Italy—Cortina & Val Gardena

Peter Schroeder

Endless snowfields unfurl around us, bowls of white billowing against 10,000-foot summits. Disdaining the dull gray of ordinary rock, these mountains glow the faintest rosy pink. Their shapes differ from the alpine norm—these colossal karst upthrusts resemble castles and towers. My husband, Peter, and I ponder a dilemma that even ardent snow enthusiasts sometimes face: Should we ski—or take photos?

We are standing atop the Tofana ski area with our guide, Paolo Tassi. The scenery we behold could contain five Vails and five Whistlers.

“You’re looking at just 5 percent of the Dolomiti Superski region,” Paolo says.

[Note: This article is an updated version of a story that originally ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer.]

Although Cortina hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics, the resort is a mere snowflake in the grand drifting design of Dolomiti Superski, considered the world’s largest ski area. Unlike resorts in North America that cover one or two mountains, this snowy playground enfolds several mountain ranges. The Superski domain encompasses 12 resort areas, 460 lifts, 45 villages, and 720 miles of marked trails that sprawl across three regions of northeastern Italy: Veneto, Trentino, and Südtirol/Alto Adige.

Peter Schroeder

The 10,000-foot summits in the Dolomites aren’t impressive when compared with Colorado, where peaks routinely top 14,000 feet. However, the vertical drop exceeds 6,000 feet—more than that at any resort in the U.S. or Canada. Runs range from groomed cruisers to steep World Cup race courses as well as off-piste plunges down couloirs. One modestly priced lift pass accesses them all.

The Dolomites arc between Italy and Austria–a region known as the Tyrol. Uplifted from a tropical sea about 250 million years ago, the mountains are composed of calcium carbonate and manganese. At sunset, the massifs seem to flush orangey-pink—a phenomenon that locals call enrosadira–meaning “to become rose-colored.” In 2009, UNESCO named the mountains a Natural World Heritage Site.

Until 1918, the Ampezzan territory belonged to the Habsburg Empire. During World War I, the area was a major battlefront between Italian and Austrian forces. (Remember A Farewell to Arms? Ernest Hemingway served nearby as an ambulance driver and drew on his experiences for the novel.) Today, fortifications, trenches, and tunnels-—some alongside ski runs–form part of the open-air Museum of the Great War.

Peter Schroeder

The region is home to the Ladin people, who speak a 2,000-year-old language that mixes Latin with the dialect of the native Rhaetians. All these diverse cultures come together in the region’s culinary traditions. On restaurant menus, diners find pasta and canederli (dumplings), gnocchi and spaetzle, tirami su and apple strudel.

Because the Dolomiti Superski terrain is so vast, you can come for a week, and never ski or snowboard the same run twice. On our 10-day ski sojourn my husband and I—both experienced skiers—would explore two of its most famous destinations: Cortina d’Ampezzo and Val Gardena.

La Dolce Skiing

Risa Wyatt

Encircled by massive peaks and four mountain passes, Cortina is Italy’s best-known ski destination to Americans. Besides hosting the Olympics, it appeared in films including the Pink Panther and For Your Eyes Only (assassins riding spike-wheeled motorcycles pursue James Bond/Roger Moore down the bobsled run).

Cortina encompasses 90 miles of runs at separate separate ski complexes: Faloria/Cristallo, Tofane, and Lagazuoi/Cinque Torri. Free shuttle buses link the areas. All trails are groomed nightly and snowmaking covers 95% of the slopes.

Our first day skiing with Paolo, we start at Tofane, where crews are erecting safety netting for the women’s World Cup races in January. We carve our own swift S-turns on Olimpia and then head to the Forcella Rossa run, which is best described as “Couloir 101.” Although narrow, the trail has room to turn amid sheer rocks thrusting up from the snow.

At the bottom, we take the bus to Cinque Torri (Five Towers), although after partial collapse in 2004, they more accurately add to four-and-a-half. Pillars of stone rise like frozen titans. While the summits lie above the treeline, lower trails wind between firs and cembro pines.

In Cortina itself, cobblestoned streets meander past 18th-century churches and boutiques selling 30-carat emeralds and Murano-glass chandeliers. Never mind the furriers displaying sables—we’re most impressed by the lingerie shop with lynx teddies in the window. 

Peter Schroeder

“People come to Cortina to be seen,” our Italian friend Francesca had said. In Cortina that evening, we have our first look at lo Struscio–Italian slang for strolling up and down the street. Along the Corso Italia, dowagers make sedate progress wrapped in minks and small dogs, and laughing teenagers clomp in Moon Boots. Snow falls like wintery fairy dust. Instead of donning hoods, most people carry umbrellas to fend off the flakes.

Where do you want to ski today? That’s the usual question among friends when heading out for the day. In Italy my husband and I glom onto a new priority: Where should we lunch? The Dolomites are known for rifugios–alpine huts–originally built for mountain climbers. Now many are gourmet restaurants.

 “Let’s start with the best,” Paolo says, leading us to Rifugio Averau. The wood-lined interior creates coziness, while white tablecloths add chic. We enjoy handmade pasta at 9,000 feet, including the Ampezzan specialty: casunziei, half-moon-shaped pasta stuffed with beets. To accompany our meal, we choose Cabernet sauvignon from Friuli. For dessert, we finish with panna cotta with wild raspberry sauce–a good excuse for gluttony.

Peter Schroeder

Every day we lunch at a different rifugio, and each leaves savory memories. On a deck overlooking the Cinque Torri, Rifugio Scoiattoli serves a winter-right spaghetti with Treviso radicchio, pine nuts, and cream-laced tomato sauce. The rifugio recently added a hot tub where après-skiers can steep as they admire the Dolomites.

Even after skiing for a week, we find new surprises. Our last day, we ride the chair to the saddle of Cristallo. Arêtes–sharp, spiny ridges–loom so close to the lift, we feel we’re drawn into the vortex of the mountain. The sensation makes us understand another reason the Dolomites differ from other ranges. Here, mountains are not distant fantasies–you ski right next to them. They participate as your companions.

Crossroads of Cultures

Peter Schroeder

Italian gusto meets German Gemütlichkeit in Val Gardena, located north of Cortina just 35 miles from Austria. “Danke schoen… ciao!” a woman says as she makes lunch reservations. Val Gardena also is the heart of Ladin culture.

The 13-mile-long valley holds about a dozen villages–some more than 800 years old. Each carries a different name in Italian, German, and Ladin. Most tourist accommodations lie in Selva (Wolkenstein/Sëlva), which is the closest to the ski lifts. Rich in local culture, Ortisei (St. Ulrich/Urtijëi) has a pedestrian-only center filled with interesting shops, while Santa Cristina (St. Christina/S. Crestina) is quietly rural.

Val Gardena holds 100 miles of ski slopes and 79 lifts, all covered by the same Dolomite Super Ski Pass. While buses connect the different ski complexes in Cortina, Val Gardena offers the opportunity to ski between villages.

A century ago, Val Gardena hosted the first skiing competitions in the Dolomites. That tradition continues with the Saslong course in Selva hosting FIS World Cup events (Men’s Super G and Downhill). Once the World Cup ends, the Saslong isn’t just for racers. We challenge ourselves on the notorious Ciaslat section.

Peter Schroeder

On our next run, we swoop past the 17th-century Castel Gardena before connecting via an underground train to the south-facing slopes on Mt. Seceda. From here, we descend via the region’s longest run: La Longia. Beautifully scenic, the 6.5-mile trail winds through meadows, forests, and canyons draped with icicles.

Peter Schroeder

For lunch, we head to Daniel Hutte, which offers stunning views from its perch on Seceda. There are few places where so many nationalities come together as the ski resorts of Europe. As we pass tables, we overhear conversations punctuated by si, ja, do, oui, hai, and of course. But everyone adopts the Ladin toast–“Vives!”–“For life.” Wine lovers should try Lagrein, a dark-red wine from Alto Adige.

Sunny and clear, our last day is perfect for skiing the most celebrated route in the Dolomites: the Sella Ronda. Using ski lifts and downhill runs, the journey circles the Sella Massif, crossing four mountain passes, four valleys, and three Italian provinces. It totals 15 miles of trails–all suitable for intermediates.

We pause often for photos–smiling portraits framed by craggy summits. For lunch, we stop at Rifugio Salei, set on a sunny plateau. Music plays over the loudspeakers while skiers loll on lounge chairs on the “snow beach.” Others stand at the outdoor bar or gather in an al fresco living room where sheepskins cover the sofas.

Peter Schroeder

We’re greeted by the gracious and glamorous Alex Monteleone, the owner, who fills us in about the rifugio’s history. In 1967, his father, Bruno, built the hut. “There were only two lifts running here then, and the Sella Ronda was not yet established,” Alex says. “Everyone thought he was crazy.”

As we finish superb gnocchi topped with gorgonzola sauce and arugula, Alex suggess we try a homemade raspberry and red-currant grappa. At 42 proof, the grappa gives us our own enrosadira to match that glinting on the Dolomites as we ski back to Selva.

— by Risa Wyatt


For further information: 
Dolomiti Superski
Cortina Tourist Information Office
Val Gardena

Getting There
For Cortina, the best airport is Venice, located 100 miles to the southeast—about a two-hour drive. During the winter, regular bus service runs from Venice to Cortina.

Travelers can also take a taxi. For Val Gardena, the closest international airport is Innsbruck, Austria, located 70 miles north over the Brenner Pass.

Dolomiti Superski Pass
A seven-day Dolomiti Superski Pass ( costs from $340 for adults; from $240 for children. 

Sella Ronda
The well-marked loop can be traversed in either the clockwise (orange) or counterclockwise (green) directions, giving different ski experiences. If you’re just doing it once, opt for the orange route, which takes advantage of optimal light during the day. Start early—by 9:30am-—since the popular runs get skied off fast.