Skiing Italy’s Alps

<i> McCallen is a free-lance writer living in New York City</i>

Most travelers to Italy know of the Apennines, that gentle range of vertebral humps that runs down the center of the boot, but some are unaware of the 80 peaks--more than 12,000 feet high--that crowd the sky for 700 miles between the Ligurian Sea and the Gulf of Venice.

As Hannibal and his elephants discovered, the southern terminus of the Alps slips its biggest toes into the northern end of the boot. These toes get a nice tan, for Italy has the south-facing slopes of these peaks all to its own. Which makes for some pretty good skiing.

Although the central Alps have several fine ski resorts, the far eastern and western portions of the boot top--the Valle d’Aosta and Veneto regions, respectively--have the most to offer winter vacationers.


Valle d’Aosta is Italy’s smallest province, but contains the highest peaks in the Alps. Cervinia and Courmayeur are its top resorts. Veneto’s beacon, Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, has a fur-coat-and-precious-jewel quotient equal to its Swiss partner in glamour, St. Moritz.

Cervinia, at the far end of the Valtournanche and a two-hour drive north from Milan, is presided over by the snaggletooth pyramid of the Matterhorn.

On my first day of skiing in Cervinia, sheets of snow raced sideways across the mountain and blanketed the piste (trails) in white. The Matterhorn had snagged a cloud, and in so doing had torn its lining and emptied it of snow. The light was flat. It was difficult to distinguish the gradations in the slopes.

I spent a lot of time off-balance or tumbling in the new-fallen snow. Finally I asked my guide, Claudio, how he manages to ski so smoothly when he can’t see where he is going.

“You must let your feet read the slopes,” he said. “You have to feel where the bumps and drops are and then adjust.” I don’t own such sensitive feet and decided to break for an early lunch.

Italians not only rise late to ski, enabling more punctual nationalities to enjoy the slopes to themselves in the morning, but they attach little importance to breakfast. Meals start with lunch.

First-Rate Dining

At La Stambecca, one of several dining rooms on the mountain, tables are set with china plates and crystal glasses and silverware on starched cloth napkins. Attentive waiters bring fresh bread, a pate of crushed olives, spinach gnocchi, mocetta (dried chamois meat) and a large bowl of polenta, an Italian version of grits made with maize. The meal is a far cry from the watery broth and plastic-wrapped sandwiches served cafeteria-style at most U.S. ski resorts.

Later that evening, in the lounge of the Hotel Chalet Valdotain, our host produced a carved wooden bowl with individual drinking spouts called a coppa dell’amicizia (friendship cup).

Into it is poured grappa : strong hot coffee mixed with an aquavit flavored with mountain herbs, nutmeg, cloves, juniper berries, lemon and orange rinds and a dash of Grand Marnier.

My feet began to tingle with new sensitivity, and I noticed that my knees bent automatically, as they should while skiing, when I stood to walk.

In nearby Courmayeur, Italy’s best all-around ski resort, it is easy to be dispirited upon awakening, for a vaporous cloud often enters the valley and envelops the township. The resort’s 132-passenger tram, one of the largest in Europe, carries skiers from the center of Courmayeur to a complex of lifts high above the village where the sun shines brightly.

From that vantage point the lower valley appeared to have pulled a plump white blanket of fleecy mist up to its chin.

Untracked Powder

A gondola and a chairlift ride later, I stood at the top of Cresta d’Arp. The adventurous skiers in the group slid along a ridge and plummeted down a steep field of untracked powder, but the intermediates stuck to the groomed slopes and reached a crest above a frozen lake where a towering bulwark of ice and rock stared us in the face. This is Mont Blanc.

Europe’s tallest mountain at 15,781 feet is not a single summit but rather a cluster of peaks, a great broad-shouldered king flanked by bishops, castles and knights. The reddish-brown massif is furrowed by tongues of ice, and from its vast granite bulk emanates silence, power and majesty.

Courmayeur’s long, wide runs, most with a testing pitch, are ideal cruising terrain for intermediates. Even the black trails--the piste difficile-- lean toward the gray area of manageability by semi-accomplished skiers.

Most of the runs are carved from spruce, larch and pine forests that swallow skiers in a tunnel of greenery before delivering them onto an open snowfield.

Later in the season--usually by early March--snowfields at higher altitudes are opened. Those with sure skills and the services of a dependable guide can traverse the Vallee Blanche, a legendary 12-mile glacier run that skirts the roof of Europe and leads to Chamonix, France.

Jewel of the Dolomites

A full day’s drive east from the Aosta Valley in northeast Italy rise the Dolomites. They are not the Continent’s biggest mountains, but few of any size can rival their beauty.

Approached at night, Cortina d’Ampezzo, the self-proclaimed jewel of the Dolomites, gives no hint of its luster. The ski jump used in the 1956 Winter Olympics is lit, as are the facades of the larger hotels, but the mountains are shrouded in darkness. It is not till morning that all is revealed.

Like the Alps, the Dolomites are the upthrust floor of the ancient Mediterranean from when Africa was shoving Italy north. A high concentration of fossilized shells and coral in the rock caused the mountains to erode into jagged peaks and saw-edged ridges that rise around the Ampezzo Valley like teeth in a bear trap, or the jeweled points in a crown. Compared to the heavy masculine firmament of Mont Blanc, the Dolomites are feminine, refined and as changeable in color as a mood ring.

In the morning, Cortina’s mountains are the color of the Sicilian blood oranges that are squeezed for juice at breakfast. By lunchtime the sun has lit the peaks a garish shade of margarine yellow.

By the time skiers make their final runs in late afternoon, the Dolomites have turned rosy pink, and by sunset the rocks are the color of crushed plums shot through with filaments of silver and gold.

Range of Skiing

Cortina’s trails descend from peaks on both sides of the valley, with the Tofane slopes on one side and the Faloria slopes on the other.

Each side offers a good range of skiing to beginners and intermediates, though experts will have their work cut out for them on Staunies, a steep couloir at the head of the Faloria slopes that traces a narrow path through the rocks. It may be the most hair-raising run in all of Italy.

I was content to view it from an observation platform atop Tofana di Mezzo at 10,673 feet. At that height, tilted domes and crooked spires of rock spread in all directions above the green stubble of the valley’s pine forests. A thin line of water, the silver-green Sea of Venice, shimmered in the far distance.

Given the exquisite beauty of the mountains and the native penchant for style, it came as no surprise that Cortina’s skiers are among the most fashionably attired in all of Europe.

Puffy Popsicle-colored jump suits called tutu are in vogue for both men and women. Some are tied with satin streamers, others painted with abstract designs or wild animals (Bengal tigers were popular last season).

Shopping Street

A short promenade down Corso Italia, the main shopping street, confirms the view that Cortina is Rodeo Drive with a mountain backdrop. Below the stucco facades of buildings stenciled with colorful coats of arms are the outposts of well-known Italian designers and venerable Swiss jewelers.

The smaller shops of craftsmen display decorative cabinets and boxes of rare wood that show off the tar-kashi technique (imported from India) of setting thin metal plates into wood.

Night life is active in Cortina, but I prefer the quieter haunts. My favorite was Enoteca, a small wine bar where proprietor Girolamo Gaspari stocks more than 560 bottles and serves as many as 50 wines by the glass, including Fragola, a strawberry-flavored wine.

Patrons can either stand at the bar and be educated in Italian wines by the gracious Gaspari, or relax in one of the eight comfortable shoeshine chairs across from the bar.

With so much going for it--natural beauty, rampant glamour--it came as a surprise to learn that Cortina bid unsuccessfully to host the 1992 Winter Olympics. I can only hypothesize that the International Olympic Committee arrived at night and left before the sun rose in the morning to paint the mountains.

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An all-inclusive ski tour package (accommodations, ground transfers, six-day ski pass, continental breakfast and dinner daily, discounts on ski rentals and lessons, etc.) makes the most sense when booking a ski vacation to Italy. Most hotels have weeklong rates.

Tariffs are generally highest in December and in late February-early March. January is a bargain month.

Alitalia Airlines offers ski tour packages to all major ski resorts. Round-trip air fare from Los Angeles to Milan is $666, plus $13 tax. The fare is valid through March 20, except Dec. 10-24, when a holiday surcharge of $50 is in effect.

In Cervinia, the Cristallo (a popular name for hotels in the Italian Alps) is comfortable, with good views of the Matterhorn. It is within a short walk of the ski lifts. Prices start at $465 a week, per person double occupancy, depending on time of visit. Chalet Valdotain ($425 a week) is a cozy mountain chalet; it’s a 10-minute drive from Cervinia. Excellent grappa is served.

Quiet End of Town

In Courmayeur, Les Jumeaux is a hotel and residential complex on the quieter end of the town’s main street. The hotel restaurant is first-rate and the ski lift is a short walk from the front door. Rates start at $564; two-bedroom apartments are available at $208 per person based on quadruple occupancy. Less expensive properties include the Cristallo, Etoile des Neiges and Courmayeur.

In Cortina, the Hotel de la Poste in the center of town is the hottest lodge now (King Hussein of Jordan was in residence at the time of my visit), but the Cristallo is matchless for comfort, views and a grand-but-welcoming style. It ranks among Europe’s finest winter resort hotels. Rates start at $888.

Cortina packages feature the Dolomiti Superski pass, which gives access to 457 lifts at 11 nearby ski areas.

Italian Alpine cuisine stresses wholesome local foodstuffs prepared simply. Among the regional specialties is Fontina, or fondues of melted cheese often served with truffles; casunzie, a ravioli made with squash and spinach, and zuppa inglese, a layer served in a glass bowl and filled with custard, rum, cherries and chocolate.

Excellent and reasonably priced meals are served in the rifugios (mountain inns) at the resorts. Most are small wood-and-stone chalets where the owner and his family do the cooking. Have them recommend a dish.

Noteworthy Restaurants

I found the hotel restaurants in Cervinia quite good and felt no need to explore beyond them, but Courmayeur has at least two noteworthy dining spots. In Entreves, outside the main town, is La Maison de Filippo, a restaurant patterned after a provincial mountain inn that features a 34-course meal for about $30. The feast starts with a basket of sausages and concludes with a fruit stew of chestnuts, prunes and figs.

Le Clochard, a popular nightclub in a 400-year-old stone fort, has above it a lovely restaurant called La Petite Bouffe. The a la carte menu features well-prepared regional specialties. A meal for two with wine costs about $80.

Cortina has several elegant restaurants. The dining room at the Cristallo features sumptuous buffets, but even breakfast is a treat in the belle epoque surroundings.

Other good places: Il Camineto (“the little fireplace”), a mountainside restaurant at the foot of Cortina’s Piemerlo T-bar, with several tables set outside on a wood-planked balcony; on the outskirts of town, Bellavista-Il Meloncino (expensive) and El Toula (more expensive).

For more information about skiing in Italy, contact Alitalia Airlines, 666 Fifth Ave., New York 10103, phone (212) 903-3300, or the Italian Government Travel Office, 360 Post St., Suite 801, San Francisco 94108, phone (415) 392-6206.