Skiing in the Dolomites

Skiing in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy

Sitting on a snow-covered mountain, mulled wine in hand, sun shining, music playing, I thought: “I’ve just got to blog about this”.

You might remember back at the start of the year I said I planned to post a bit more about our travels and adventures as well as our food. After all, for me and Mr M the two tend to go hand in hand. You had our new year break to a Shepherd’s Hut near Welshpool which was, as you know, followed by a busy few months of moving and settling into our new home.

But despite the long list of jobs and things to do in our house, we couldn’t resist what has become our annual break to the slopes. So off we went, seeking the fabulous views and scenery that I found myself soaking up as I planned this post.

The Sella Ronda, Italy

I haven’t actually been skiing all that long, maybe a few years. But despite being a late starter (and not particularly accomplished I might add) I love it. The scenery, the physical activity, the rush of hurtling down a slope, the fulfilment of conquering something you once thought was impossible or facing your fears and all the exhilaration that brings. And, of course, the apres-ski!

So far I’ve skied in France, Austria, and Italy – with Jamie each time bar one, and always as part of a group. This was to be our first ski trip just the two of us. Of the places we’ve been, we loved Italy – in fact I raved about bombardinos and L’Ortiche after our trip to Sauze d’Oulx last year. After a bit of research, we decided to go back to Italy, but to try the Dolomites. Known for their beauty, we read tempting reviews of the stunning scenery, the mystical pink hue of the mountains, quiet ski runs and plenty of food and drink to enjoy.

The Dolomites, Italy

We chose Cortina d’Ampezzo. Featured in films including For Your Eyes Only and Cliffhanger, it turns out it’s one of the most fashionable resorts in Italy – flocked to by the rich and the famous, who strut along its main street, the Corsa Italia, draped in fur, their faces covered by Jackie O-style shades. Not quite the kind of place Mr M and I would usually be drawn to, but apparently one of the advantages of the clientele that Cortina draws is they prefer to be in the town than on the slopes – leaving them nice and uncrowded for people like me.

I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of everything we did. That could go on for years. But needless to say, despite the odd hotel-related blip which I won’t bore you with, we had a fab time. Here’s the breakdown:

The Town

Nestled in a slightly remote valley, surrounded by mountains, you can see why people retreat from Rome to their (massively pricey, I’m told) second homes in Cortina. Packed with ornate buildings with a traditional church at its centre, you can tell this is a place that money comes to. I’ve already mentioned the Corsa Italia, lined with its designer shops and all sorts of eateries and drinkeries.

Corsa Italia, Cortina d'Ampezzo

Off the main street lies plenty of tiny little streets to explore, and a few brilliant little bars that we discovered. Our regular became Villa Sandi, where we wiled away a few hours drinking wine and enjoying their complimentary nibbles. Definitely a high point (the bar – not the nibbles). I wouldn’t say Cortina is a place where you go crazy on the apres, but there’s plenty of bars to have a few drinks – some wine bars with a surprisingly reasonable selection and others with sport, music and all that malarkey.

Villa Sandi, Cortina d'Ampezzo

The Skiing

On our various adventures, we’ve tried different styles of ski holidays and resorts. Chalets, hotels, self-catering. Places with huge ski areas like the Milky Way in Italy or the Three Valleys in France. And holidays that rely on cars, ski buses laid on by hotels, or nothing as they’re ski-in-ski-out.

The skiing in Cortina is divided into different areas, connected by ski buses, so if you don’t like having to put a bit of effort in to get places it might not be for you. Obviously it wasn’t as easy as hopping on a lift and spending the whole day in a massive ski area, but there’s plenty to do – it’s just a case of planning your day, picking which area you want to do, and then finding the right bus.

As well as a local pass you can get a ‘Dolomiti Superski’ pass that gives you access to all sorts of nearby areas, including the famous Sella Ronda and all its splendour. Whether you’ll use this pass to its full extent depends on how intrepid you are and how willing you are to hop on buses and organised trips, so worth bearing in mind how hard you’re willing to work.

Cortina, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956, has lovely runs above it. Plenty of nice wide blues, some down into the forest, some much more open. We actually had a lesson this time too, which didn’t just help us hone our technique but meant we discovered whole sections of pistes that we had had no idea were there.

Tree-lined runs in Cortina d'Ampezzo

There’s plenty of ‘must-see’ bits to ski near Cortina. One is the ‘Hidden Valley’ – a ski bus ride away, you take a gondola right up to the top of a peak then ski the whole way down, through a beautiful valley complete with frozen waterfall. Well, that’s what I’m told. Unfortunately we went on a day of terrible weather so didn’t quite see the valley in picture-perfect conditions. Then again, we had the WHOLE place to ourselves which was pretty special, so it remains one of the highlights of the skiing.

We also didn’t miss out on the piece de la resistance – being towed by horses at the bottom! Once you’ve skied down the valley and along a slightly frustrating flat track, you come to the waiting carriages and, in our case, slightly impatient horses. Much like a button lift, you grab a hold of the rope behind them, pick up your poles, and allow yourself to be dragged along at a vast rate of knots until you get to the end of the track. After that, it’s a taxi system back to the gondola where you can either do it all again, or go elsewhere.

The Hidden Valley, Italy

The Hidden Valley, Italy

Another trip is the Sella Ronda (it means saddle). This is basically a massive ski area that goes all the way round in a circle (wow my descriptions are getting better by the minute). It means you can ski from one point, all the way round, without going down the same run twice.

This was one helluva day – after a bit of bad weather for the early days of our hols we have bright blue sunshine and perfect skiing conditions to make our way round, checking out the various resorts along the way, stopping for drinks, and enjoying some fabulous runs.

Word of warning – this is a popular trip for plenty of your operators so that means the first few runs and lifts are busy as hell. Not ideal if you’re not the most proficient skier, and I have to confess to a few mini tantrums. But once the bottleneck clears you really can spend a lovely day exploring the area.

On the way, we agreed that if we come back to Italy, we’ll stay on the Sella Ronda. All the beauty of the Dolomites that you get in Cortina, but the fact you’re on such a huge area means there’s far less of the traipsing around and ski buses to get to different areas.

IMG_1146 (1) Sella Ronda, Italy

Food and Drink

And so to the food. Cortina and the ski area around it are incredibly close to the border with Austria. In fact, Cortina was Austrian until the First World War but became a fought-over place, changing hands until it was given to Italy in 1923. when Italian troops took it.

This history shines through in the food – perfect if you’re a food-fan like me. Up in the rifugios above the town, you get a range of carb-heavy winter warmers that are perfect to warm you after a morning on the slopes and fuel you up for your afternoon session.

The food in these places is simple, homecooked, and oh-so-good. Mr M are more gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce than  can possibly be good for you, and each time the gnocchi was light years away from some of the supermarket versions, or indeed, that gnocchi that guy served up in the first episode of this series of Masterchef.

For me, classic favourites I’d usually eschew in favour of something more adventurous suddenly caught my eye after a morning tackling new pistes in sometimes inclement conditions. My favourite was this tagliolini with venison ragu. Think spag bol for grown ups.

Gnocchi

Pasta in Italy

We might have been in Italy, but influences from the other side of the border are still there. I munched my way through fried potatoes, eggs and grilled ham – similar to the Austrian dish Grostel – but these were far surpassed by soft, cheesy dumplings served up with sauerkraut. You might not think it sounds appealing but trust me, this is perfect ski food.

Skiing food in Italy

Dumplings in Italy

You’ll (hopefully) have seen the dining high point of the holiday – our tasting menu treat at Tivoli, Cortina’s only Michelin star and a thoroughly fabulous experience. There is a whole rave about Tivoli here. Even if you don’t read the words, take a look at the pictures – this is just one example of the art we were served.

Lobster tartare at Tivoli, Cortina d'Ampezzo

Of course, we couldn’t get through a week in Italy without a traditional pizza, so on the last day we treated ourselves to an epic pizza-feast. Forget grease-laden, squishy dough, piled high with toppings and covered in cheese that turns far too quickly into a rubbery blanket as it cools. This is all about a light, crispy base, nice and thin, with sweet tomato sauce and fresh, moderate amounts of topping. A perfect finale to the week’s food.

The verdict

We already knew we loved Italy for skiing, and the Dolomites cemented our passion for this place of food, wine and fabulous snow. When you see the mountains turn a romantic pink at dusk you can’t help but feel a little glow yourself at witnessing Mother Nature in all her technicolor glory.

Cortina is certainly somewhere to see, a one-off place that you feel is just a little bit different. If you’re a shopper, you’ll love it. If you’re a skier, maybe less so. I’ve got to be honest, I love the activity that comes with a ski holiday, but I prefer to get my exercise on my skis, not carrying them around.

I’m glad we went, and we had a wonderful time with some unique experiences, but with so many places still to try – in Italy and beyond – we reckon we can consider Cortina ticked off the list. But Selva and the rest of the Sella Ronda, get ready, we’re coming to get ya……

Skiing in Italy

We paid for everything in full on holiday. Nobody knew I was a blogger. 

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