We couldn’t go for Christmas 2020, but we were determined to spend Christmas 2021 there. And we did, against all omicron odds.
Arriving in Venice we picked up our hire car and whizzed along the foggy motorway northwards until, suddenly, the mountains loomed bright and clear right above us. Turning up into the mountain roads we passed glamourous Cortina d’Ampezzo, nestled in its valley and getting ready to host the Olympics in 2026. We were heading for Corvara, in the heart of the Italian Dolomites and located on the famous Sella Ronda ski circuit. It was mid-afternoon and the sun shone on the beautiful mountains, giving them their familiar pinky hue, set against the brilliant blue skies – such a change from the grey London skies we had left.
We realised we had forgotten to have lunch, but didn’t want to linger in a restaurant, so as we climbed, we stopped at a salumeria (grocery store) and asked them to make panini for us – local mountain cheese and prosciutto which they sliced in front of us. We passed pretty village after village as the road wound through the mountains. Arriving in Corvara was like arriving in a sparkling winter wonderland. The village was all lit up, with sparkling lights around the church and the wooden life sized nativity scene in the village square. Our hotel, Posta Zirm, a Corvara institution, was in the centre of the oldest part of the village, next to the church and in front of the luxurious Hotel Perla.
Our hotel apartment had panoramic views looking out over the main street from one side of the living room and out over the slopes from the other. The hotel Posta Zirm is an elegant and cosy hotel which has been operating for over one hundred years. The stylish and comfortable bars and reception rooms make you want to linger and the service is impeccably helpful. We had great fun in the supermarket, not even 100 metres away, choosing our fine South Tyrol wines and cheeses and cold meats to snack on.
We walked out of the back of the hotel to the Col Alto lift, which was 20 metres (really 20 metres) away and began our skiing extravaganza which lead us somewhere different every one of our six skiing days. I am not sure which to wax lyrical about most: the skiing or the mountain food. They were both the best we have ever experienced.
A word first about the skiing- we experienced the most perfect conditions: abundant snow, completely empty slopes (even though the World Cup was in Badia when we were there), with not a person in front of us at any lift and the most amazing clear skies and brilliant sunshine. Those combined with an abundance of wide red and blue slopes surrounded by fir trees and the warm glow of the rocks, made for an almost surreal skiing experience. We almost felt like pinching ourselves, so little could we believe our luck.
And now a word about the food. In a previous Dolomites blog from 2019, I highlight how seriously this region takes its food and the preponderance / concentration of Michelin star restaurants (one, two and three star) in this small area. This high quality of cuisine spills out on to the refuges and huts on the slopes, where Michelin star chefs prepare dishes for skiers to lunch on at very affordable prices and every meal is a wonder. We tried a different renowned refuge every day for a week and only scratched the surface. There is even a gourmet ski tour available for the truly dedicated. The choice is endless and we worked our way through a series of recommendations from the local tourism director.
So here wonderful skiing is combined with wonderful food and so you must forgive me if I intertwine my accounts of our skiing routes with the food we stopped for on our way.
Corvara is on the Sella Ronda, the circular route which takes about 3-4 hours to complete – skiing around the mountain known as the Sella Ronda (Round Saddle) which is a magnificent rock massif that looms over the region. We did the route both clockwise and anti clockwise on different days and each way was very different. The main villages/resorts on the circuit are Corvara, Arabba, Valle di Fassa, Selva (Wolkenstein) & Colfosco. Other areas that gravitate off this include Val Gardena, Marmolada Glacier, San Cassiano, Civetta and Cortina itself – all of these are on the Dolimiti Superski Pass. The skiing is very much about going from village to village and each has their own ski area. Throughout the region are the dramatic rock formations – jagged spires and steep cliff which turn a magical pinky rose at sunrise and sunset.
On our Sella Ronda trips we stopped for a leisurely lunch at the magnificent Crep de Munt on the anti-clockwise route with the sunny outdoor terrace suspended above the valet floor and the Marmolada in the background. Here the venison tagliatelle and fried ravioli were highlights. Going clockwise it was lunch at atmospheric Edelwiess above Colfosco with local dumplings reigning supreme.
Another day we skied over Badia & La Vila and had lunch at rifugio La Crusc Santa Croce which is in the prime location next to a historic church standing high up in the mountains. Their specialty was omelette and we truly ate the best omelettes of our lives, followed by their renowned Kaiserschmarrn pancakes with apple or cherry sauce.
We spend a day skiing to the Marmolada glacier, which truly was an adventure as the huge cable car climbed vertically up the side of the glacier to the highest viewpoint (3342m) where we had the most spectacular 360 degree views of the Dolomites and especially the Sella Ronda. In the museum here the World War 1 battles loom large with the mountain top strongpoints and the development of a network of via ferrata (iron paths) to link the isolated locations. This day was rounded off with moreish green spätzle with ham and cream at Bec de Roces.
On a day when we were skiing in the Selva (Wolkenstein) region in Val Gardena we ate at the Uttia Sole which is renowned for its Ladin specialities. Ladin is the local language and culture in the South Tyrol. As well as speaking Italian and German interchangeably, (this area was part of Austria until the end of WW1), the locals also speak their local language Ladin and all signs appear in all three languages. The view from the deck of this refuge was one of the most spectacular you could ever hope to see and the polenta was wonderful as were the Turtres (fried patties) with cheese and spinach.
On Christmas Day we treated ourselves to that rare meal – the mountain BBQ -seriously! A platter of succulent pork, chicken and sausage which left us groaning we were so full. We went from there to try and ski it off on the Gran Risa World Cup run which had been vacated by the World Cup skiers only a day or two before. We appreciated their skill as we made our way gingerly down the gloriously steep run.
Our only skiing disappointment was that we did not get to do the skiing with horses, on the famous Lagazuoi & Armentarola route. Here the beautiful sweeping route comes down from Cortina passing through a famous WWI battlefield and the Scotoni Hut before you grab a lift from horse-pulled lines to get your back onto the lift circuit. We hoped every day it would open, but it didn’t until our last day and as we drove out of the village we passed the huge black horses on their way to work. Reason enough to return next year to try this.
The apes ski was quieter this season as the government was trying to keep COVID under wraps. We did spend a couple of evenings as we came off the slopes in the infamous Murin apres ski bar, which turned up its music at 4pm and started to throb and where teenagers and their parents mixed with a beer or a vino caldo and danced for a few hours. We spent another lovely evening in the Perla’s strikingly cosy speakeasy style bar. Often though we congregated in the Posta Zirm’s welcoming and relaxed Taverna bar for a bombardino (hot advocaat and brandy) or one of their extensive collection of local beers. It was a perfect spot to unwind.
In the evenings we ate at the Fornella pizzeria which was excellent and fun and we splashed out on Christmas Day at the Bergotel Ladinia restaurant which has the most wonderful menu of local specialities. Every dish was a culinary experience. I haven’t had a chance to wax lyrical about the South Tyrol wines which is really one of their best kept secrets from sparkling to sweet desert vintages.
Last but not least on our final day we set out home early and went to a gloriously empty Venice where we walked for hours. We climbed the tower in piazza San Marco to watch the sun set over the beautiful city and had lunch in our old favourite restaurant, Tratorria all Rivetta – A favourite with the gondoliers. The spaghetti al Nero do seppia, crab linguine and fried calamari were as good as they had been the last time we were there 10 years ago.
It truly was the perfect skiing holiday, and Putney Travel is once again making an exception for the Dolomites and breaking its golden rule of never returning to the same ski resort twice. We don’t know if it can ever be so perfect again, but we have already booked for Christmas 2022 and are taking a number of Australian cousins with us this time.