La Dolce Vita

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Bormio Gondola

In my final day of skiing last winter, deep in the Italian Alps, Alfredo and I make a nonstop descent of Bormio's Stelvio downhill. Race experts say it may be the world's best. We push off below the start house and go all the way to town, dropping more than the height of Vail Mountain.

Because few people are on the wide, groomed trail, we cruise large, lazy turns with no precise arc, allowing the skis to do almost all of the work. It's the kind of skiing where you give the skis the freedom to find a line that works best with their sidecut and flex. They reward your legs with a sense of effortlessness, the kind you feel when a tennis racket or golf club contacts the ball over and over again in its sweet spot.

Experience has taught me over the years-and trail designers have confirmed it-that this experience of skiing exists when the slope gradient is around 35 percent, which, as it happens, corresponds to most of the Stelvio run. It's not especially difficult. You have the feeling that you've chosen a slope that resonates with your skiing, the way the pitch of a finely strung violin corresponds to a Mozart concerto.

And so Alfredo and I swing together from turn to turn. The gentle March air, gathering warmth from the rising morning sun, brushes our faces. Sometimes we ski beside one another, or one takes the lead, the other following, without premeditation, the joy rising in our hearts, not wishing ever to stop because it is so very fine, and not having to stop because the slope goes on and on and on.

Stelvio's pitches and rolls sculpt a perfect descent. It's unlike any slope I've ever skied, about two miles in length without a flat spot anywhere. With all the sweeping turns we make down the trail's 3,500 vertical feet, Alberto figures we've covered about four miles, and yet we have left the top fourth of the mountain unskied. We finish at the race stadium, and look back up at 9,880-foot Cima Bianca (white peak). What seemed a heavenly eternity has taken less than six minutes.

I first visited Bormio, a medieval mountain village in northernmost Italy near the Swiss border, during the 1985 World Alpine Ski Championships. It was undoubtedly one of the more spirited, happier championships ever held. The U.S. women, led by Tamara McKinney, Diann Roffe and Eva Twardokens, created a picturesque moving tableau as they rode in a flower-bedecked carriage through Bormio's cobblestone main street, drawn by horses to the town square to receive their medals.

Now my wife and I have come to Bormio for the final races of the 1999-2000 World Cup season. Austrian superstar Hermann Maier is here to race and party. For the first time, every World Cup finals of snowsliding-not only alpine racing, but also snowboarding, freestyle, cross-country, jumping, telemarking and nordic combined-are being held in a single region. Over five days, an onslaught of 23 competitions takes place in Bormio and nearby Santa Caterina, and at Livigno to the north and neighboring St. Moritz, Switz. At the final ceremony in Bormio, it takes all of an hour and 40 minutes to hand out a hundred or more trophies.

Each winter, Bormio hosts World Cup races. History's first official super G took place here in the early Eighties. This past summer, the International Ski Federation (FIS) chose Bormio over Lillehammer to be the site of the 2005 World Alpine Championships, putting Bormio in a league with Vail and St. Moritz as the only resorts, post World War II, to host the Alpine Championships more than once. If this isn't a place serious about skiing, tell me that snow falls upward.

I've come not to watch races, however, but to vacation. A word of advice on taking an Italian ski trip. Like a beautiful woman indifferent to her suitors, tourism officials may not seem to care much about whether you visit or not. "That's just how it is," a top official at the Italian tourist office shrugs. None of which is to say that you shouldn't go to Italy. Once there, you wi encounter a friendly reception. Perhaps mountain folks, traditionally shy and suspicious, must see your face first, not some label on an envelope.

Following a seven-hour Alitalia flight from New York City, we rent a car at the Milan airport for the three-hour drive to Bormio. The road takes us past scenic Lake Como, through dozens of tunnels that pierce the deep mountainside, dropping precipitously to the lake's eastern shore. At Sondrio, we turn east and head up the valley known as Valtellina.

We emerge from a final tunnel into hotel-lined streets. Clearly, the town's main business is catering to tourists. It has done so for a long time. As early as the First Century A.D., Pliny the Elder recorded how Romans came here to soothe their muscles in the naturally hot water and, if necessary, drink it to cure ailments from diabetes to urinal tract disorders. The water emerges at temperatures between 97 and 113 degrees from springs as deep as 9,000 feet in the mountain.

The Bagni Vecchi (ancient baths) are the first place we go. For starters, we relax for 20 minutes in a dimly lit grotto, a kind of wet sauna room carved out of the rocks 1,900 years ago. Then we enter a shallow pool of hot (105-degree) water. I immerse and stretch out my entire body in its enveloping warmth. Then I plunge into a large stone vat of icy cold water and return to the hot pool. We next sit on a ledge under a hot waterfall, and finish with a swim in the outdoor pool overlooking Bormio and the mountains. The two-hour visit, including a towel and dressing gown, costs $7.

The next day, on the aerial tramway, we ride up to Bormio 2000, a mid-mountain resort at 2,000 meters or 6,560 feet. Here, my new skiing partner Alfredo Cantoni meets us. With his English wife, Elisabeth, Alfredo operates the Auberge Girasole at Bormio 2000. It's a plain, spacious 46-room hotel, frequented by skiers and snowboarders who don't mind living away from the shops and bars and crowds down in Bormio. The advantage is that they can squeeze in a couple of hours of vigorous skiing on empty slopes before the hordes arrive from below.

Alfredo is a handsome hotelier and mountain climber of medium height, with a full head of black hair that makes him look far younger than his 59 years. His family has lived in Bormio for two centuries. In summers, as a boy, he went up into the high pastures to tend his grandparents' cows, living in a hut as part of his duties. In 1975, he recruited the first Americans coming to Bormio.

"On a busy day," Alfredo informs me over a cappuccino, "as many as 10,000 skiers and boarders may be on the mountain." Bormio, which consists of two areas-Vallecetta and intermediate Oga-can handle 25,000 visitors. Typically, 40 percent ski. The least crowded time is between New Year's and mid-February. In June and July, the skiing shifts to the glacier high above the 9,000-foot Stelvio Pass, where European national ski teams have trained for decades.

With Alfredo, we take the upper aerial tram to the top of Cima Bianca. He leads us down a trail that once served as a women's World Cup downhill. The terrain is gorgeous and perfectly groomed, and it winds down the mountain like a ribbon spiraling off the side of a Christmas gift. No one is on it, for the simple reason that the trail is closed to the public. Alfredo has exercised his droit du seigneur by taking us down. We turn, totally unimpeded, from one edge of the perfect piste to the other.

With our swooping turns, we ski for perhaps five miles, then board the cable car for a return trip to the summit of Cima Bianca. The slopes have been scoured by wind, but we drop into a sheltered area and softer, wind-collected snow. We follow a draw, a traverse and a superb series of pitches. The descent is 2,500 vertical feet-a drop greater than Stowe, Vt.-and yet so big is this mountain that we have only reached the top-the beginning-of the famous Stelvio, the men's World Cup downhill.

We gape from the starting house down the gut-wrenching steep drop that begins the downhill, as steep as the famous Hahnenkamm start. By the time the trail loses its steepness, the racers are moving at 85 miles per hour. Top FIS officials have confided to me that the Bormio downhill may be the best in the world, superior even to the Hahnenkamm. It's an unrelenting descent. There is no place for the racer to rest. The most agonizing section, tearing at the legs, is the Carcentina Traverse, which runs across a savage sidehill, followed by the San Pietro jump. What makes this section so demanding is that the racer has already dropped more than 1,500 vertical feet, and he's still only halfway down.

Alfredo points at a log restaurant just below us. "La Rocca. Let's go in for a bombardino!" The bombardino is a drink made of an egg liqueur to which Scotch whiskey is added. The mixture is heated and topped by several dollops of freshly whipped cream. Alfredo orders a round. The drinks, in sundae-size glasses, are brought to us by the manager, who is known as The Bombardino Queen and wears a maroon jacket with large lettering: "Hard Rocca Café." As I sip the warm bombardino, a powerful surge of energy suffuses my body. I've refilled my tank for skiing.

The Bombardino Queen seems pleased by my reaction and invites us to return for lunch the following day. When we do, we find ourselves sitting next to a table of a half-dozen Boston skiers who have spenta week of partying and hard skiing in Bormio. One of them, a slim, short red-haired young man, says it's his fourth winter at Bormio. His group numbers about 28. The price for their packaged trip, including lodging and airfarefrom Boston, is $1,200 each.

"It's terrific," he says. "When we showed our Alitalia boarding passes, we received a free lift pass for the week. I can ski cheaper here than flying to Jackson Hole and camping out at a friend's house for nothing. Last night, we came up from Bormio 2000 by snowmobile for dinner. It was like La Rocca was our own private party place. We didn't go home until 2 a.m."

The whole world seems to pass through La Rocca. After lunch, in the bar, Alfredo introduces me to Gunilla Knutson, a dazzling former model, famous years ago for her appearance in the Noxzema "Take it off" commercial. Knutson, nursing a champagne glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, is a New Yorker transplanted from Sweden.

"Twenty years ago, when I first came to Bormio on a promotion trip," Gunilla recalls, "they took photos of me skiing down the slopes in a bikini. We stayed at the Posta Hotel. The owner encouraged us to return with friends, and we did. For almost 20 years now, my husband and I have taken at least 50 people each winter."

I ask Gunilla, "What do Americans like about Bormio?"

"It wasn't built as a modern tourist town or a ski town. It's a true medieval village, with pedestrian lanes. You have shops, the incredible Roman baths, churches. Some of our people don't even ski. They shop, or if it's warm enough, they can play tennis, or they hike."

Outside La Rocca, we look across the valley at Bormio's other ski area, rising out of the mountain hamlets of Oga, Le Motte and Isolaccia. Eight lifts access intermediate and beginner terrain.

In Bormio that night, we dine at Kuerc on the town square. The ground floor is a popular place to enjoy a cappuccino and a pastry in mid-morning or afternoon. In the dining room upstairs, I order two dishes of brasaola, a dried meat flavored with spices and wine and hung outside, usually under roof eaves. My first dish, Kuerc's Crespella Valtellinese al ragu di brasaola e bitto (translation: sheer bliss of taste), is quite extraordinary. Ground brasaola has been smothered in a bechamel cream sauce mingling with tomato. I follow it with a plate of brasaola saturated in olive oil. The razor-thin slices of meat are tender, not dry, possessing an intoxicating taste somewhere between finely cured ham and a mild pastrami.

Thng house down the gut-wrenching steep drop that begins the downhill, as steep as the famous Hahnenkamm start. By the time the trail loses its steepness, the racers are moving at 85 miles per hour. Top FIS officials have confided to me that the Bormio downhill may be the best in the world, superior even to the Hahnenkamm. It's an unrelenting descent. There is no place for the racer to rest. The most agonizing section, tearing at the legs, is the Carcentina Traverse, which runs across a savage sidehill, followed by the San Pietro jump. What makes this section so demanding is that the racer has already dropped more than 1,500 vertical feet, and he's still only halfway down.

Alfredo points at a log restaurant just below us. "La Rocca. Let's go in for a bombardino!" The bombardino is a drink made of an egg liqueur to which Scotch whiskey is added. The mixture is heated and topped by several dollops of freshly whipped cream. Alfredo orders a round. The drinks, in sundae-size glasses, are brought to us by the manager, who is known as The Bombardino Queen and wears a maroon jacket with large lettering: "Hard Rocca Café." As I sip the warm bombardino, a powerful surge of energy suffuses my body. I've refilled my tank for skiing.

The Bombardino Queen seems pleased by my reaction and invites us to return for lunch the following day. When we do, we find ourselves sitting next to a table of a half-dozen Boston skiers who have spenta week of partying and hard skiing in Bormio. One of them, a slim, short red-haired young man, says it's his fourth winter at Bormio. His group numbers about 28. The price for their packaged trip, including lodging and airfarefrom Boston, is $1,200 each.

"It's terrific," he says. "When we showed our Alitalia boarding passes, we received a free lift pass for the week. I can ski cheaper here than flying to Jackson Hole and camping out at a friend's house for nothing. Last night, we came up from Bormio 2000 by snowmobile for dinner. It was like La Rocca was our own private party place. We didn't go home until 2 a.m."

The whole world seems to pass through La Rocca. After lunch, in the bar, Alfredo introduces me to Gunilla Knutson, a dazzling former model, famous years ago for her appearance in the Noxzema "Take it off" commercial. Knutson, nursing a champagne glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, is a New Yorker transplanted from Sweden.

"Twenty years ago, when I first came to Bormio on a promotion trip," Gunilla recalls, "they took photos of me skiing down the slopes in a bikini. We stayed at the Posta Hotel. The owner encouraged us to return with friends, and we did. For almost 20 years now, my husband and I have taken at least 50 people each winter."

I ask Gunilla, "What do Americans like about Bormio?"

"It wasn't built as a modern tourist town or a ski town. It's a true medieval village, with pedestrian lanes. You have shops, the incredible Roman baths, churches. Some of our people don't even ski. They shop, or if it's warm enough, they can play tennis, or they hike."

Outside La Rocca, we look across the valley at Bormio's other ski area, rising out of the mountain hamlets of Oga, Le Motte and Isolaccia. Eight lifts access intermediate and beginner terrain.

In Bormio that night, we dine at Kuerc on the town square. The ground floor is a popular place to enjoy a cappuccino and a pastry in mid-morning or afternoon. In the dining room upstairs, I order two dishes of brasaola, a dried meat flavored with spices and wine and hung outside, usually under roof eaves. My first dish, Kuerc's Crespella Valtellinese al ragu di brasaola e bitto (translation: sheer bliss of taste), is quite extraordinary. Ground brasaola has been smothered in a bechamel cream sauce mingling with tomato. I follow it with a plate of brasaola saturated in olive oil. The razor-thin slices of meat are tender, not dry, possessing an intoxicating taste somewhere between finely cured ham and a mild pastrami.

The next morning, we drive 15 minutes through the beautiful Val Furva to Santa Caterina, a ski area about the size of California's Northstar-at-Tahoe. A family resort, it is full of shops with children's clothing and hotels catering to parents. World Cup champion Deborah Compagnoni grew up here. She is almost as popular among Italians as Alberto Tomba, and her family runs an attractive small hotel in Santa Caterina.

Two chairlifts rise out of town. As my chair emerges from the forest, an utter transformation of the landscape appears above. Treeless alpine meadows are blanketed with snow. I quickly grab a poma, which pulls me up a half-mile track, and finally through a gap in the giant rocks. At the top, I find myself poised on a ledge overlooking the spectacular peaks of the Stelvio, western Europe's largest national park (and whose rugged beauty inspired the name of Bormio's spectacular downhill). The white mountains, countless in number, stretch to Switzerland to the north and to the Dolomites to the east, dazzling the eye.

We return to ski Vallecetta in the afternoon, and then head to our hotel, the four-star Baita dei Pini, to change. The après-ski hour has struck, which, in Bormio, means that it's time to promenade on the main street. Emerging from the hotel, I pass the entrance to The King's Club Disco. Last night, Hermann Maier kicked up a storm in its subterranean interior. The Hermanator tore off his shirt and that of his girlfriend and was thrown out at god knows what hour of the morning. Was I more irked by having missed the scene? Or by the street uproar that awoke me?

In the fading light of alpenglow, we walk along the ancient alley amid a swarm of people. From a wurst stand, the smell of sauerkraut and pork fills the air, and farther on I inhale the aroma of chestnuts roasting. On the corner, a flutist and a tambourine player broadcast sweet Andean folk music that reverberates along the stone building walls. The sound of music mingles with shouted conversations in a half-dozen languages. Off to the south, through a narrow, centuries-old passageway, I can peer up into the sky.

Fireworks are exploding and above the kaleidoscope of their sparkling, lit by the moon, I dimly make out the white summit of Cima Bianca, where I'll meet Alfredo tomorrow for a final run. It will be very good, I know.P>The next morning, we drive 15 minutes through the beautiful Val Furva to Santa Caterina, a ski area about the size of California's Northstar-at-Tahoe. A family resort, it is full of shops with children's clothing and hotels catering to parents. World Cup champion Deborah Compagnoni grew up here. She is almost as popular among Italians as Alberto Tomba, and her family runs an attractive small hotel in Santa Caterina.

Two chairlifts rise out of town. As my chair emerges from the forest, an utter transformation of the landscape appears above. Treeless alpine meadows are blanketed with snow. I quickly grab a poma, which pulls me up a half-mile track, and finally through a gap in the giant rocks. At the top, I find myself poised on a ledge overlooking the spectacular peaks of the Stelvio, western Europe's largest national park (and whose rugged beauty inspired the name of Bormio's spectacular downhill). The white mountains, countless in number, stretch to Switzerland to the north and to the Dolomites to the east, dazzling the eye.

We return to ski Vallecetta in the afternoon, and then head to our hotel, the four-star Baita dei Pini, to change. The après-ski hour has struck, which, in Bormio, means that it's time to promenade on the main street. Emerging from the hotel, I pass the entrance to The King's Club Disco. Last night, Hermann Maier kicked up a storm in its subterranean interior. The Hermanator tore off his shirt and that of his girlfriend and was thrown out at god knows what hour of the morning. Was I more irked by having missed the scene? Or by the street uproar that awoke me?

In the fading light of alpenglow, we wwalk along the ancient alley amid a swarm of people. From a wurst stand, the smell of sauerkraut and pork fills the air, and farther on I inhale the aroma of chestnuts roasting. On the corner, a flutist and a tambourine player broadcast sweet Andean folk music that reverberates along the stone building walls. The sound of music mingles with shouted conversations in a half-dozen languages. Off to the south, through a narrow, centuries-old passageway, I can peer up into the sky.

Fireworks are exploding and above the kaleidoscope of their sparkling, lit by the moon, I dimly make out the white summit of Cima Bianca, where I'll meet Alfredo tomorrow for a final run. It will be very good, I know.