There’s more to skiing than the French and Swiss Alps, says James Fisher, who goes in search of new adventures in the Italian mountains
There’s something quite dreary about those who have to be different for the sake of being different. You know the type — often found at parties standing smugly in a corner wearing corduroys, talking about how Radiohead’s music is ‘rather derivative’, the YBAs (Young British Artists) weren’t actually all that interesting and how, actually, no, they didn’t go skiing in France this year, or last year, as they ‘just love the Dolomites’. These people are often to be avoided.
But you hear it more and more, don’t you? ‘The Dolomites’. What are they? Who are they for? The name: floating in the background static of middle-class discourse, like one of those pictures that you have to squint at to see the true image behind all the nonsense.
One of the few things I like less than tediously reactionary people is being left out of the loop. Why are so many people eschewing the tried-and-tested destinations of Val so-and-so? Has Chamonix lost its touch? What did everyone know that I, and seemingly all of the people that I regularly enjoy imbibing vast amounts of rosé with, didn’t?
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There was a secret out there, in them thar Italian hills, that I needed to discover. And so, I found myself, on a Sunday morning in March, squinting into the sun at Innsbruck airport, destined for Corvara, the heart of the Alta Badia ski resort in South Tyrol. It was there that I met my transfer driver, a man whose name I cannot remember because I was too busy staring at the flying cap and goggles on his head when he introduced himself. When he led me to his Mercedes, rather than his bi-plane, I finally started to relax.
There are many annoying things about going skiing when you think about it. The endless amounts of kit required is a pain to carry to and from the airport. Transfers from said airport to the resorts are usually long, plagued by traffic and have a propensity to inspire travel sickness as the long and winding roads climb up whichever valley you have paid through the nose for the privilege of inhabiting. One of the initial joys of our trip to Corvara was its closeness—a mere hour and a half after departing from Innsbruck, we had reached our destination.
A ski holiday is so much more than ‘how long does it take to get from the airport to your hotel’, but it was a promising start. Arriving at the Hotel Sassongher a mere five hours after leaving home means that the fabled ‘long weekend skiing’ is very much a possibility and one that won’t involve waking up at 3am. The hotel is tucked under the Sassongher mountain, a sheer expulsion of rock that rises above the town of Corvara and is only a hint of the landscape that has been home to some of Italy’s best skiing for generations.
Not that you’ll hear much Italian, either at Sassongher or in the town of Corvara. As is the rich tradition of this part of Europe, locals speak their own unique language, in this case Ladin, a romance language of some 20,000 speakers, most of whom live in South Tyrol.
A traditional language in a traditional place — and Hotel Sassongher is no different, eschewing the faceless modernity of so many five-star establishments and sticking to traditional formality. Wood is the medium of choice for the interiors, great hulking beams with their own stories to tell mixed in with wonderfully detailed carvings on walls, chairs, desks and tables. It feels immensely alpine and the sensation is compounded by the staff wearing traditional Tyrolean dress almost exclusively.
It’s no gimmick, however, as the service and experiences live up to their five-star billing — take the various Stübes as an example. These rooms are effortlessly period, dominated by the great porcelain heaters from which they take their name. And the food is astounding: presented perfectly and prepared with great skill.
That combination of tradition and comfort is the lifeblood of this great fixture of Corvara. A recent extension has, however, provided even more modern comforts to go with the fixtures of Alpine tradition. The ‘Sky Spa’ and wellness centre has been inserted onto the back of this historic building and provides a tremendous location to unwind, both inside and outside, after a tough day’s skiing. Yes! Skiing. That’s why we’re here.
And what skiing it is. Considering that the Dolomites are part of the same mountain range as the aforementioned Vals, the expectation would be one of continuity. However, this landscape is different. The rock rises out of the ground almost vertically, creating a type of prehistoric landscape that you have to ski through, rather than over and around. Exploring the runs and pistes, you find yourself lost in these almost alien scenes, sheer stone faces, frozen waterfalls and trees all around.
Some may prefer the wide open bowls of the French or Swiss Alps, but skiing in Alta Badia feels like a journey. Indeed, a journey is one of the key reasons to visit this place. The Sellaronda is one of the most well-known ski circuits in the world, a six-hour slog that will take you across four Dolomite passes: The Campolongo Pass, the Pordoi Pass, the Sella Pass and the Gardena Pass.
The Dolomites’ other great secret is food. Whether stopping piste-side in Rifugio Scotoni, with its roaring open fires, barbecues and traditional Tyrolean cooking, or tucking in to the more refined precise gastronomy of Rifugio Ütia Bioch, with its sensational wines and pasta, you will never eat better on a pair of skis. Most importantly, the prices are reasonable. Unlike in the French Alps, you don’t feel as if you are being constantly ripped off for mediocre carbonaras everywhere you go. Here, the food is part of the skiing experience, rather than something that has to be endured to keep energy levels up.
I’ll get in trouble for writing this, from those types I talked about at the beginning of this piece. Because they are right—and the Dolomites might just be better than the usual places we send ourselves. Sometimes, being different is better.
Rooms from €270 per night, based on two adults sharing on a half-board basis (www.sassongher.it/en)
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