Ski France & Italy 2013-14 Part 3

To the north and west of the city of Trento lie the Dolomiti di Brenta. To the north and east, the main Dolomites mountain range is tucked up right in the furthest corner of Italy. The mighty river Adige divides the two, but both ranges are similar limestone mountain formations.

We've skied one range and now we don't have to travel far to get to grips with its bigger, more famous cousin. While the ski areas dotted all around the Dolomites are not all linked, you can use one pass in this region to access an incredible 1,200kms of slopes and 450 lifts!

The snowfalls arrived a little later in this part of Italy compared to further west, but the winter was getting into full swing as we arrived in the region.

Latemar mountains from Pala di Santa 11.01.14
On the way up from Trento we spent a half-day on the Latemar range, one of the more southerly of the Dolomiti ski areas above the Val di Fiemme.

Ski Center Latemar
Altitude - 1,550 - 2,500m
Lifts - 18
Runs - 50kms

Ski Center Latemar has a bit of a family feel, but there is easily enough variety and challenge to keep all skiers and riders busy for a couple of days.

All the ski lifts here rise up towards the impressive Latemar range making this a scenic ski across, around and under the mountain range and back.

The little village of Obereggen is one access point to the ski area at 1,550m altitude. This area is full of conifer forests and tree-lined slopes (and an incredible lift-accessed toboggan slope!).

Pala di Santa from Passo Feudo 11.01.14
The middle lifted areas are more open and have short cruisey slopes. That is, apart from the runs up on the Pala di Santa. Black pistes are the order of the day on this incredible rock plateau which soars up to 2,500m, as well as some good off-piste options.

A variety of runs drop down to the village of Pampeago, and up the other side there are lots of nice red runs among the rocky outcrops.

After a sunny pizza lunch high up at the viewpoint at Passo Feudo, you can ski down the warm side of the mountains towards Predazzo. From Predazzo you can make your way back across this great scenic ski area, or take a few rides on the rollercoaster-style luge first! Its a great taster and intro to what the Dolomiti are all about.

Val Gardena
11-17 January 2014

That afternoon we drive back down into the Adige valley near the city of Bolzano (or Bozen) and head deeper into the southern Tyrol (what was once Austria not that long ago) and into the heart of the Dolomiti.

The Val di Fassa from Sass Pordoi 12.01.14
Turning off the Brenner motorway once again as the steep rocky valley narrows, we head up into the Val Gardena. The valley opens out wide and broad after a winding steep climb.

The first of the valley towns, Ortisei, greets us with fairy lights, tourist shops and magical ice sculptures.

Val di Fassa
Altitude - 1,420 - 2,423m
Lifts - 87
Runs - 120kms

We stayed for the week in the pretty village of Santa Cristina Valgardena (1,428m altitude). The ski lifts were just a few minutes walk away from our apartment accommodation. The Saslong lift in particular gave us access to multiple ski areas and endless skiing around the Sella Ronda, a legendary ski route that loops and links the ski areas around the Sella range of mountains.

The busy Val di Fassa is one such area, with enough variety to spend a few days there alone. Its about an hour on skis from the village of Santa Cristina.

The view from Sass Pordoi 12.01.14
Fast, open and wide runs are serviced by quick lifts, and there is some easy, fun off-piste terrain to the sides and between the pistes.

The Canazei/Campitello ski areas of the Val di Fassa are on the Sella Ronda and are split by a wooded valley with long runs down each side to the bottom, and gondolas back up to the tops.

From Passo Pordoi you can take a cable car up to  the summit at Sass Pordoi (2,950m). The views of the distinctive pink-tinged limestone Dolomiti are incredible! There are unmarked trails for advanced skiers down from here.

Its much busier around here than the smaller ski areas in nearby Trentino, and much more international with many holidaymakers from around Europe who have congregated here for the great skiing and food.

Val Gardena
Altitude - 1,200 - 2,453m
Lifts - 79
Snow Depth - 65/165cms (17.01.2014)

We took advantage of a continuing run of warm, sunny days to explore, to get to know our way around the different ski areas before our friends arrived to stay with us. Such splendid scenery around Val Gardena.

Stunning Sassolungo 3,181m 12.01.14
A favourite place in the morning was under the stunning pink Sassolungo where there was lovely hot chocolate and sacher torte (or apple strudel) in a traditional Tyrolean eatery.

This gentle area had some nice short runs to start the day before exploring farther afield.

Nearby Piz Seteur is also the link to the Val di Fassa, from where you could explore another ski area, or ski back to cosmopolitan Selva and Santa Cristina on lovely easy trails.

Closer to these two villages is the Ciampinoi area and the Saslong World Cup slopes, where steeper, fast runs up high lead to long downhill pistes through the forests and into the villages.

There is a lot of apres-ski around Val Gardena as most people here are staying for a week or more. Actually the apres-ski often appeared to start at lunchtime at all the on-mountain bars!

Runs under Sassolungo from Piz Sella 13.01.14
The run of warm, sunny weather came to an end on the night of the 13th January as a fresh storm brought new snow across the French and Italian Alps. From 20-50cms of snow fell across the southern Alps until the 14th, with ski areas such as Madesimo (290/380cms) in Italy scoring big again.

In Val Gardena we had about 20-40cms. This meant freshies for early starters! We headed up a tired little two-seater from Santa Cristina to Monte Pana where a fast covered quad lift services two long tree-lined runs.

Nobody was there and the grooming had been done before the snow - meaning laps of powder turns down the wide black and red runs before anyone else arrived!

From Monte Pana you can get a skibus that braves a snow-covered single-lane road up to Saltria (1,700m) high up on a beautiful plateau of alpine meadows far above the town of Ortisei. At this time of year it is the centre of the Alpe di Siusi, a whole other ski area (23 lifts, 60kms slopes). The vibe up here is relaxed and completely different from its more illustrious neighbours.

Altitude - 1,610 - 3,334m
Ice Bar at Ciampinoi 16.01.14
Lifts - 27
Runs - 60kms

After the snows we saw a return to sunny, clear conditions. That meant is was time to take on the famous Sella Ronda!

This incredible ski route was supposed to take most of the day to do (just to get around one-way) and not having done it before we weren't going to take any risks getting stuck hundreds of kilometres from our apartment!

So we joined the well-signed Sella Ronda at Ciampinoi and skied across to the Val di Fassa once again (our homework has paid off!). After Passo Pordoi we entered new territory as we arrived in the ski area of Arabba Marmolada.

You entered the ski area from the top of the valley on nice and easy, long blue trails. Further down the lifts rose up the side of the valley for some challenging skiing between here and Marmolada (3,342m). Apparently you can take the diversion to Marmolada if you're quick, but adding another five lifts and three cable cars seemed to be pushing it for first-timers!

Alta Badia 15.01.14
At pretty Arabba you need to take off skis and walk a few minutes through the town to continue the tour.

It was very busy in the village with lots of people doing the Sella Ronda the other way round passing those like us going towards Corvara.

There looked to be lots of interesting skiing up here around Arabba, but we didn't have time as we were heading across to the next ski area for lunch!

Alta Badia
Altitude - 1,324 - 2,778m
Lifts - 53
Runs - 130kms

Alta Badia is a massive ski area in its own right spanning between some resort villages in another valley over towards Cortina, and the village of Corvara that is right on the Sella Ronda.

Selva Val Gardena from Ciampinoi 16.01.14
A lot of the centre of the area consists of open, bright, rolling hills with blue and red runs and great views across to the peaks of the Dolomiti. Its relaxed and the food is great in the sunshine!

Near the villages the runs get steeper and there is some fun terrain.

From the pretty village of Corvara, a series of lifts take us up across the narrow Passo Gardena and from there we ski back into Selva in the Val Gardena on a long tree-lined run.

And that was the day we had the incredible experience that is the Sella Ronda in the Dolomites! And apparently, its more challenging to do it the other way around ... next time maybe!

Val Gardena
Altitude - 1,200 - 2,453m
Lifts - 79
Snow Depth - 65/165cms (17.01.2014)

Col Raiser, Selva and Gruppo Del Sella from Seceda 16.01.14
The snow began to fall again on the 16th January in Val Gardena. After revisiting some favourite areas on the Sassolungo side of Santa Cristina, we made our way to the northern side of the village for the first time in the whole week.

An underground funicular from the bottom of the Saslong World Cup course whisked us up to Plan da Tieja, where another gondola lift took us up to Col Raiser (2,103m).

The area around Col Raiser is wooded and pretty and there is a great restaurant there with a massive St Bernard that pushes its way in and out of the doors as it patrols around.

Up above the Col are snow-covered alpine meadows dotted with shepherd's huts, which makes for a scenic ski down. Another lift takes you up across a big, wide area until you reach Seceda (2,518m).

Seceda is the top of a steep escarpment and the top station of a cable car from Ortisei. It is also the start of a long, long, LONG run all the way down to Ortisei at 1,236m, a vertical drop of almost 1,300m.

Alpine Chapel near Col Raiser 16.01.14
Its a brilliant run with lots of variation. Open at the top, a little steep and fast into the valley, then a cruisy glide winding down past houses, streams, cafes and little canyons above the town.

We could have done the run twice if we had the time! Another option from the bottom at Ortisei would be to cross to the otehr side of the town and get the cable car up to the Alpe di Siusi. An alternative day tour could involve a loop back to Santa Cristina - so many options with so much skiing available!

The snow continues into the 17th January, turning the villages white again after the mild, sunny days. It really starts coming down in the afternoon as a week's fabulous skiing in the Dolomites comes to an end.

Leaving a very snowy Val Gardena, we drove down into the Adige valley to the Brenner motorway. Passing Bolzano (a good city to visit for an afternoon) and then Trento again ... spying all the ski resorts we had been to over the past two weeks.

Shepherd's Hut Col Raiser 17.01.14
By Verona, the snow has gone and could only be seen on the tops of the mountains to the north. It was raining though, which meant the storm was continuing nicely for several days across Northern Italy.

To get to our destination for our final week we drove all the way back across the north of Italy, past Brescia, Bergamo and Milan again, back into the province of Aosta.

Monte Rosa
18-24 January 2014

Altitude - 1,212 - 3,275m
Lifts - 33
Slopes - 200kms
Snow Depth - 130/260cms (24.01.2014)

After a long but fast drive across Italy we arrived back in the central Alps again at Monte Rosa - the second-highest mountain massif in Western Europe after Mont Blanc.

Gressoney-La-Trinite 21.01.14
The climb up into the valley from the Autostrada is steep and winding, then the road relaxes and only climbs slowly and steadily. This is fortunate as there is lots of snow on the road as the storm continues through the weekend.

By the time we reach Gressoney-Saint-Jean (1,387m) the snow cover is complete and snow walls are forming on the side of the road.

Our accommodation is at Orsia, a collection of buildings even deeper up the valley at over 1,700m altitude. There is over a metre of snow in the fields and gardens - it reminds me of Japan.

From the Thursday night through the weekend about 50-80cms of fresh snow fell across Northern Italy, making for excellent skiing conditions.

The Monte Rosa ski area is spread across three distinct valleys, but it is very different from the Dolomites or Chamonix ... wilder and it feels more remote, while still being distinctly Italian.

Stafal and Monte Rosa glaciers 22.01.14
We were based for the week handily in the middle valley where the ski lifts start at Stafal (1,818m) and at Gressoney-La-Trinite (1,637m). Its a very narrow valley and the rocky walls are steep and close, with the houses strung out along the winding road.

There was incredible powder skiing in the forests on the 19th January while the visibility was still poor as it was still snowing. Tree skiing is allowed here, and is mostly located below Punta Jolanda above Gressoney-La-Trinite and Sant' Anna above Stafal - we could hear the whoops all morning!

Starting from Stafal the skiing is on both sides of the narrow valley - take your pick. On the west side you can ski down from the Colle Bettaforca (2,727m) on wide and long open pistes, then descend back into the village on some steep sections or through the trees. There is heliskiing up to the Monte Rosa peaks and across to Zermatt in Switzerland from here.

On the east side of Stafal, two gondolas take you up slowly to the Passo Salati (2,971m), From here there are wide red runs back down to Gabiet, the halfway point, or lots of off-piste itineraries for advanced skiers from Punta Indren (3,275m).

Alagna 21.01.14
From Gabiet, you can also join up with the pretty wooded area above Gressoney-La-Trinite with its beautiful scenery and fantastic eating and drinking in great mountain restaurants. A nice trip is to link up the runs from Passo Salati all the way down to Stafal or Gressoney.

Passo Salati is also the connection to Alagna, the wild valley to the east known for its off-piste skiing.

Basically, there is only one piste all the way down from the top into the Valsesia. Its a black run to start, but its not too hard when its freshly groomed. Halfway down the run becomes wide and red, and then it continues all the way down to the pretty village of Alagna Valsesia (1,212m) for a 1,759m vertical drop on one run.

To the west of Stafal is another valley, the Ayas valley, home to the towns of Frachey and Champoluc. Each of these resort townds has its own ski area above it, and they link up to create one big area with lots of lifts and runs.

Frachey and the Matterhorn 20.01.14
There is bit more variety around Champoluc compared to the other valleys which tend to attract a lot of very adventurous expert skiers. Above Frachey there are some stunning views to Monte Cervino (The Matterhorn) and some great skiing.

The run down from Colle Bettaforca is wide and fast and you can go off-piste either side.

Taking the lifts back up, Frachey consists of a lot of nice fast groomed runs and some fun and fairly easy off-piste in the trees.

There are great eateries and cafes all across this mountain. The owners and staff are fantastic, welcoming and friendly, with the food ranging from traditional to modern. Lots of pasta and mountain soups!

A run of sunny days made our last days in Italy a delight. Early skiing and touring gave way to lazy afternoons spent having a drink, and basking on the decks and sun loungers.

Champoluc 20.01.14
Monte Rosa seemed like a bit of a secret place, slightly untouched still. A place for the adventurous.

So the tour came to an end not far from where it started ... a loop from Milan into France at Trois Vallees, then to Chamonix, across the Italian Alps to Lombardy, then Trentino and the Dolomites, and finally back to Aosta before a drive to Milan again.

What an amazing trip! It was really a dream of a holiday staying in such great accommodation, touring the ski resorts on the mountain roads and snow in our little 4WD Fiat Panda with snow tyres.When can we do another one!


Ski France & Italy 2013-14 Part 2

Leave the magificent Chamonix valley by the Mont Blanc road tunnel and suddenly you are in Italy, at the gateway to the Valle de Aosta. The ski resort of Courmayeur sits nestled on the other side of the tunnel - you can visit it on a Mont-Blanc Unlimited ski pass and get a different feel for Monte Bianco.

At Aosta, a wonderful provincial town full of Roman ruins, you can look up to the ski resort of Pila. But we weren't to visit either Courmayeur or Pila as we had a long drive out of the valley and back into Lombardia, not far from where we started this trip at Milano.

29 December 2013 - 4 January 2014

Near Milan we headed back north towards the snowy Alps, through rainy Como and then to Lecco, a town at the southern tip of Lake Como. The massive, deep glacial lake was surrounded by snow-capped peaks and dramatic mountain landscapes, landscapes that were to be our home for the new year's week.

Piani di Bobbio 29.12.13
The Christmas snows had continued for two days in northern Italy as the cold fronts had swooped up across southern Europe. Places like Monte Rosa in Aosta and Madonna Di Campiglio further east scored around one metre of snow from the dump over two days.

Madesimo and Piani di Bobbio in Lombardy got a whopping two metres!

Piani di Bobbio
Altitude - 1,350 - 2,000m
Lifts - 10
Runs - 35kms
Snow Depth - 130/160cms (01.01.2014)

Piani di Bobbio is only twenty minutes or so from Lecco or about an hour from the suburbs of Milan. A small but pretty ski resort, and quite far south, it can suffer in lean snow seasons. But this year was no lean one!

You reach the piani, the upper mountains, by gondola from the big car park. There's no snow at the bottom, but it comes into sight once the lift rises above the sharp, rocky escarpments.

The peak at Piani di Bobbio 29.12.13
At the top station you take another chairlfit across a wide, protected bowl which opens out onto downhill and cross-country runs.

At one side of the bowl, a series of nice, fast tree-lined pistes snake down into another valley, Valtorta.

But the best skiing was right at the top of the resort serviced by a simple, one-seater chairlift!

The untracked powder off the peak was lots of fun as the clouds began to clear and the sun peeped out again. This was the place to do laps and take in the views across the Valsassina to Lake Como.

The great thing about this part of Italy is the stunning scenery where the deep blue lakes are contrasted with the snow-capped mountains. You could spend a morning skiing, and the afternoon walking by the lakes through olive groves and eating gelati!

Altitude - 1,870 - 3,303m
Lifts - 15
Runs - 120kms
Snow Depth - 86/132cms (01.01.2014)

Corvatsch St Moritz 30.12.13
If you have a bit more time one day you can even make it to Switzerland from Lecco! A fast road takes you through numerous tunnels along the shore of Lake Como, then up the Valchiavenna.

Follow the signs to St Moritz from the town of Chiavenna and in another 40 minutes you are at Corvatsch.

There is no snow on the shores of Lake Como, but once you climb up into Switzerland the temperature drops and the snow begins to build up until there is more than a metre in the valley floors.

From -1c when we set out from Lecco, it had dropped to -13c in the car park when we arrived at the Furtschellas gondola station!

It certainly feels like the central Alps up at St Moritz, but on the day it was so cold it was hard to focus on the skiing! Corvatsch has great views over the frozen lakes Silvaplanersee and Silsersee, as well as to the town and the main St Moritz ski area.

The Motta area of Valchiavenna 03.01.14
On the way home you can fill up with petrol with your remaining Swiss francs as its significantly cheaper in Switzerland!

Madesimo Valchiavenna
Altitude - 1,550 - 2,948m
Lifts - 13
Runs - 60kms
Snow Depth - 210/290cms (01.01.2014)

Back in Italy again, the Valchiavenna is also reached from Lake Como, but you continue driving north rather than turning off to go to St Moritz. The resort is almost at the Spluga Pass into Switzerland, which is closed at this time of year.

Valchiavenna is a big ski area and had an incredible season with the snow depths peaking at around 5 metres in February.

Day trippers from Milan and around Lombardy park their cars at the little mountain town of Campodolcino (1,066m) and then take the funicular up to Motta (1,720m).

Powder beneath Our Lady of Europe
Motta has a number of short lifts and open runs, while the resort town Madesimo is home to the most lifts and the main ski area. There are great, long, tree-lined runs above Madesimo, with some higher open areas.

From Cima Sole at 2,150m you can get the cable car up to a peak, Pizzo Groppera, at almost 3,000m altitude. A tunnel through the rock takes you through the mountain itself to the lifts above the Val Di Lei, or you can ski straight back down to Madesimo (1,550m) on two ungroomed advanced trails. Unfortunately the conditions didn't suit either of these options on the day we were there!

However, back at Motta there was a great area of off-piste powder above the funicular station and below Our Lady of Europe, a 4-tonne, 13m-high gold statue right in the middle of the ski resort!

5-10 January 2014

Leaving Lombardy for the east we kept the mountains to the left of us as we passed the cities of Bergamo and Brescia. At Verona we were past all the lakes and so we headed north again on the Brenner Motorway, the road that links Northern Italy to the Tyrol, Austria and Germany.

The mountainous area of Trentino is an autonomous province of Italy whose capital is Trento, a beautiful little city that sits nestled between craggy mountains at the gateway to the Italian Tyrol. While Trento isn't a resort town, it is in range of four little ski areas with only a 30-40 minutes drive.

Near the summit at Paganella 06.01.14
A follow-up storm on the 4th and 5th January 2014 had brought more snow across the region. The smaller areas in Northern Italy received 20-40cms, but only above 1,300m. Lower down there was some rain, and later in the week the snow had mostly disappeared below 1,000m - in Northern Italy at least - during the unusually mild spell.

Altitude - 1,040 - 2,125m
Lifts - 18
Runs - 60kms
Snow Depth - 25/120cms (06.01.2014)

Paganella is a popular local ski area on the Trento side of the Brenta Dolomiti mountain group. After driving from the city through all the  vineyards on the verdant valley floor, a steep road winds its way up to the village of Fai della Paganella. Fai and Andalo are the two towns at the base of the ski area.

The ski villages are at 1,000-1,100m altitude and the snow cover was a little thin down low, but there are mid-stations for the lifts and there was lots of fresh show above about 1,500m.

Off-piste area at Paganella 06.01.14
I think the best runs are down from the Cima Paganella summit. There are also incredible panoramic views from here over the glacial Trentino valleys and the surrounding Dolomiti.

Runs are long and mainly undulating tree-lined pistes. But a great area for those who like to venture off-piste is between the two top lifts. The traverse that leads to it is actually marked on the piste map.

The off-piste area is dotted with conifers and dips steeply on some sides with rocky drop-offs. All in all, Paganella is a fun place with some variety and splendid scenery!

Altitude - 1,200 - 1,900m
Lifts - 22
Runs - 74kms
Snow Depth - 20/90cms (09.01.2014)

Folgaria 07.01.14
To the southeast of Trento near to the border with the Veneto region is a series of valleys that are predominantly agricultural for much of the year. But the main town in the valley, Folgaria, is also a family winter sports destination.

The Folgraia ski area put in some new lifts recently that link a number of disparate areas to create one bigger one with 22 lifts and 31 pistes. Its a gentle but surprisingly extensive area.

Although the snow wasn't great due to Folgaria's relatively low elevation, there was nobody around when we visited in midweek so every piste was perfectly groomed. The runs at Fiorentini are very pretty and the rolling hills and countryside are picture perfect.

Monte Bondone
Altitude - 1,184 - 2,090m
Lifts - 4
Runs - 20kms
Snow Depth - 30/100cms (09.01.2014)

Monte Bondone 09.01.14
The sunny days continued through the week in Trentino and elsewhere in northern Italy. Trento's closest ski resort looks over the city. It's known locally as Trento's own Alp, and is only 30 minutes from the centre of town.

The views are superb at the top of Monte Bondone. The top lift station has a great bar/restaurant perched on the rock face so you can look straight down on Trento. The craggy drop is sheer on the city side, but the mountain is more gentle to the west and this is where the slopes are.

Its a surprising little place with a superb long run called Gran Pista with a vertical drop of around 900m (feel your ears go pop!).

From the top, I spied the other ski areas at Paganella and Folgaria, as well as the mountain ranges of the Dolomiti.

Passo Groste at Madonna di Campiglio 10.01.14
Madonna di Campiglio
Altitude - 1,550 - 2,500m
Lifts - 62
Runs - 150kms

Madonna Di Campiglio, one of Italy's biggest ski areas, is just an hour's drive away from Trento, and provided some incredible skiing during the 2014 season. Madonna had reported a metre of snow in the previous storm and we arrived there to get a taste of the fantastic conditions.

The main resort town is a full-on ski village with restaurants, shops and nightlife and sits at an altitude of 1,550 metres at the top of a stunning valley in the Brenta Dolomites. Madonna has now linked with all its neighbours - Folgarida, Marilleva and Pinzolo - making the variety of terrain massive.

A clever place to start for those on a day trip is past the town at the Groste car park, as you can get straight on to lifts to both sides of the resort from there.

View from Passo Groste at Madonna di Campiglio 10.01.14
We started at the highest part of the resort as it was in the sunshine. A gondola takes you all the way to Passo Groste at 2,500m in one go. The runs up here are open and gentle and the snow quality is excellent. The scenery is wonderful.

Lower down on this side are fast and steeper tree-lined pistes that take you back down to the village. The other side of Madonna di Campiglio has more of the same at Pradalago and Cinque Laghi, two areas of lifts and a variety of red and blue runs. The latter is the more challenging area of the two with some very steep pistes up on the upper part of the mountain.

Pradalago gives you access to Monte Vigo and, from there, two other ski areas - Folgarida and Marilleva. The runs from the peak take you down to each of the ski villages which are resorts in their own right at 1,400m altitude. There are some great, long runs over here as well but the snow quality wasn't as good and it was a lot busier when we were there.

Cloud rolls in at Madonna di Campiglio 10.01.14
You could definitely spend a week in Madonna di Campiglio and, if the ski area here wasn't enough, a short drive would get you to the high-altitude ski areas of Passo Tonale and Peio up the road, or back to Paganella. The Brenta Dolomiti make a great alternative to their more internally renowned cousins to the east.

As a great day's skiing came to an end, low cloud drifted into the valley below us. This was to be our last day in Trentino, a fantastic part of Italy with skiing galore plus a great little city in Trento.