Category Archives: Italy

The cheapest of the ‘big four’, according to Where to Ski and Snowboard 2011

5/4/13 – April skiing: where to go for a last blast

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

To round off this snow-blessed winter in the Alps and escape the persistent winter chill of home, if you have a few days and a few pounds to spare I suggest you go skiing.

I have a final trip booked, to Val d’Isere – not a usual haunt of mine as I generally head for Austria, Italy or Switzerland, but it will be a nice change. Last time I stayed there, apart from one short press trip a couple of years ago, was when I was training to be an Inghams rep nearly 20 years ago.

Anyway, if I didn’t have that trip booked, here are the places I’d consider…

1. Engelberg in Switzerland. The top slopes are open till May 26, the town is lively, there’s accommodation for all budgets (including a youth hostel) and it’s only an hour from Zurich airport. There are also some brilliant local guides. Read more about that in my Telegraph article from last season about where to join off-piste groups.

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

…and when the slush sets in, here’s what you can do instead

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

2. Zermatt in Switzerland. It’s open till May 5, the town is vibrant, busy and full of ski mountaineering folk – and the shops, for once, are offering plenty of end-of-season bargains on gear (not forgetting the pyjamas, nighties and underwear, at Calida, towards the top of the main street). Again, there’s lodging for all budgets. But it’s far from the airport, so go for a week to make it worthwhile. Read more in the insider’s guide (and here is page 2) I compiled at the start of this season.

3. Obergurgl in Austria. It’s open till April 28, and with the village at about 1,900m and most of the skiing between there and 3,000m, there’s very quick access from hotel or b&b direct to the snow. What’s more, there’s fantastic touring, with a great choice of day tours. It’s less than 90 minutes from Innsbruck, and if winter flights have tailed off by the time you want to go, you can fly to Friedrichshafen, Salzburg or Zurich instead. Read my recent piece in the Telegraph, and my off-piste article from last year, to find out more.

4. Ischgl in Austria. The lifts aren’t due to close until May 1. I went late in the season a couple of years ago and despite it not being a good snow year, there was excellent cover thanks to super-efficient snowmaking earlier in the season. There’s good touring nearby in the Silvrettas – hire a guide and stay overnight in the Jamtal Hut (open till May 4), for instance. Keen apres-skiers will know its reputation for lively bars, which is merited – read more in past blogs of mine, such as this one, by entering ‘Ischgl’ in the search box on the right.

Just think of the tan you will get

Just think of the tan you will get

Other late-season favourites of mine are St Anton in Austria, which stays open till April 21; Alagna/Gressoney/Champoluc in Italy (only till April 14, sadly – but lift passes are free till then if you book three nights locally, and it’s amazing value for food and drink); or Cervinia in Italy, which shares Zermatt’s slopes but not its prices (open till May 5). An underrated place probably not on your radar is the Engadine, where Diavolezza/Lagalb stays open well until May 20, and Corvatsch until May 5. The area offers excellent ski touring too – and don’t be put off that it’s in the St Moritz area: there are hostels and modest b&bs as well as swanky hotels.

Of course, you could always plump for Colorado or Utah, where a snowstorm is meant to be heading right now, or for snowy Scotland, where conditions are excellent.

I’ll leave you with the details of four great cut-price deals that landed in my inbox  this week from Inghams, which might be worth a look if you can make a dash for the Alps at the last minute. I’m sure the other tour operators have similar offerings at equally appealing prices.

St Christoph, Austria. £349 for a week’s chalet-board (that means half-board, including wine with dinner and CHOCOLATES afterwards) in a chalet hotel with a pool and doorstep skiing, including return flight from Gatwick to Innsbruck on April 13.

St Anton, Austria. £349, chalet-board, similar to above. There’s no pool but the place, Chalet Gampen, looks pretty good, with whirlpool, sauna and all that stuff. Departing from Gatwick on April 13.

Tignes, France. £369 at Chalet Hotel Le Dome, described as ski-in, ski-out. Similar deal as above, flying to Chambery on April 13 from Gatwick – easily the best airport for Tignes, being about 90 minutes away.

Val Thorens, France – the high-altitude end of the Three Valleys. £369 at Chalet Anais, departing from Gatwick on April 13, flying to Chambery.

Happy holiday-hunting, if you have time!

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, France, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Off-piste, Ski touring, Switzerland, Transport, United States

5/10/12 – Chop ’em straight, stack ’em strong: the art of building an Alpine wood pile

This beauty is in Ischgl, Austria

This beauty is in Ischgl, Austria

Autumn has set in, it’s not long till the clocks go back and the blackberries (such as they were) are over. It’s the time of year when I light a fire in the evening – and that means it’s also time to get my wood pile in order.

It’ll be no surprise to skiers that the countries that lead the way in the art of building a successful wood pile are the mountainous ones.

The bars were traditionally used for drying hay, but this Alagna house also has lots of scope for wood storage

The bars were traditionally used for drying hay, but this house in Alagna, Italy, also has lots of scope for wood storage

From the villages of the Valais to the towns of the Tyrol to the dwellings of the Dolomites, householders across the Alps are masters in stacking them neat, stable, dry and, in some cases, high.

I have been photographing these labours-of-logs (sorry…) during my travels in the mountains.

We sledged past this Swiss super-stack in Gimmelwald, a lovely farming village just below Muerren in the Bernese Oberland

We sledged past this Swiss super-stack in Gimmelwald, a lovely farming village just below Muerren in the Bernese Oberland

As you can see, there are regional variations. Now I’m no expert, but what I think they all have in common is the following:

1. To make a good pile, logs need to be cut to the same length.

2. Larger logs are split to similar widths.

Here's another goodie in Gimmelwald

Here’s another goodie in Gimmelwald

3. Smaller unsplit logs – almost kindling-sized – are stacked all together, sometimes in their own section of the pile.

4. A good stacking place must be found.

5. Sometimes this place will have support at one or both ends, but often it doesn’t.

Freestanding stacks in Pontresina, in the Swiss Engadine, with perfect criss-cross ends

A store in Pontresina, in the Swiss Engadine, with effective criss-cross ends

6. To build an ‘end’, some sort of criss-cross system is used, such as two logs one way, then two at 90 degrees, on top; repeat up to desired height.

7. The pile does not necessarily need to be under cover – only the top layer gets wet or snowy – and if you leave any bark facing the elements, this is minimised.

Not as neat but it does the job. A wood store in a fjord-side hamlet in Steigen, Arctic Norway

Not as neat, but it does the job. A wood store in a fjord-side hamlet in Steigen, Arctic Norway

8. But most piles are next to a building with an overhang, such as most chalets have. In fact, it looks like many houses have been designed with a wood pile in mind.

9. The logs are usually very easily accessible from the dwelling.

10. Many households have a second, messier, pile of unsplit/chopped or partly split/chopped logs, which are being seasoned.

My dad has always kept a very organised, well-seasoned wood pile, and my parents installed a wood stove long before they became fashionable – which is probably partly why I started noticing other people’s ones.

The industrial wood-burner that heats half the ski village of Anzere, in the Swiss Valais

The industrial wood-burner that heats half the ski village of Anzere, in the Swiss Valais

And the village where I’ve done most of my skiing – Anzere, in Switzerland – now has a giant log-burner heating virtually the whole village (read about it in my Telegraph article here).

I, however, have only recently got the hang of dealing with wood. Or have I? Judge for yourself by looking at the little stack at my back door in Surrey – I know it’s not up to Alpine standards.

Peaslake, Surrey. How does it rate?

Peaslake, Surrey. How does it rate?

I confess that although I did the stacking, it’s my house-mate, Alex, who has been responsible for the sourcing and splitting.

Readers who know me won’t be surprised that I also have a box of easily ignitable material so I don’t have to waste money on smelly, synthetic fire-lighters.

As well as newspaper I’ve taken to hoarding loo rolls and egg boxes.

Amazingly, this is on the Isle of Wight. Its builder, Gert Bach, who runs the excellent Hillside b&b in Ventnor, is Danish

This is on the Isle of Wight. Its builder, Gert Bach, who runs the excellent Hillside b&b in Ventnor, is Danish

My uncle and aunt get their fire roaring – and fragrant – by adding orange peel, dried in a warm oven or on top of a Rayburn or Aga. I’ve tried it, and it works.

So I’m ready for winter. Bring round your loo rolls, egg boxes and orange peel, if you like – I can use unlimited amounts.

And finally, one of my favourites - another Gimmelwalder

And finally, one of my favourites – another Gimmelwalder

Meanwhile I think I’ll just go into the woods to fetch some kindling…

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Filed under Austria, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Switzerland

14/9/12 – Yoga-trekking in Champoluc, Val d’Aosta

Yoga-trekking: the wind-down session back at Stadel Soussun, near Champoluc in the Aosta district of the Italian Alps

Yoga-trekking: the wind-down session back at Stadel Soussun, near Champoluc in the Aosta district of the Italian Alps

Take a hike, take a stretch, and breeeeathe. That’s what I was trying out last weekend on the summery slopes above the ski resort of Champoluc.

You can read the full story here on Planet Ski.

Squash Falconer, who had paraglided off the Gran Paradiso the previous day

Squash Falconer, who had paraglided off the Gran Paradiso the previous day. The mountains here include the Breithorn and Castor and Pollux, on the Italian/Swiss border

It’s a couple of years since I’ve been to the Alps in the summer, save for a brilliant whirlwind trip to a friend’s wedding in Kandersteg, Switzerland, earlier this year.

My last work visit was reporting on a polo match in Gstaad – a fantastic place but a far cry from the great-value, down-to-earth and super-active experience of Champoluc.

During last weekend’s trip I was lucky enough not only to try the eccentric but surprisingly satisfying yoga-trekking, but also to take a spectacularly scenic mountain-bike ride – mostly downhill – and to have a go at canyoning and climbing.

This is Rebecca Fordham rock-climbing - she was a first-timer for all the activities of the Champoluc trip

This is Rebecca Fordham rock-climbing – she was a first-timer for all the activities of the Champoluc trip

We were a mixed bag in terms of adventure experience: at one extreme was Squash Falconer, the first British woman to have climbed and paraglided from the top of Mont Blanc and who has also climbed Mount Everest; at the other was Rebecca Fordham, a recently graduated fashion journalist who had never been to the Alps or to Italy, never been mountain-biking, climbing or done yoga – and what’s more, never worn a wetsuit (in fact, pulling that garment on was probably her biggest challenge of the weekend).

I’ll sort out my pictures in the next few days and put up a gallery of each of the activities we did – as well as prices and so on in case anyone has aspirations to become like Squash… and is as brave as Rebecca!

Meanwhile there’s loads of info on the Aosta Valley district at aosta-valley.co.uk and a worthwhile news feed at iloveaosta.co.uk.

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Filed under Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Switzerland

30/3/12 – Where to go for April snow?

Spring-like Ischgl slopes this time last year

Spring ski deals have been landing in my inbox thick and fast this week. Inghams has amazing April savings – Courchevel or St Christoph am Arlberg for £349, including flights and half-board – while Powder White has slashed hundreds of pounds off holidays in St Anton and Meribel and extended the season for several of its properties. I’m sure Crystal, Iglu Ski and other operators and agents have bargains as well.

Most cut-price offers are chalet-based – not my ideal set-up as I prefer b&b or self-catering to take advantage of “local life” – but when such great savings are on offer, no matter.

Do be aware, however, that even in a bumper snow year it’s still worth aiming high (a top of somewhere around 3,000m, I suggest) if you want quality conditions.

Afternoon ski-touring in the woods near Anzere

Even if – like in many places – you still have a metre of snow at village level, if it’s 20 degrees by day then that snow will be foot-deep slush by 2pm unless you’re properly high and – just as crucially – north-ish facing.

Last weekend in south-facing Anzere, which still has mountains of snow in the village (at 1,500m), by 1pm it was over, even on upper slopes (2,400m). I was happy to ski in the morning and go touring through the woods in the afternoon, or sit on the balcony or swim at the great new indoor-outdoor pool (more on this nice, affordable Swiss resort here).

The high slopes at Grimentz last weekend

By contrast an hour away in the Val d’Anniviers, the resorts of Zinal and Grimentz had wintry piste conditions from three of their top stations (each around 2,800-2,900m), and the week-old, tracked-out powder by the side wasn’t bad either. The crucial thing was that the worthwhile top slopes were north or north-east facing (the fourth top, which faces south at 2,800m, was heavy slush by lunchtime).

The other consideration is that places where you typically find lovely “firn” or “corn snow” off-piste at this time of year (caused by freeze-thaw) may not be as good as usual.

A wet-snow slide of the full snowpack that started on a slope of around 30 degrees and crept a surprisingly long way

In Anzere you can often ski almost every square inch of south-facing slope safely during freeze-thaw if you catch it at the right time of day.

However, the cracks in the snowpack that appeared in December – after 2m of snow fell on warm, bare ground – are still there. They haven’t responded well to blasting, but some readily slide off by themselves.

Sunny side up: lunch outdoors is a pleasure of a spring trip. Just don't necessarily expect to do much skiing afterwards

“Hors piste interdit”, read a sign at the top of Le Bate at Anzere, and patrollers were posted at strategic spots near the cracks, on the alert for one to turn into something like the lift-destroying, wet-snow slide of a few weeks ago near Valmorel in France (watch the footage here).

I may not ski this April, but if I was planning a trip for myself – an affordable week or long weekend with the hope of off-piste and enough late-season après-life – these are the places I’d consider:

The Guspis off-piste run at Andermatt in wintry conditions - but this is a good spring bet, too

Engelberg (Switzerland, nearest airport Zurich) – slopes to at least 3,000m, largely north-facing; open till 29 May; great guiding office (see my article about that here).

Monterosa (Italy, Milan or Turin) – Amazingly, until this resort closes on 15 April this Italian “three valleys” is offering a free lift pass to everyone who stays three or more nights (half-board) in Gressoney or Champoluc. The slopes go to about 3,200m and face in all directions, and there are legendary off-piste runs down wild valleys (with cheapish guiding) and superb, great-value food on and off the mountain.

Andermatt (Switzerland, Zurich) – Lower Naetschen will be closed, but the 3,000-ish-metre Gemsstock mountain has an amazing north-facing bowl and various back routes. Read more in my Telegraph report here.

Zermatt (Switzerland, Zurich or Geneva) – several high tops and possible guided descent of Schwarztor. Stay in the Walliserhof for a treat or the Alphubel for a bargain. My sister has found a super-cheap, central, family apartment but it’s such a steal that it has to remain top secret so she can always get in. Sorry!

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

Ischgl (Austria, Innsbruck or Zurich) – up to 2,800-ish, but the main thing is that it has a lot of upper slopes and they face in various directions. A year ago we had a lot of fun there with Jim Costelloe, a Ski Club of GB leader who found us fabulous snow despite very scant cover. A friend and I even did an easy self-guided tour up a side-valley – although this year it would probably be less safe.

Tignes (France, Geneva or Chambery I think) – When there was virtually no snow last November, we had great conditions on the glacier. Stay on the upper slopes throughout the area for quality snow and see here for more about its group off-piste days out. Go the first weekend of May to catch the Black Shoes Telemark Festival’s 20th anniversary. The other high French resorts (Deux Alpes, Alpe d’Huez, Val Thorens) should be fine, too.

Obergurgl and/or Soelden (Austria, Innsbruck, Zurich or Salzburg) – They didn’t benefit from the big weather fronts in December and January, which approached from the north and blanketed the Arlberg again and again before arriving in the Oetz valley as wind. But now, conditions look great. Take the bus to the Aquadome at Langenfeld if it’s boiling hot in the afternoon and don’t miss the Nederhut après-ski on Mon, Wed and Fri.

I’m a great fan of St Anton, where I have been late in the season several times (most lately to do the Weisse Rausch, a mad annual race), but I recommend it less as a late-season place than my two other Austrian tips, as the number of its slopes that are really up near its tops, as well as being north-ish facing, seems to be fewer for its size, and rather scattered about, compared with other options. But if you like a busy town with plenty of après-ski, this is still a good bet well into April.

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Link to film, Off-piste, Racing, Ski touring, Switzerland

6/2/12: Ski Sunday – an uplifting episode

If you missed Ski Sunday yesterday, try to find time to watch it on BBC iPlayer. Not for the coverage of the men’s World Cup downhill at Les Houches, Chamonix, on Saturday – though it was exciting, with three Canadians pushing most of the Austrians and Swiss out of the top five – but for the visit made by the presenters to the Hospice du Grand St Bernard.

Graham Bell and Ed Leigh hiked up on skins to the hospice and monastery, near the Swiss-Italian border at 2,500m, with a guide, stayed the night, and skied down into the Aosta valley the other side (in great-looking powder – but this wasn’t really the story).

Ed Leigh and Graham Bell, the presenters of Ski Sunday

I was a little surprised they made the ascent in such obviously risky-looking conditions, as the place – they were explaining – is known for avalanche danger: in fact, the camera crew was narrowly missed by a ‘minor’ sluffy-looking slide and everyone had to get a move on as the wind was whipping up more potential danger.

Their excellent report includes fascinating black and white footage of the hospice and olden-days groups en route up to it. People have been crossing this pass for millennia: the hospice was originally built in 1050 and since then, its doors have been perpetually open to travellers.

Graham and Ed were in awe of its history, its magnificent interior (we glimpsed frescoes on the vaulted ceiling), and of the monks themselves. By the end of the programme, both of them looked uncharacteristically pensive and serene, and Graham went as far as saying it was the “most inspiring trip” he had ever made.

Was it touching or cheesy? In my view, the former: it was excellent to see Ski Sunday diversifying to cover facets of life in the mountains that are just as thrilling as high-speed action.

See the episode by clicking here. To read more about the men’s downhill here is a report.

Also (in French): http://gsbernard.ch/

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Filed under Canada, Italy, Off-piste, Racing, Switzerland

2/1/2012 – Easyjet ski carriage: my attempt at beating the system

My ski bag weighed 27kg - and even then I suspect it was resting against the side of the scales slightly

I usually fly to the Alps with Easyjet, as I find its flights the most convenient, flexible and frequent from my local airport. After noticing in June that the airline’s fee for sports equipment (and therefore ski carriage) had risen to £25 each way – up from £18.50 last winter; see here – I was keen to work out a way still to take all my stuff yet to keep my costs down.

The cost of ski carriage crops up regularly in threads on the ski forum Snowheads, and last summer I “talked” to people on the site who had successfully transported a ski bag stuffed with other clothing and equipment, and not consigned a regular bag (fee: £9 each way).

According to Easyjet’s own website (for relevant section see here), a ski bag is allowed to weigh up to 32kg. (Oddly, if you consign a regular piece of luggage as well, the total weight for both items remains 32kg.)

I decided to make this my new system. I bought an oversized, padded, 190cm Dakine ski bag with two wheels at one end (about £80 from Edge & Wax, including a Ski Club of GB 10pc discount).

In it, on my way back from Italy yesterday, I packed two pairs of skis, my ski touring boots, other hardware such as sticks, shovel and probe, plus my ski clothing and a few other bits and bobs – a good few, actually, including clothing and two bottles of wine I won in a raffle on new year’s eve (one in each ski boot). In fact, all that was left to go in my hand-luggage-rucksack was my laptop, camera and picnic.

After an hour queuing at Milan Malpensa on one of the busiest travel days of the year, the moment of truth approached. The check-in supervisor frowned as he weighed in the ski bag at 27kg and attached to it a “HEAVY” tag. “Just sports equipment, is it?” he asked. I nodded and hurried off to give it to Signor Bulky Items before he changed his mind or suggested opening it up to check.

Plenty of room on the platform for this massive bag, but what about on the train?

The main point of this post, however, is to tell you how deceptively tricky those huge, wheely ski bags are to manhandle around the place, especially if stuffed to capacity. (It didn’t help that I was also probably stuffed to capacity, too, after five days enjoying Alagna’s lovely restaurants.)

Sure, if there are no corners, steps, winding routes or narrow corridors, the bag is quite easy to pull along. But throw in a train or bus journey, a few flights of stairs, a queue, a trip to the loo, a walk along the busy departures hall, a snowy path, or anything that requires you to hold the bag upright or take it around a bend, and it’s a struggle.

So yes, ignoring the outlay, so far the baggage system has saved me an almighty £9. But it was a little nerve-wracking as I am not a good liar, and I did arrive home with rather sore arms…

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Filed under Gear, Italy, Off-piste, Ski touring, Transport

23/12/11: Nine people evacuated as Rifugio Guglielmina burns down

High winds fanned the flames on the morning of 22 December

The Rifugio Guglielmina, a historic mountain hut high above the ski village of Alagna, in the Italian alps, was destroyed by fire in the early hours of yesterday.

Nine people sleeping there, including several staff, escaped unharmed, but high winds prevented help from reaching the hut, which is at 2,880m on the Col d’Olen. Its owner Alberto Calaba, a descendent of the family who first opened the hut in 1878, was down in the valley when the fire broke out.

The dining room, where a convivial supper sometimes turned into a party

Mike Crompton, who co-runs the Alagna specialist Zuba Ski (www.zubaski.com) and is a friend of Mr Calaba, said: “There were 100kph winds so helicopters couldn’t fly in the water needed to put out the fire, and they had to watch the refuge burn to the ground.

“Alberto had only opened for the winter about a week ago, and he’d just stocked up so he had 80,000 litres of fuel there.”

The hut, which slept 40, was a cut above most mountain refuges after recent renovation, with twin rooms, sheets and duvets, hot showers, Wi-fi, plenty of choice at the evening meal and a cellar of bottles from the best winemakers in Aosta and Piedmont.

The hut's distinctive warm tones on the exterior were mirrored inside by the welcome

Rustic yet comfortable, it was a favourite with ski tourers, off-piste enthusiasts and mountain guides as well as ordinary skiers, being an easy traverse from the piste, with wonderful views and acclaimed home-cooking.

“It was a full-on mountain hotel, with wonderful, welcoming staff – some of them from Nepal – and great guests,” adds Mike, who has been visiting for 15 years and sending guests there for eight.

“You always met great people there from all around the world. One night you could be there with 50 people, having a party, and the next with five, reading a book.

“You’d know you were coming to a friendly place – with a fantastic wine cellar. We’ve sent hundreds of people to stay there.”

Mike’s clients were in the Guglielmina last weekend, and a group was due to arrive next week for the Zuba’s annual five-day new year bash at the hut (http://www.zubaski.com/high-altitude-new-year.html). Alternative lodgings have been found in Alagna, but that is little consolation for regulars who loved the hut – and for its owners.

Twin rooms - in a class far above the usual hut dorms

“It’s a tragedy for Alberto – when he renovated the place in the 1990s he carried stuff there on his back,” adds Mike.

“It has been in his family for six generations, and Queen Margherita used to go there when she went walking. You can’t rebuild more than 200 years of history.”

The cause of the fire is being investigated. There is a theory that it may have begun in the generator room.

To visit the hut’s website (in English and Italian), which contains a history of the hut and pictures, go to http://www.rifugioguglielmina.com/en/firsthome.

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Filed under Food and drink, Italy, Off-piste, Ski touring, Transport