison with the bells.

Church-bells above duty-free shops… Could there be a scene more Italian?

My local guide was called Mladenka. A young and tall Bosnian Serb, with the looks of a supermodel, she came to Livigno two years before. Bright, outgoing and fluent in four languages, she was a delight to be with, even if I made sure I kept at least a metre away from her when we walked the streets to prevent her from towering above me, like a railway signal above a points man’s hut.

Mladenka seemed to know everyone in Livigno. At least she greeted almost everybody, and they greeted her. She introduced me to a lady from a perfume shop who was a member of the town council, and to another lady – from a clothes store – who was also the town’s librarian. It looked as if everybody in Livigno doubled as either a duty-free-shop owner or a duty-free-shop assistant. Everybody, except, perhaps Giuseppe Longa, a local linguist and amateur historian, who had to make his living working as a …hairdresser.

Winter ski slope and lifts

According to Giuseppe, the duty-free status was initially granted to the valley due to its poverty as the only recipe for its survival. Even so, it did not bring any real benefits to the locals until 1951, when the first road that could be used in winter was built from Switzerland under the protection of Italy’s then Minister of Finance, himself a native of Valtellina. The first hotel in the valley was built in 1880, and a year later Livigno had its first tourist – an American, no doubt. It took another 34 years for the second hotel to be constructed.

With all its hotels and duty-free shops operating at present, Livigno could be safely regarded as the hub of commercialism in the Retiche Alps. All the shops were open from morning till late at night (with a two-hour lunch break), seven days a week, 365 days a year. Some time ago, one local shop owner, a devout Roman Catholic, wanted to have her store closed on Sundays, but Livigno authorities did not allow her to do so. “Duty-free” obviously came before religious (or any other) duty in Livigno, where shops employed over 3000 people – more than half of all its residents thus making them the community’s main (and only) lifeline, no less.      Theoretically, a visitor (read shopper) could only take out of Livigno goods with total value of under E175. But, as I myself had a chance to make sure, customs controls on the Swiss border were lenient, if not to say non-existent. Livigno had become a sinecure for the no-longer-needed customs inspectors from the now defunct German-French border who were all sent to Livigno as an alternative to being sacked. “Our customs offices are very well staffed, yet there is nothing to worry about,” Giuseppe Longa concluded with a cackle.

I was actually not at all worried: my only Livigno purchase was the bottle of extraordinarily cheap grappa – already one third empty, by the way.

Author Bio:

Vitali Vitaliev was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine. He first made a name for himself in the then Soviet Union, writing satirical journalism. He has appeared regularly on TV and radio in the UK, was a writer and researcher for QI and has contributed to newspapers and magazines all over the world and is the author of thirteen books.

Vitali’s latest book “Out of the Blu” is available from Amazon the Kobo and Apple stores.

Ski slope images by Pitsch from Pixabay

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