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Ski the Little-Known Italian Alps, Site of the 2006 Winter Olympics
by

Bob Goligoski

SESTRIERE, ITALY -- Sestriere, Claviere, Sauze D’Oulx, Bardonecchia. Most travelers contemplating a winter resort vacation in Europe, have never heard of these little-known Italian ski resorts.

But that is all about to change. In less than two years, the Olympic Winter Games will kick off here in February 2006, and these Italian slopes will bask in the glow of worldwide publicity. And deservedly so. After a one-week adventure through the region with some companions last January, we all reached the same conclusion: this was one of the skiing/snowboarding discoveries of a lifetime. And lifts tickets were incredibly cheap, ranging between $24 and $27 a day.

During our five days we skied at Sestriere, Claviere and Bardonecchia, only three of the six or seven ski resorts clustered together in the Italian Alps near the French border some 70 miles west of Turin, Italy. The area is called the Milky Way, or in Italian, the Via Lattea. Turin is the closest international airport but Milan is also nearby.

A network of nearly 100 lifts covers the Milky Way, taking skiers and snowboarders to an array of groomed runs that span some 260 miles. The off-piste skiing is also vast and really not many powder buffs come here to rip it up after every snowfall. We found bowls of knee-deep fluff just off the main runs even though it hadn’t snowed in five days.

And the snow is what draws people here. Although some Italian winter resorts have a fickle reputation for snowfall, the Milky Way is blessed with numerous sunny winter days, plenty of natural snow and regiments of snow making guns just for insurance.  And that is especially true of Sestriere.

Sestriere is the highest of the Milky Way resorts, topping out at 9,230 feet with a vertical drop of 2,616. This will be the site of the downhill alpine ski events. The snowboarding competition will be nearby at Bardonecchia, which has an awesome vertical of 4,492 feet, with most of the cross country races staged around Pra Gelato.

There is so much skiing here that there is plenty to challenge the expert and delight the novice. Many of the runs roll on for three to five miles, considerably longer than at most U.S. ski resorts.

Sestriere, Bardonecchia and the other towns that line the valleys at the base of the slopes are mostly working-class, functional towns. These are not cute and charming alpine villages. They do not attract the mink-and-Mercedes crowd. But there is a charm of another sort here – the kind that stems from the people and shopkeepers who were here tending their sheep and tilling the soil long before the winter resorts were built.

And you soon learn to “go with the flow” here. This part of Italy runs on a different clock, or no clock at all sometimes. Your ski guide may show up 20 minutes late but he or she is always all smiles. The guy running the lift may just shut down a very busy lift for 10 minutes while he takes a bathroom break.

And speaking of guides, it is well worth it to hire a guide, at least for your first day on the snow. The network of connecting trails, runs and resorts can be quite confusing and to get your bearings, and discover some intriguing runs you might have missed, go with a guide. And they are your best source to find the mountain-top restaurants, many tucked away almost hidden behind ridges and trees, where the chow is unlike anything you’ll find at an American ski resort.

The food is heavily influenced by the nearby French and succulent sauces flavor nearly every dish. Most of the restaurants, both in the towns and on the slopes, specialize in pasta dishes, many derived from recipes that go back centuries.

The Milky Way is in the Piedmont region, famous for its wines, especially the reds. Some of the Barberas, Barolos and other red wines from regional wineries that we tasted would get a high 90’s rating in Wine Spectator. But the yields are often quite small and the wine often never makes it to the outside world – it is all consumed in the nearby bars, restaurants and homes.

We visited in the low season and lift lines typically were only 5 to 10 minutes long. Some of the locals say the lines are longer on weekends when the crowds from Milan and Turin arrive. Considerable lift construction is planned over the next two years to upgrade the resorts for the Olympics.

The resorts, especially Bardonecchia, seem to have an abundance of surface lifts – T-bars and platters. Sometimes you take three or four connecting surface lifts up rather steep hills. When you reach the top, it is often time to take a break as the trip up can be a little exhausting. But we were told many of these uphill conveyances will be replaced by chairlifts and gondolas by the time the Olympics open.

The town of Bardonecchia was one of our favorites. Its winter-time population of 3,500 swells to more than 50,000 when tourists arrive to rock climb, hike, bike or to play golf on what is reputed to be the world’s highest elevation golf course. Shops line the narrow, serpentine streets and churches nearby date back to the fifth century. Be sure to drop the word “discount” into your conversation if you want to bargain on goods.

There is little traditional apres ski activity in Bardonecchia. Most of that is down the road at Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx where the discos usually don’t open until midnight and the music pulsates until sun-up. Meals and hotel rooms are relatively inexpensive in most areas of the region and children under eight ski free anywhere on the Milky Way.

Bardonecchia, Sestriere and Claviere boast about 50 hotels, most of them within walking distance to the lifts. For information about lodging and other aspects of the Milky Way, go to www.vialattea.org or www.ski-europe.com. For a free subscription to frequent reports on skiing in Italy and other European countries, go to www.skieuropereport.com.

The low season follows the Christmas holidays for a couple months and rates are lowest then. A Ski Europe spokeswoman noted that one typical, low season ski package includes seven nights lodging at the three-star Savoy Edelweiss Hotel in Sestriere, round-trip air from New York City to Milan, a daily breakfast and a rental car for the week. The price: $995.

Once you arrive at the Milky Way, there is a limited bus system that can get you around to most of the resorts. Rental cars are the choice for many skiers. Bardonecchia has a train station and trains run on a rather frequent basis from Milan and Turin.

To enjoy the relaxed pace, jaw-dropping scenery, five-star food and uncrowded slopes of the Milky Way, perhaps now is the time to go – before the Olympics possibly change the ambiance of the region. Information about the Olympics is available at www.Torino2006.org.

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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