Beyond Expectations

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Author:
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Dolomites

Those who

Come to know

The grace

Of nature

Will find in it

A strength

To nourish them

For the rest

Of their lives

Source unknown-found scribbled in the front page of a picture book on the Dolomites


In the Heart of the Mountains
We meet Anastasia just outside our hotel. She is dressed for the mountains. Ready to go. "Welcome to Val di Fassa," she says in faintly accented English. "Welcome to Canazei. My home." Her smile seems to warm the cold air around us.

And we are charmed. Who wouldn't be? A former member of Italy's vaunted alpine ski team, Anastasia Cigolla is our officially appointed babysitter for the week. Her job for the next few days will be to guide photographer Scott Markewitz and me through the maze of chairlifts, trams, gondolas and platter lifts radiating in all directions above the village of Canazei-and to try to keep us out of trouble on the slopes of these big-time mountains.

I'm surprised, at first, that a woman had been chosen to take us on the Dolomites' famed Sella Ronda tour. After all, this is Italy. And like most alpine countries in Europe, Italy's guiding/instructing fraternity is chauvinistic. Normally, a male guide would have been chosen for this assignment.

But it doesn't take long to figure it out. "I'm not a mountain guide," Anastasia is quick to tell us. "But I know the area around here quite well." As it turns out, that is the understatement of the week. More than just a good local ski guide, the 33-year-old fashion designer soon became our patient and indulgent conduit into the local Italian culture. For Anastasia and her family are as much part of the Dolomite story as the dramatic limestone towers that loom above the narrow Fassa Valley where she lives. The valley is in their genes.

Don't misunderstand me. From ski racing around the world to studying fashion design in Milan, Anastasia has had the kind of broad-based education few of us can even imagine. But as sophisticated and well-traveled as she is, her Ladino heart beats more for this little corner of alpine heaven than anywhere else on the planet.

And it's easy to see why. For generations and generations, the Cigollas have wrested a living from the slopes of this high-mountain region-first as hunters, then as farmers and finally as innkeepers, artists and guides. In terms of local clout in the Fassa Valley, the Cigolla family is high on the list. Her father is a renowned sculptor and guide; her brother was a downhill racing star on the Squadra Azzura in the Eighties. As Anastasia would so well demonstrate over the next few days, the local mountains have been the family's personal playground for centuries.

"Follow me," she says. "We'll park our cars at my parents' pension. It's just a short walk from there to the lifts." And we follow.As the sun begins to work its way around the glacier-crowned summit of massive Marmolada Mountain-the 11,000-foot monster that guards the Fassa Valley's southern flank-Canazei begins to wake up. Skiers, snowboarders, hikers, climbers, strollers, loafers, moms, dads and little kids; Italians, Germans, Austrians, a smattering of Russians and a fair number of Brits-they all begin making their way toward the base tram in the center of town.

For the mountains around here beckon to valley-dwellers. Steep slopes of fir and larch push fingers of green high into the alpine. Above them loom the grays and browns-and the occasional deep red-of the legendary Dolomite rock. Sun-kissed and weather-scarred. Etched against a pure-blue sky. Incredibly beautiful at sunset-and again at sunrise.

"The snow conditions could be better," Anastasia admits as we work our way into our ski boots while sipping thick espressos in Pension Cigolla's dining room. "There's been a bit of a drought these last few months. But the snowmaking system is extensive here and all the main runs are well covered. I think we can still have fun." She is right. But it takes us while to figure it out.

You Can't Always Get What You Want
Ski adventures rarely conform to expectations. Weather, geography-and the vagaries of international travel-usually conspire to diddle with even the best-laid plans. Such was our trip to the Dolomites.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of snow around," I had remarked to Scott as we first drove into the mountains above Bolzano. Even in the dark, I could tell things were pretty dry.

"Don't worry, we still have some climbing to do before we get to our destination," Scott answered. A world-class ski photographer and inveterate mountain adventurer, Scott is hard to rattle, but I could see he too was beginning to glance around with concern. It was not looking promising.

Then I reminded myself that a trip to the Dolomites was only partly about skiing. Culture, aesthetics, art, great food, good wine-there was a whole grab bag of reasons for traveling halfway around the world to visit this legendary piece of alpine real estate.

Still, we are both skiers. And both fanatical about skiing big mountains and big conditions. To come this far to ski the storied couloirs of the Sella Ronda or the Sassolungo-not to mention those of Marmolada and Cortina's Tofane-only to be skunked by the weather seemed, well, unfair.

Alas, conditions didn't improve as we climbed.

Stop torturing yourself-there's nothing you can do, I told myself. Enjoy the trip. Enjoy the Dolomites. This is a totally different world you're in.

And a world with an amazing story attached. Cortina D'Ampezzo, Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Corvara-these names fairly resonate with legendary climbing and skiing stories. The Via Ferrata, the Olympic Games, World Cup downhills, the largest lift-served ski network in the world-to anyone who loves mountain sports, the Dolomites are a constant source of inspiration.

But the Dolomites are far bigger than mountain sports. Far bigger than mountain tourism even. They have played a leading role in the unfurling saga called European history.

The North and the South
Mountain ranges have always created natural boundaries between cultures, but few ranges have marked the line between two such dominant cultures as have the Dolomites. An inhospitable wall of rock and snow, with deep valleys and summits rising above 10,000 feet, this daunting alpine range has effectively separated the northern Germanics from the southern Mediterraneans for more than 2,000 years. In fact, until 30 or 40 years ago, many of the remote mountain villages of the region were largely inaccessible to the majority of travelers.

Yet its stunning beauty has not gone unremarked-by all kinds of beings. The story goes that the Dolomites were once home to fairies and friendly spirits (the salvans). In fact, the eerie light that makes the reds and browns of the range's limestone cliffs sing at sunset (the celebrated enrosadira) is said to be the reflection of the fairy king's magical rose garden.

"They say the fairies chose this area for its beauty and its impregnability," Anastasia's father tells us through his daughter. A sculptor of great renown in the area, signor Cigolla's love for the mountains is all too apparent in the deep weather-wrinkles around his eyes. "They say they ruled here for many generations before the first humans arrived. They say it was a golden age for these mountains."

But humans soon discovered the Dolomites' charms. "It's the most beautiful work of architecture in the world," declared French design maestro Le Corbusier about the region's singular geography. Alas, its beauty didn't keep invading armies from tussling over its territory.

Enmeshed in border wars for much of their history, the people of the Dolomites have been at the mercy of conquering armies for nearly 20 centuries-from Caesar's Romans to Attila's Huns, from Napoleon's generals to Austria's Hapsburgs. Punishing battles were fought on its slopes as recently as the first and second World Wars, but no one has managed to hold onto the Dolomites for long. Maybe that's why the locals have managed to maintain their own mountain culture and language through all these years. The Ladin tongue, a blend of classic Latin and local patois, still endures in the high valleys of Fassa, Duron, Gardena, Fiemme, Ampezzo and others-each valley aggressively protecting its own regional dialect.

As one proud Ladino speaker put it: "We are the only ones tough enough to endure here. Everyone else is just passing through."

But even among Dolomiti locals, rivalry is still a big issue. "My mother and father are from different villages in the Fassa Valley," explains Anastasia. "And while they grew up only a few miles apart, their Ladino dialects are quite different. When we were kids, it was important to be able to speak both so our grandparents wouldn't be insulted at our lack of education."

Conversant in English, German and Italian-as well as a variety of Ladino dialects-Anastasia exemplifies the cosmopolitan nature of the Dolomiti mountain folk today. "But it wasn't so long ago," she recounts, "that these valleys were losing residents at an alarming rate. Before ski lifts and mountain tourism, this was a very harsh place to survive in. As recently as 40 years ago, this was a seriously depressed area."

That is, clearly, no longer the case.

Walking around Canazei and other mountain towns in the area, it's hard to believe that these picturesque Dolomiti villages were ever considered less than highly desirable communities. Scrubbed clean and sporting a consistent and appealing façade that makes a mockery of North American mountain resorts, they offer a fine example of classy (and sustainable) high-mountain development.

Steep slate roofs and age-darkened pine and stucco walls dominate the architectural landscape. Most of the buildings display finely wrought carvings and intricate paintings that celebrate local myths and legends. Narrow winding roads weave drunkenly from village to village. Stately Renaissance churches, built from the local limestone, sing of a more devout period. It all conspires to transport the visitor-particularly the North American visitor-into another world.

Touring the Gruppo del Sella
"We have to get started early," Anastasia warns. "We have a long day ahead of us." We gulp down our espressos, palm a few biscotti for later, say goodbye to Anastasia's mum (Pension Cigolla had become our morning headquarters) and head for the door.Finally. The big tour.

And a big tour it is. Over the next eight hours, our little group would venture into three separate Italian provinces (Trentino, Alto Adige and Veneto), cross four alpine passes and slide through half a dozen Dolomiti villages as we skied around the legendary mountain massif called Gruppo del Sella (Piz Boe, the highest peak in the group, is 10,395 feet high). In total distance, the tour would cover nearly 30 miles, not counting the little side trips we'd take along the way.

As this is one of the driest years on record for the Dolomites, any off-piste exploring is virtually out of the question. Even at 10,000 feet, the snow is questionable. Every time we venture onto it, the snow immediately breaks down to the consistency of crushed styrofoam, and then it starts to slide. "Guess we'll stay on the runs," Scott says with a straight face.

Fortunately, the snowmaking system in the Dolomites is nearly as extensive as the lift network. The Val di Fassa press kit boasts that 90 percent of the region's marked runs can be covered with artificial snow. That's 90 percent of 200 miles of runs. It takes a lot of snow guns to cover that kind of terrain.

Following these long white ribbons of manmade snow from village to village provides us with a very pleasant means of transportation. And a great way to check out the scenery.

Like most areas of the European Alps, skiing in the Dolomites is done primarily above timberline, with the odd piste extending loo one has managed to hold onto the Dolomites for long. Maybe that's why the locals have managed to maintain their own mountain culture and language through all these years. The Ladin tongue, a blend of classic Latin and local patois, still endures in the high valleys of Fassa, Duron, Gardena, Fiemme, Ampezzo and others-each valley aggressively protecting its own regional dialect.

As one proud Ladino speaker put it: "We are the only ones tough enough to endure here. Everyone else is just passing through."

But even among Dolomiti locals, rivalry is still a big issue. "My mother and father are from different villages in the Fassa Valley," explains Anastasia. "And while they grew up only a few miles apart, their Ladino dialects are quite different. When we were kids, it was important to be able to speak both so our grandparents wouldn't be insulted at our lack of education."

Conversant in English, German and Italian-as well as a variety of Ladino dialects-Anastasia exemplifies the cosmopolitan nature of the Dolomiti mountain folk today. "But it wasn't so long ago," she recounts, "that these valleys were losing residents at an alarming rate. Before ski lifts and mountain tourism, this was a very harsh place to survive in. As recently as 40 years ago, this was a seriously depressed area."

That is, clearly, no longer the case.

Walking around Canazei and other mountain towns in the area, it's hard to believe that these picturesque Dolomiti villages were ever considered less than highly desirable communities. Scrubbed clean and sporting a consistent and appealing façade that makes a mockery of North American mountain resorts, they offer a fine example of classy (and sustainable) high-mountain development.

Steep slate roofs and age-darkened pine and stucco walls dominate the architectural landscape. Most of the buildings display finely wrought carvings and intricate paintings that celebrate local myths and legends. Narrow winding roads weave drunkenly from village to village. Stately Renaissance churches, built from the local limestone, sing of a more devout period. It all conspires to transport the visitor-particularly the North American visitor-into another world.

Touring the Gruppo del Sella
"We have to get started early," Anastasia warns. "We have a long day ahead of us." We gulp down our espressos, palm a few biscotti for later, say goodbye to Anastasia's mum (Pension Cigolla had become our morning headquarters) and head for the door.Finally. The big tour.

And a big tour it is. Over the next eight hours, our little group would venture into three separate Italian provinces (Trentino, Alto Adige and Veneto), cross four alpine passes and slide through half a dozen Dolomiti villages as we skied around the legendary mountain massif called Gruppo del Sella (Piz Boe, the highest peak in the group, is 10,395 feet high). In total distance, the tour would cover nearly 30 miles, not counting the little side trips we'd take along the way.

As this is one of the driest years on record for the Dolomites, any off-piste exploring is virtually out of the question. Even at 10,000 feet, the snow is questionable. Every time we venture onto it, the snow immediately breaks down to the consistency of crushed styrofoam, and then it starts to slide. "Guess we'll stay on the runs," Scott says with a straight face.

Fortunately, the snowmaking system in the Dolomites is nearly as extensive as the lift network. The Val di Fassa press kit boasts that 90 percent of the region's marked runs can be covered with artificial snow. That's 90 percent of 200 miles of runs. It takes a lot of snow guns to cover that kind of terrain.

Following these long white ribbons of manmade snow from village to village provides us with a very pleasant means of transportation. And a great way to check out the scenery.

Like most areas of the European Alps, skiing in the Dolomites is done primarily above timberline, with the odd piste extending lower down the valley. The range of runs is broad above Val Di Fassa-you can find everything from unabashed beginner terrain to sphincter-tightening steeps. And from what we experience, the artificial cover is surprisingly deep and consistently well-groomed. Besides, Anastasia definitely knows where to find the goods.

Cutting powerful, giant-slalom-sized arcs through the hard snow, she leads us on a mad high-speed chase from peak to peak. We go from wide alpine boulevards to narrow, twisting runs cut through dense stands of larch. Suddenly there's a lift, and we ride back up again to the sun-splashed slopes above timberline.

Over one mountain and down another. Up one side of a valley, over the back and down into a scenic wooded glade. "Oh look, another picturesque village. Anyone for a quick slopeside cappuccino? No? Let's keep going."

Cross a road (watch for cars!). Catch a tram. Get whisked to the top of yet another mountain. And there you are: another rocky skyline that bedazzles the eye. Another perfect groomer asking to be carved up. From Canazei we ski up to Belvedere, across Passo Pordoi, and down to Arabba and the Passo Campalongo. We then head up the west slope of Piz Boe and then down again all the way to Corvara.By the time we reached Alta Badia, it's lunchtime. "I have an old ski-racing friend here who runs a restaurant," Anastasia says. "Shall we stop in for a bite?" She doesn't have to ask twice.

Italy's Other Recreation
The slopeside restaurant Anastasia has chosen for us today is obviously a popular one. Crowds of people stand around the lobby waiting for a table. But not us. The moment we walk in we are greeted by Anastasia's buddy and whisked upstairs to a private room where we gorge on pasta, veal, salad, cheese and a wonderful after-dessert strawberry liqueur.

One of the uncontested high points of our trip, dining in the Dolomites has few peers in the rest of the alpine world. Featuring an eclectic mix of Mediterranean and Germanic influences, Dolomiti cuisine fills you up while still seducing your taste buds with its crusty breads, lean meats, rich, wine-inflected sauces, fresh produce and sweet, sticky desserts. Though its creative presentation might make you nervous about the eventual price you'll pay for all this fine food (and the equally fine wine served alongside), the robust American dollar transforms what looks expensive into a surprisingly affordable adventure.

Just as I am about to nod off at the table for a short snooze, Anastasia bustles us all outside again. "We're only halfway around," she says. "We still have a good, long ski before we get back to our side of the valley."

It takes a strong espresso-and a couple of cold lift rides-to get me back on track again.

From Alta Badia we climb over Passo Gardena and ski into the scenic little town of Selva, home to Val Gardena's Sasslong, one of the most popular men's downhill courses on the World Cup circuit. Once known as South Tyrol, this area was part of Austria until World War I and is still considered by residents to be part of the Tyrol region. With its Germanic flair and worldly trappings, Val Gardena exemplifies how each valley holds so ferociously onto its own traditions.

"While I can certainly understand the Ladin of Gardena," Anastasia says, "there are many words used here that we don't know in Canazei. Essentially, they are two distinct dialects." The architecture and sculptures here display a distinct Tyrolean influence, leaving no question about the valley's connections to its northern neighbor.As the sun starts to work its way behind the peaks to the east, we too begin working our way back home. First a tram takes us to the top of Ciampinoi and the famed downhill start. From there we head for the resort's backside and the runs that will take us around the Sassolungo Massif and down to Passo Sella.

"We're almost home now," our guide announces as we approach the Rodella Col. "But before we descend to Canazei, I have a proposal. Is anyone interested in watching the sunset from our family's little hunting chalet? It's quite close and I know my father keeps some homemade grappa there."

Little Arm-Twisting is Needed.
The Cigollas' mountain chalet is a work of art. Built from local timber (each family of the Canazei commune has a mountainside allotment they can log for personal use) and adorned with the beautiful sculpting that is a Cigolla trademark, the tiny mountain home had been lovingly constructed piece by piece by family members some 25 years ago. "My father loves it up here," Anastasia says. "I can remember as a kid spending all our free time putting the finishing touches on this place. It was a magical time for all of us."

As we bask in the fading light of another Dolomiti day, sipping throat-burning alpine liqueurs and enjoying Marmolada's enrosadira from the chalet's upper balcony, I can't help but reflect on the way fate plays its hand. Sure, we didn't get to ski those big gnarly couloirs that Scott and I had dreamed about. But I wasn't that disappointed. Truly. Our lack of heart-thumping adventures had allowed us to slow down and appreciate the many blessings proffered on us during our trip. More than just the skiing, it was all the other things that had made this pilgrimage a success. The food. The wine. The culture. The company. And, of course, the inspiring beauty of this singular mountain range.

"I guess we'll just have to come back for another taste during a big-snow year," I say lazily to Scott. The sun is almost down. The massive flanks of Marmolada across the valley are now hot pink in the dying rays.

"Yeah. I guess we will," he says, focusing his camera for one last sunset shot. "What about next year?" down the valley. The range of runs is broad above Val Di Fassa-you can find everything from unabashed beginner terrain to sphincter-tightening steeps. And from what we experience, the artificial cover is surprisingly deep and consistently well-groomed. Besides, Anastasia definitely knows where to find the goods.

Cutting powerful, giant-slalom-sized arcs through the hard snow, she leads us on a mad high-speed chase from peak to peak. We go from wide alpine boulevards to narrow, twisting runs cut through dense stands of larch. Suddenly there's a lift, and we ride back up again to the sun-splashed slopes above timberline.

Over one mountain and down another. Up one side of a valley, over the back and down into a scenic wooded glade. "Oh look, another picturesque village. Anyone for a quick slopeside cappuccino? No? Let's keep going."

Cross a road (watch for cars!). Catch a tram. Get whisked to the top of yet another mountain. And there you are: another rocky skyline that bedazzles the eye. Another perfect groomer asking to be carved up. From Canazei we ski up to Belvedere, across Passo Pordoi, and down to Arabba and the Passo Campalongo. We then head up the west slope of Piz Boe and then down again all the way to Corvara.By the time we reached Alta Badia, it's lunchtime. "I have an old ski-racing friend here who runs a restaurant," Anastasia says. "Shall we stop in for a bite?" She doesn't have to ask twice.

Italy's Other Recreation
The slopeside restaurant Anastasia has chosen for us today is obviously a popular one. Crowds of people stand around the lobby waiting for a table. But not us. The moment we walk in we are greeted by Anastasia's buddy and whisked upstairs to a private room where we gorge on pasta, veal, salad, cheese and a wonderful after-dessert strawberry liqueur.

One of the uncontested high points of our trip, dining in the Dolomites has few peers in the rest of the alpine world. Featuring an eclectic mix of Mediterranean and Germanic influences, Dolomiti cuisine fills you up while still seducing your taste buds with its crusty breads, lean meats, rich, wine-inflected sauces, fresh produce and sweet, sticky desserts. Though its creative presentation might make you nervous about the eventual price you'll pay for all this fine food (and the equally fine wine served alongside), the robust American dollar transforms what looks expensive into a surprisingly affordable adventure.

Just as I am about to nod off at the table for a short snooze, Anastasia bustles us all outside again. "We're only halfway around," she says. "We still have a good, long ski before we get back to our side of the valley."

It takes a strong espresso-and a couple of cold lift rides-to get me back on track again.

From Alta Badia we climb over Passo Gardena and ski into the scenic little town of Selva, home to Val Gardena's Sasslong, one of the most popular men's downhill courses on the World Cup circuit. Once known as South Tyrol, this area was part of Austria until World War I and is still considered by residents to be part of the Tyrol region. With its Germanic flair and worldly trappings, Val Gardena exemplifies how each valley holds so ferociously onto its own traditions.

"While I can certainly understand the Ladin of Gardena," Anastasia says, "there are many words used here that we don't know in Canazei. Essentially, they are two distinct dialects." The architecture and sculptures here display a distinct Tyrolean influence, leaving no question about the valley's connections to its northern neighbor.As the sun starts to work its way behind the peaks to the east, we too begin working our way back home. First a tram takes us to the top of Ciampinoi and the famed downhill start. From there we head for the resort's backside and the runs that will take us around the Sassolungo Massif and down to Passo Sella.

"We're almost home now," our guide announces as we approach the Rodella Col. "But before we descend to Canazei, I have a proposal. Is anyone interested in watching the sunset from our family's little hunting chalet? It's quite close and I know my father keeps some homemade grappa there."

Little Arm-Twisting is Needed.
The Cigollas' mountain chalet is a work of art. Built from local timber (each family of the Canazei commune has a mountainside allotment they can log for personal use) and adorned with the beautiful sculpting that is a Cigolla trademark, the tiny mountain home had been lovingly constructed piece by piece by family members some 25 years ago. "My father loves it up here," Anastasia says. "I can remember as a kid spending all our free time putting the finishing touches on this place. It was a magical time for all of us."

As we bask in the fading light of another Dolomiti day, sipping throat-burning alpine liqueurs and enjoying Marmolada's enrosadira from the chalet's upper balcony, I can't help but reflect on the way fate plays its hand. Sure, we didn't get to ski those big gnarly couloirs that Scott and I had dreamed about. But I wasn't that disappointed. Truly. Our lack of heart-thumping adventures had allowed us to slow down and appreciate the many blessings proffered on us during our trip. More than just the skiing, it was all the other things that had made this pilgrimage a success. The food. The wine. The culture. The company. And, of course, the inspiring beauty of this singular mountain range.

"I guess we'll just have to come back for another taste during a big-snow year," I say lazily to Scott. The sun is almost down. The massive flanks of Marmolada across the valley are now hot pink in the dying rays.

"Yeah. I guess we will," he says, focusing his camera for one last sunset shot. "What about next year?"Canazei, I have a proposal. Is anyone interested in watching the sunset from our family's little hunting chalet? It's quite close and I know my father keeps some homemade grappa there."

Little Arm-Twisting is Needed.
The Cigollas' mountain chalet is a work of art. Built from local timber (each family of the Canazei commune has a mountainside allotment they can log for personal use) and adorned with the beautiful sculpting that is a Cigolla trademark, the tiny mountain home had been lovingly constructed piece by piece by family members some 25 years ago. "My father loves it up here," Anastasia says. "I can remember as a kid spending all our free time putting the finishing touches on this place. It was a magical time for all of us."

As we bask in the fading light of another Dolomiti day, sipping throat-burning alpine liqueurs and enjoying Marmolada's enrosadira from the chalet's upper balcony, I can't help but reflect on the way fate plays its hand. Sure, we didn't get to ski those big gnarly couloirs that Scott and I had dreamed about. But I wasn't that disappointed. Truly. Our lack of heart-thumping adventures had allowed us to slow down and appreciate the many blessings proffered on us during our trip. More than just the skiing, it was all the other things that had made this pilgrimage a success. The food. The wine. The culture. The company. And, of course, the inspiring beauty of this singular mountain range.

"I guess we'll just have to come back for another taste during a big-snow year," I say lazily to Scott. The sun is almost down. The massive flanks of Marmolada across the valley are now hot pink in the dying rays.

"Yeah. I guess we will," he says, focusing his camera for one last sunset shot. "What about next year?"

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