La Dolce Skiing
by RISA WEINREB
"Cin'cin!" Clink. "Cin'cin." Clank. Tall glasses of Prosecco bubbled around the long picnic table at La Maison Vieille, a restaurant set in an old stone rifugio (mountain hut) against the backdrop of Mont Blanc at Courmayeur.
Hungry from the morning's skiing - we'd clicked off about 13,000 vertical feet before 1 p.m. - we helped ourselves from the platters that Giacomo brought out family- style: mocetta (an air-dried meat); pizza with porcini mush-rooms; three types of pasta, including a voluptuous gnocchi in cream sauce.
But since it was a warm, sunny day with a sky the cobalt-blue of a Botticelli painting, most of the guys in my group didn't have eyes for their linguine. Instead, they were whiplashing their peripheral vision trying to check out the lissome blonde après-skier sun-bathing in one of the chairs backed against a snowbank. Let's put it this way - she was not going to have any problems with tan lines up top.
Aspen and Vail, Eat Your Hearts Out
Skiing the Italian Alps blends the three S's: sun, scenery, and sensuality. Calls of "Ciao, bella" echo across the slopes. Great skiing is very much the point - but so is a two-hour lunch mellowed by the local Valdostano wines. Think of it as a Fellini movie set at 10,000 feet - The Sopranos on ice. For me, it was amore at first sight.
For my debut at skiing all' italiana, I joined a trip to Courmayeur run by Alpine Adventures, a tour operator specializing in ski and adventure tours around the globe. The company was founded by the brother/sister team of Rick Reichsfeld and Richelle Blanken (she competed in speed skiing at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville).
Alpine Adventures is very much all-in-the-family. A retired judge morphed into "the world's oldest ski bum," Dick Reichsfeld (Richelle and Rick's father) runs Alpine Holidays, which handles ground operations in Europe for several tour operators. Along with his Alpine Holidays partner, Fran-cesca Pizzorno, who had worked for years with the Courmayeur tourist office, they added a Mastroianni/ Loren, Burns and Allen, Italo-American vibe to the ski week.
Located in the Aosta Valley about a two-hour drive northwest of Milan, Courmayeur offers this irresistible "countdown" of superlatives for skiers and boarders: Five ski areas, in four days, in three dif-ferent countries (Italy, France, Switzerland), in sight of two of the world's most famous mountains (the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc) - all on one lift pass.
At the Alpine Adventures welcome party on Sunday night, I mingled with the other members of the group, which included about 40 people. While several were expert skiers who were planning to tackle legendary piste of passage, such as the Vallée Blanche, I was surprised by the number of people who were novices - and even complete beginners. "Hey, I never skied before. I figure I might as well learn in the Italian Alps," said Lynn, a guest from Florida.
For Americans who've never skied or boarded Europe before, the Italian Alps are,
in fact, a marvelously friendly place to begin. Trails are usually well marked and well-groomed, and the chair lifts range from aging-gracefully to state-of-the art. With few exceptions, you can bypass the T-bars and Poma lifts that are the bugaboos of us Americans spoiled by high-speed quads and six-packs.
Thanks to Dick and Francesca, we avoided the pitfalls and icy cat tracks usually encountered when skiing new slopes for the first time. In addition to providing printed handouts detailing everything from favorite runs to best places to check your après-ski boots, they each guided small groups of us on the mountains.
On Monday, our first day out, we headed for our Courmayeur, the cable car located just a short stroll from the hotel. The mountain offers lots of different terrain, from smooth-rolling cruisers to a steep, moguly pitch off Cresta Youla. Most of all, it flaunts outrageous, close-up views of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe at 15,771 feet. It seemed that I could reach out and touch its steep, intimidating face.
The next day, a narrow, twisting road boobytrapped with precipitous drop-offs led to La Thuile, near the pass where Hannibal is said to have crossed the Alps with his elephants. From the top of the Chaz Dura lift, vistas took in both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. From here, we made our first run into a different country, descending a long cruiser into La Rosière in France.
The only downside came on the return to Italy via what I dubbed "the Poma lift from hell": a 10-minute, thigh-clenching exercise that started with an abrupt lift-off and lurched through some hold-on-tight stretches on the flats.
The reward was lunch at Lo Riondet, with long picnic tables set on the terrace. We filled our plates with beef rag-out, sausages, porcini mushrooms, and the savory local specialty: polenta valdostana, topped with melted Fontina cheese. "I wonder where we're going to have lunch tomorrow," mused Diana. "Now you understand skiing in Italy," replied Francesca. "Always plan your meals a day ahead."
Another morning of crystal-my companion Justin commented, "Look at the two skiers up there," pointing to an immense white bowl to the right. At first, I couldn't see anything. Finally, I discerned two ant-size specks carving flawless S-turns in the powder on Cervinia's Cime Blanche.
Once again, I felt awed by limitless landscapes of the Alps. Unlike the U.S. where enthusiasts are generally relegated to groomed trails safely in bounds, terrain in Europe is bounteous. You can pretty much ski anywhere you look: peaks, bowls, couloirs.
From Plateau Rosa, which straddles the Italian/Swiss border, we carved down Furggsattel. This is the photo-op run, showcasing centerfold-caliber views of the Matterhorn, its pyramidal peak piercing the cloudless sky. Even though it was late March and there had been no snow since February, the conditions were fantastic, the snow yielding with a smooth crunch under my skis.
"To Gletschergrotte," indicated a sign just below Klein Matterhorn, as we headed back to Italy. An ice cave. We decided to check it out.
Immediately, I felt like Alice falling into Wonderland as I descended a blue-lit tunnel carved into the glacier. After a few minutes, the passageway widened into a series of fantastical chambers with ice sculptures carved like bulls, birds and horse-drawn carriages. Another corridor led to the floor of an actual crevasse - beautiful and terrifying, with icy stalactites, stalagmites, and a frozen lake.
The run back to the base village at Cervinia would prove to be one of my favorites of the entire trip. Marked as "#7/Ventina," it runs for about nine miles. Not a boring copy-cat trail, it percolates with personality, intermingling chutes with broad bowls, bambino-size moguls with easygoing straightaways.
After a day's skiing, it always felt cozy to return to the village of Courmayeur, with its cobblestoned alleys and ancient houses (some from the 13th century) topped with slate roofs. "If famous people want to be seen, they go to Cortina. If they don't want to be seen, they come to Courmayeur," Francesca had explained. On Via Roma, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare, people sauntered in parkas and afterski boots, Prada and minks. Shops sell everything from gelati to Hermès. In late afternoon, the alpenglow fired the distant summits to rosy incandescence.
Just Like Home
Located just off Via Roma, the Hotel Cresta et Duc hotel where we stayed provided a true feeling of home. And family: Martina Reichsfeld, Rick's wife and vice president of operations for Alpine Adventures, is the daughter of the hotel manager. Dinners were superb, with choices like veal milanese or gilt-head (sea bream), finishing off with panna cotta (cream custard) or marsala-laced tiramisu for dessert.
Most of all, I was impressed with the warmth of the staff. Guido, the front desk manager, let me use his own computer when I needed to send out an emergency e-mail. Martino, the barman, always would pour a glass of my favorite vino frizzante (sparkling wine) when I came down for cocktails before dinner.
On Thursday, our destination was Pila - probably the only place in the world where you can ski an FIS Super G run in the morning, and spend the afternoon clomping around Roman ruins that date to the century before Christ. The run in question - "#2/Du Bois" - was another of my favorites of the trip, zagging through larch and pine with some challenging but fun steep sections.
After three days of skiing hard, my legs were ready for a siesta, and the old Roman theaters, watchtowers, arches, and nine-foot-thick stone walls are located within walking distance from the base of the Pila gondola in Aosta. Founded in 24 b.c., the town was strategically important to the Romans because of its proximity to the passes leading to what are now France and Italy.
Walking beneath the Praetorian Gate, which had once been covered in marble, I imagined how early wayfarers had felt entering this commercial center. It was also fascinating to see how the two-millenium-old theater layout was so similar to contemporary playhouses, with its separate "stage door" for actors.
The following day, we took a 30-minute drive from Courmayeur through the Mont Blanc tunnel to France and Chamonix.
"The mountain is something wonderful, powerful, incredible, amazing," said Marc Cereuil, communications director of Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, with whom I explored the ski areas. Chamonix is a very different ski resort, with four distinct moun-tains (rather like Aspen). In addition, as Marc pointed out, "The specialty of Chamonix is skiing the glacier. Trails are not marked at all, and the snow is the snow of the mountains." The Compagnie des Guides was designed especially for American skiers, to allow them to experience the vast, untamed terrain confidently and safely.
From Novice to Expert
I joined up with Marc's group of "the ladies from Philadelphia" - four friends in their 30s and 40s enjoying a girls' week of skiing. Three of the women were advanced skiers; the other, Joanne, was out for - get this - her fourth day ever on skis. Even more remarkably, on day three, she had gone heliskiing with her buddies. Granted, it was a novice trail - but it still spoke a great deal about the acumen of the instructors in Chamonix.
Together, we rode the cable car to the summit of Le Brévent. Lisa scanned the trail markers. "Um, it's all black (expert) here," she ventured. "Where are we going to go?" "Down," Marc replied.
Immediately, Marc's humor, cajoling, and confidence helped melt our fears and beam us up to the next level in our skiing. We carved through steeps, icy patches, and moguls with increasing assurance. "There's a difference between difficult and dangerous," Marc had said, and thanks to his patience and expertise, I knew he was right.
Saturday was our last full day, and the people in my group all chose to spend it differently. Diana and Bill headed back to Cervinia. Others took a shopping jaunt to Gen-eva. I decided to ski one more time at Courmayeur itself.
While checking my street shoes at the Ski In rental shop, I asked Tony, one of the fitters, if he could suggest a good place to have lunch. "You have to eat with my friend Giuliano - he has the best restaurant on the mountain. Tell him you're 'un' amica di Tonio' - a friend of Tony's. We're paesano - we're both from Sardinia."
After a wonderful morning skiing, I found my way to the Petit Mont Blanc restaurant, located at the base of the Zerotta lift. A large, sunny deck in the back looked directly at Mont Blanc. "So Tony sent you," greeted Giuliano, immediately sending over a cock-tail of fresh orange juice laced with Campari. Lunch was delicious - a pizza topped with tomatoes, onions, and zucchini.
The afternoon shone golden in the moment and flowed into the snowmelt of time. But shadows lengthened. It was time to go.
I rode the Zerotta lift up, turned to follow the trail -and had a dead-on view of one of Courmayeur's most unusual natural features: a huge glacial lake shaped like a heart. It seemed like the mountain was sending me one last valentine to say alla prossima tempo - "until next time."
For the 2003-2004 season, Alpine Adventures' eight night/ seven day (first night is an over-night flight) packages to Courmayeur are priced from $989 per person (double occupancy). The rate includes round-trip international air to Milan (price based on flights from New York, other airports available upon request), round-trip transfers Milan/Courmayeur, seven nights' accommodations at the Cresta et Duc, breakfast and dinner daily. For further information, contact: Tel: 800-755-1330; Fax: 954-564-6721; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.alpineadventures.net.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Activity Index under "Skiing - Italy."