DIZZY HEIGHTS! Italy's Soaring Dolomites Offer Sensational Skiing in Richly Historic Surrounds, Says Martin Symington

Daily Mail (London), December 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

DIZZY HEIGHTS! Italy's Soaring Dolomites Offer Sensational Skiing in Richly Historic Surrounds, Says Martin Symington


Byline: Martin Symington

WE'D seen enough downhill racing from Val Gardena on Ski Sunday for the colossal fists of limestone punching skywards out of giant snowy pillows to appear familiar.

What my teenage sons and I did not expect was a history lesson. But over a few days on these slopes in the South Tyrol, the largely German-speaking part of northern Italy bordering Austria, we kept stumbling on the past.

We flew to Verona, which is as Italian as mozzarella, but on the two-hour drive north, we began to notice that all the towns have an Italian and German name: Bolzano/Bozen, for instance, or Merano/Meran. We reached our destination at the head of the Gardena Valley, slithering into snowbound Selva/ Wolkenstein, a village of glockenspiels, Gothic lettering and Tyrolean kitsch.

On our first morning, the boys made a beeline for the Saslong World Cup run, tearing down the tree-lined main sweep and leaping the legendary camel humps. It is one of several blackgraded pistes that allow the Val Gardena to claim to having some of the best expertorientated terrain in the vast 'Dolomiti Superski'.

The run is accessible via the Sella Ronda circuit, an extraordinary network of lifts and runs that form a circuit around the Sella mountain range and link a string of South Tyrolean villages and their own local ski areas.

In all, you have access to more than 621 miles of pistes -- more even than France's celebrated Three Valleys -- on a single lift pass.

The Sella Ronda route can easily be completed in a day, which we did in steely sunshine with Irene Delazzer from the local tourist board. Most of the runs are relatively simple (reds and blues), with options here and there to escape the crowds and try more testing terrain such as the Serrai gulley, a forbidding cleft between crumpled curtains of purple-tinged ice.

Behind the icefalls are caves hewn out of the rockface by soldiers over the bitter winter of 1916 and used to store weapons.

Irene proved to be a fount of knowledge about the ferocious fighting that raged between Austrian and Italian forces in the very valleys we were skiing. If you like, it was war and piste.

I was still finding the notion of German-speaking Italians bizarre when Irene mentioned casually that neither language was her native one. It turns out that Tyrolean Teutons are not the only minority lurking in these mountains.

There are also the Ladins, an ancient people now confined to Selva and a scattering of other Dolomite villages. …

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