Stunning landscape is topped off with sunshine, snowy slopes and culinary delights
Published in The Toronto Star in February 2016
It takes me a couple of minutes to peel the gloves off my sweaty palms after planting my poles in the snow when our group stops for lunch at Val d'Anna halfway down a 10-kilometre run, through rock canyons and beside frozen waterfalls in the Val Gardena region of Italy's Dolomites.
The sun has been beating down all morning - this region's mild climate means there are 300 days of sunshine a year - and dining outside in February is par for the course.
We settle in at a long picnic table on the mountainside, next to German and Spanish tourists, as well as plenty of resident Italians, and revel in the festive atmosphere as beer steins clank and glasses of grappa ping together. Wait staff are hoisting massive trays of steaming spaghetti carbonara flecked with speck, the indigenous cured smoked ham of the region.
A group of Spaniards spontaneously bursts into a national folksong. People start cheering, then methodically clapping - and we join in. A waitress waves a red-and-white checkered tea cloth over her head as a beefy skier lifts her off her feet. Everyone is smiling - and why not? We've just spent the morning sailing over pristine pistes and are now tucking into bountiful bowls of perfectly prepared pasta.
If it sounds a bit like heaven, that's because it is. It helps that we're lunching in the clouds.
The Dolomite Superski region, considered Italy's most enchanting ski playground, is massive - so vast it can be difficult to find your way around without a guide (fortunately we have an expert navigator in our group).
It encompasses 12 ski areas, 450 lifts and 1,220 kilometres of slopes - 500 kilometres of which are accessible from Val Gardena, a 20 kilometre-long valley made up of three picturesque villages - Selva, S. Cristina and Ortisei.
Val Gardena's population of 10,000 swells in the winter when tourists are drawn to the rugged grandeur of the Dolomites' jagged limestone peaks in the Alps.
It boasts Europe's highest altitude plateau as well as the legendary 42-kilometre Sella Ronda circuit, the longest ski carousel in the world (it takes six hours to complete) that winds its way around the Sella massif, an imposing group of compact mountains divided between the northern Italian provinces of South Tyrol, Trentino and Belluno.
Skiing here suits all levels - from the take-your-breath-away steep pitch of the Marmolada to the Plan de Gralba, with long easy runs for wobbly beginners or rusty intermediaries. At the beginning of the week I'm in this camp, but after firming up my ski legs on several daylong excursions,
I'm ready for my first black run, the 3.5-kilometre Saslong World Cup slope, a spectacular alpine descent that serves as the racing course for the annual men's super-G. I'm the last in my group to cross the finish line, but I don't fall, and that's a victory of sorts.
The landscape is dotted with dozens of rifugi - traditional cosy mountain huts that offer food and shelter. Looking down from the gondolas and ski lifts you'll also see lots of brown countryside where small groups of backpack-bearing hikers in lederhosen traverse next to wide runs of man-made snow.
The plentiful sunshine in the Dolomites doesn't equate with poor snow conditions. In fact, the area has one of the most advanced snow-making systems in the world - it was the first to introduce snow-making in Europe in 1980 and some 5,000 snow guns ensure a steady even layer of well-groomed white stuff.
These pristine runs seem peaceful, but that wasn't always the case. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops battled in these mountains a century ago during the First World War. This history is imprinted on the mountains in the bunkers and tunnels chiseled through rock that are visible in summer.
After the war, the area was annexed from Austria by Italy, which explains why the locals are fluent in both German and Italian. (It's always a good idea to say "grazie" and "danke" in the same breath.) Ladin, a mountain dialect that's a mix of Latin and Celtic, is the third tongue spoken here.
Ladin culture is famous for its wood-carvings - once a major trade in the area when craftsman would travel throughout Europe peddling their wooden wares. The tradition continues today in the many shops that specialize in wooden toys, animals, mythological creatures and religious statuary.
One of the highlights of skiing in Val Gardena is the prospect of leaving one village in the morning, visiting another at lunch and yet another for apres ski. We ski into Ortisei one afternoon for hot chocolate at Cafe Corso, an outdoor spot in the centre of town that's a favourite meeting place for locals.
The cobblestone streets are strewn with confetti from a parade the night before and we spend an amusing hour watching street sweepers with what look like homemade witches' brooms attempt, but ultimately fail to clean up the mess. Across the street a woman is wiping a single open hotel room window, her arm waving a white cloth over the pane with the intensity of an orchestra conductor. Just when we think she's done, she steps back, narrows her gaze and starts wiping again. She's still at it when we leave.
Later that night after dinner at Hotel Oswald in Selva, our home for the week, we head to La Stua, where band members, all in drag, play gay anthems such as "YMCA" to a packed multilingual crowd of 300, including straight middle-aged folks, young snowboarders and a few dozen men dressed in crisp white sailor suits and caps.
There's barely room to move in the packed bar but everyone's dancing anyway - proving skiing isn't the only thing that gets people on their feet in Val Gardena.