Tale of Two Ski Towns: Genteel and Scruffy

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February 8, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Joji Sakurai)—At the Brahms Pub in this genteel Winter Olympics mountain hub, dimly lit booths are draped in red velvet and well-heeled patrons sip premium Scotch served by a bartender who confides with a flick of her head that she summers on the French Riviera.

Down the valley at Sauze d'Oulx _ home to freestyle skiing _ the vibe matches the big-air, mogul-crashing mentality. The party on a recent afternoon was outdoors, with Euro pop sensations The Sugarbabes, Craig David and Westlife revving up about 250 chanting fans, a big chunk of them British teens.

If Alpine skiing is Olympic nobility and freestyle a scruffy upstart, these two venues couldn't have been more aptly chosen.

Sestriere is gourmet food shops such as Mon Jardin, where the walls are lined with herbal digestifs and a counter groans with local cheeses such as "toma rapa, a sharp Alpine variety matured in the lees of Barbera wine _ itself one of the glories of the Piedmont region where the games are being held.

Sestriere may be hosting party-like-a-rock-star American Bode Miller, who will try to add Olympic gold to the overall Alpine crown he captured last year. But, so far, the evening streets are quiet.

Elegant Italian ladies in fur coats take a passeggiata, or stroll, arm-in-arm with distinguished gentlemen in the latest apres-ski fashion. If a bar has music, it is muffled _ at the Brahms Pub, the murmur of the crowd drinking Oban and Bombay Sapphire was as hushed as the background jazz.

Not so Sauze d'Oulx, which is one throbbing party for scores of young snowboarders on holiday from Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

Jimmy Delcy _ a.k.a. DJ Jimmy the Soul Rasta _ shook his dreadlocks as he raved about the nightlife.

"Imagine 3,000 English tourists, making noise ... it's incredible, said the 35-year-old from the Seychelles, who spins hip-hop, R&B and Soul at a nightclub called Bandito. "The English come here. They're always drinking, having fun. Italians go to a bar and they just sit down _ and relax.

Not all Italians.

Alex Rossinelli, an Alpine rescue worker with spiky hair and a goatee, was watching Tuesday's outdoor concert shot for BBC's "Top of the Pops and summed up the difference between the two villages as "VIPs and Non-VIPS.

"There's more joy here in Sauze d'Oulx, Rossinelli said.[pagebreak]Next to the 38-year-old stood Emanuele Canuto, 18, a redheaded cook with a nose ring and a baseball cap that read "Bulldog. He couldn't quite articulate which act he came to see but did manage to mutter: "I like Havana Club (rum) and Coke.

If Sauze d'Oulx is young on its streets, the streets themselves are far older than those in Sestriere.

Behind the bars, nightclubs and bland condominium blocks that greet arriving visitors, Sauze d'Oulx becomes a maze of cobblestoned lanes lined with weathered farmhouses built with jagged slabs of local stone called tufa.

Sestriere may boast Old World refinement in its clientele and the luxury goods sold in its boutiques, but it is dominated by two round concrete towers now used as a main Alpine athletes' village.

In a town founded in the 1930s by the Agnelli family dynasty that runs Italy's iconic carmaker Fiat, there is no old town and only a handful of buildings aspire to the traditional Alpine style. The four-star hotels exude luxury but little personality.

"I don't like seeing all of this modern architecture, said Mon Jardin store owner Adriana Marcellin. "People don't look so much at the aesthetic as the money. They are ready to profit even if what they make is ugly.

Some of the older Sauze d'Oulx residents fear their village may go the way of their upscale neighbor as the lure of profits tempts developers to tear down old homes _ many of which have decayed into husks of crumbling stone and rotting wood.

"They're destroying the old stone vaults and building condos! said 79-year-old Pierina Vazon, the handkerchief wrapped around heer silvery hair falling onto her shoulders as she shook with indignation. "They're boors!

One thing the two towns have in common: The Winter Games have yet to generate the business bonanza many locals hoped for as tourists stay away out of fear of crowds and high prices.

"It's been bad for business, said Maria Paola Bonamico, a barmaid at the Brahms Pub. "But we'll see how it all comes together after the Olympics are over.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press