Jude Clarke doesn’t do winter activities. Well, until now anyway…
I’ve never particularly got on with snow. The slushy, half-hearted English variety that afflicts us here from time to time just seems an uncomfortable wet inconvenience – like a vaguely souped-up version of a heavy drizzle, stopping you getting where you need to go and forcing you to dig out gloves and big waterproof coats and pinching your fingers and toes up with cold and discomfort.
Not ever having been a particularly sporty type either, the one time I tried skiing, at age 19, ended in sulky disaster. Having comprehensively failed to master the art of actually stopping once I started my inelegant glide along the snow, I spent half a morning on the slopes repeatedly toppling over onto my side or back, followed by the rest of the day sitting on a bench waiting for the coach to take us home.
So the omens weren’t particularly great for a three-night, two-day trip to the Italian Dolomites earlier this month. The ‘sell’ was a chance to experience the delights of this mountain resort that could still be enjoyed by the non-skier (phew), but as I attempted to cram pile after pile of weather-appropriate gear (snowsuits, waterproof trousers, fleeces, multiple Big Warm Jackets – oh the glamour) into my suitcase, I still, to be perfectly honest, caught myself remembering my preferred holiday packing style (sun cream, bikini, sarong, a couple of vest tops? SORTED) and wondering what on earth I thought I was doing.
I was joining a small group of British and Dutch women in Val Gardena, a valley in the Italian Dolomites comprising three main villages dotted between the mountains.
Once we’d transferred from Innsbruck in Austria (a dramatic flight in, the plane seemingly wedged against Alpine peaks as we came in to land), I began, slowly, the gradual unpicking of every prejudice I thought I had about winter holidays: a process that would continue for the whole weekend.
The setting was, quite simply, spectacular. With actual catch-your-breath stunning views at every turn, the beautiful pinkish/greyish Dolomites themselves in the foreground, the monochrome black-and-snow-white Alps further in the distance, it quickly became clear that this was a very special place.
Aided on the first evening by some delicious Hugos – elderflower, prosecco and mint cocktails – and some local musicians (with obligatory yodelling thrown in, of course) and a fabulous hotel room with balcony looking directly out over THOSE mountains (reader: I swooned) I suddenly found myself wholeheartedly into these whole snow-and-peaks shenanigans.
Friday started with an early call as, on empty stomachs, we assembled for a ‘sunrise breakfast’ trip up to the first of several delightful mountain cafe/restaurant/hotels that I was to encounter over the weekend: called rifugios where they provide overnight accommodation, otherwise rather underselling themselves as hüttes – humble ‘huts’ they were not.
An ascent by gondola was less scary than I had feared (did I mention I also have a bit of a problem with heights?) and proved utterly worth both the early start and the frisson as I began the journey, for the sheer wonder of the breakfast-in-the-mountains experience.
The sky was a searing bright blue and cloudless – beautiful enough to rival any Mediterranean holiday morning – and the snow twinkled, sparkled, adorned the peaks all around us and lent such a gorgeous vivacity and freshness to the morning that I was bowled over. And hungry.
Fortunately the Dantercepies hütte had laid on an extremely comprehensive brekkie buffet for us (I passed on the optional prosecco: come on, it was 8am, guys…), setting the Proper Ski Journalists in our party up for their subsequent trip back down the mountain on skis or fatbikes – like mountain bikes on steroids – and their morning of winter sports.
Me? I gondola-ed it back down, headed back to the extremely comfortable four-star Miravalle hotel and spent most of the rest of the morning on the sun-drenched terrace watching happy skiers do their thing all around me as I soaked up the rays and made a start on what ended up being a surprisingly respectable tan.
The afternoon worked out even better. A bus ride, two more gondolas (the second so high and steep it made my ears pop) and a short final leg by snowmobile (the only hair-raising part of the entire trip, zooming at speed on a mountain motorbike-type thing down a steep icy incline) later, we pitched up at the fabulous Sofie hütte.
More spectacular mountains all around, more ice-fresh air, twinkling snow, glorious sunshine and blue, blue sky: this was the setting for an afternoon of wine and food tasting. I’m not going to lie: prosecco’s sparkle has a definite extra something when teamed with the equally sparkling snow and crispness of the air.
Each of the local wines was paired with a beautifully presented small plate of food designed to further enhance the flavours, and before very long at all the post-snowmobile shakes had drifted away, replaced by a sense of sunny, boozy tranquillity and wellbeing.
Dutch courage, perhaps, but I think it was at this stage that I began tentatively ripping up my strict no-ski-holidays-EVER rule, and mentally plotting how I might persuade my other half that a winter holiday in the mountains could actually be the best idea ever…
“A break in an area of such outstanding and astonishing beauty as the Dolomites really doesn’t have to work very hard to keep you wide-eyed with amazement and wonder.”
Rounding off the tasting with a trip to Sofie hütte’s wine cellar, where we were treated to a generous G&T featuring a superb gin – 8025 (its name taken from the altitude at which it was made) – full of locally sourced herbs and other ingredients, we hopped on the last gondola of the day back down the mountain and straight into a pre-dinner amble around Ortisei, the largest of the three settlements in Val Gardena.
It’s a charming town, very much a living-in, working-in, raising-a-family-in settlement, not just a ski resort. All the locals that we met expressed a fierce pride in and sense of belonging to the region, most having been born and raised there, never contemplating moving away. The sense of regional pride is perhaps bolstered by the fact that the region even has its own language, Ladin, which is spoken at home and now taught at schools to preserve and propagate its use.
After a quick scout around the shops, a fascinating tour of the local museum and wood-carver Judith Sotriffer’s studio followed. Wood carving is one of the specialities of the area and comprises everything from traditional nativity scenes to much quirkier fare – a mouse riding a cheese bicycle, anyone?
We ended the evening over pizza and beers in a local restaurant, in a cosy and sociable huddle of stories from the day’s adventures – most involving skis or fatbikes: I just listened and ate.
My second day was one of those that will linger in my memory for a long time. Accompanied by our affable and expert guide Diego Deiana (another local, whose love for the area shone through as we walked and talked), I was taken on a day’s walking tour up once again into the mountains.
Starting from S Cristina, the smallest of the three villages, we hopped onto a chairlift: a surprisingly tranquil and almost zen-like experience, near-silent apart from birdsong, and with the feel of floating gently upwards into the sky.
A short bus ride later and we were alone on the mountainside, surrounded by spruce trees and snow that switched from icy to slushy to wonderfully crunchy as our walk progressed with not another human being in sight.
The first part of the walk was surrounded by evergreen trees, punctuated by occasional stops to examine animal trails left in the snow or discuss some of the local flora or the history of the area.
Soon, though, we burst through into open ground and yes, those stunning rocks, peaks and shards of mountain all around were no less awe-inspiring than the previous day.
We walked on, the path never getting too steep or particularly demanding, just gently wending through the countryside as we passed trees, the valiant vestiges of some of the summer’s hardier flowers sticking up through the snow, the occasional wooden signpost to orientate us, a couple of small mountain springs and patches of green or brown where the snow was beginning to dissipate in the warm March air.
After a coffee break at yet another cracking rifugio (Zallinger: we managed to bag the prime seat on the terrace, a proper suntrap where once again it was hard to believe we weren’t sitting basking on the Med somewhere) we collected a pair of sledges, our transport to get us to our next stop – lunch.
I’m kind of proud of this: the closest I came to a ‘proper’ winter sports-type activity during the weekend. The small and basic-looking sledges were terrific fun and the route from rifugio A to rifugio B (Tirler Alm) was just downhill enough to keep us whizzing along but never in any way feeling perilous or out of control.
OK, so I’ll admit this was helped by the fact that Diego kept a reassuring hand on the edge of my sledge while also manoeuvring his own, but it was a real blast, the cold air whooshing past my ears as we zipped along towards lunch.
Whether it was the morning’s exertions, all that fresh air, or the residual exhilaration from the sledging I don’t know, but I can honestly say that I’ve rarely enjoyed a meal more than I did that lunch at Tirler Alm.
A gorgeous concoction of three dumplings (each almost the size of a baby’s head) with spinach, parmesan and glistening with garlicky olive oil, they were the most delicious thing I’ve tasted in a long time, with the chocolate and vanilla marble cake that followed the mere, err, icing on the cake. Yes, I’d definitely found my happy place.
The day ended with an evening of wining and dining at the hotel, followed by a possibly ill-advised trip into Selva to sample the delights of après-ski.
From what I could make out/can remember this appeared to equate to rammed bars, young sporty Germans, more beers than are strictly sensible the evening before a morning flight and covers bands performing unlikely versions of everything from Let’s Twist Again to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Oh, and Happy Birthday. Seven times in a row.
It all ended in a glorious blur, and as I woke far earlier than felt natural the next day it seemed unjust that I had to pack up and leave a) with such a fuzzy head and b) when I was slap-bang in the middle of falling in love with Val Gardena.
So would I forgo my formerly beloved sun-sea-sand holidays for another mountain trip in the future? Well, actually yes: I think I’ve been converted. You simply don’t get views like that, air like that, or a sense of connection with nature and the remarkable, endlessly beautiful surroundings like that on other kinds of holiday.
Even putting the whole ‘skiing’ thing to one side, a break in an area of such outstanding and astonishing beauty as the Dolomites really doesn’t have to work very hard to keep you wide-eyed with amazement and wonder. The fact that there is also so much fun to be had even for the non-skier is simply further justification.
Next time I might even brave a few lessons on the slopes. My god, what has the mountain air done to me?
Jude stayed at the four-star Hotel Miravalle in Selva di Gardena which offers winter packages from €78 pp per night. The nearest airports are Innsbruck, Verona, Venice and Milan Bergamo with airlines including EasyJet, Ryanair and BA.
Val Gardena has Ladies Special programmes in winter and summer, dedicated to women who love the mountains. For more information on Val Gardena, visit www.valgardena.it/en, email [email protected] or call 0039 0471 777 777