FOR UNPARALLELED FUN THE DOLOMITES ARE DYNAMITE
For many years, Dick Ramponi of Weymouth has returned to his father’s village of Dimaro in the Trentino region of Italy to visit relatives. And as the Val di Sole, or Sun Valley, is rife with Ramponis, many of whom are innkeepers, he was always welcomed with open arms. His wife Ann was born three valleys to the east in the Veneto region, so they split their time between families. More often than not, they’d make a point of visiting in the winter so that Dick could take advantage of the fantastic skiing, and although this region has long been popular with Europeans, he noted that Americans were scarcer than hen’s teeth.
That’s why last year, after kicking the idea around with his young cousins Bruno and Nella, third generation operators of the Albergo DiMaro, he magnanimously decided to share this well-kept secret with ski-happy Americans. Once home, he teamed up with ABC Travel, and with the numbers provided him by his cousins, put together an unbelievable package deal. $1,100 per person bought round trip airfare, six nights in the hotel, breakfast and dinner each day and one week’s lift ticket. Included also in the price was a torchlight walk in the adjacent national forest with mulled wine, free ice skating and night skiing, and free transportation to and from the mountain every day. And for an additional $100, an optional day trip to Venice was offered.
It was such an unbelievable deal that many people were compelled to ask, “What’s the catch?”. But there was no catch, and ultimately 41 brave souls had signed on for the inaugural trip. Some, like myself with ties to the Ramponis, some in small groups, and some even took a leap of faith and signed up alone. Though most were from the greater Boston area, a few came from as far as California and Toronto. They came from all walks of life, from postal worker to woodworker, anesthesiologist to architect, llama rancher to firefighter. Some were visiting Europe for the first time, while others actually had relatives in the tiny mountain village. Snowboarders and skiiers of all abilities, aged thirty to fifty, they came with but one expectation-to have fun. Speaking for the group, I think I can safely say that our expectations were not only met, but exceeded.
One of the reasons that this area is relatively unknown to Americans is that it’s not the easiest place to get to. Our seven hour flight to Munich was followed by a five hour bus ride through Austria and over the Brenner Pass into Italy, but those of us who did not sleep on the bus were awed by the spectacular scenery. Additionally, our hosts had thoughtfully provided a box lunch to help stave off hunger. When we stopped just outside of Innsbruck (which, as an aside, has virtually no snow this winter) to stretch our legs and have a bite to eat, we were treated to a show of about a dozen brightly colored hot air balloons hovering silently over the valley floor.
We arrived in DiMaro a bit punchy, but after a quick check-in, found ourselves revived enough to explore the quaint village, no more that a few streets wide in any direction. Its only real nod to the outside world, a Holiday Inn sits incongruously on the edge of town, but can easily be ignored (until it’s time to go dancing) as you turn and trudge up the steep, narrow streets. The aroma of wood smoke permeates the air, the snow-capped mountains loom deceptively close overhead, and the tinkle of a bell alerts you to the passing of a small herd of sheep being urged home by their owner’s dog. Ramponis, Albasinis and Mochens predominate the cemetery, and the centuries old church is softly illuminated by the jewel tones of the stained glass windows.
The hotel itself is charming and immaculate, having been completely re-done in 1997, and although it boasts 50 rooms, a sauna, taverna, and game room, as well as a dining room large enough to hold the 100 plus guests that they regularly host, it has the feel of a small boutique hotel. Our energetic hosts Bruno and Nella, along with several family members, work tirelessly to ensure that that their guests’ every need is met. Like everything else we experience during the course of our stay, they are the very model of efficiency, coupled with the trademark Italian warmth.
Our passports had been taken upon arrival and shuttled up to the mountain, where our electronic passes were created, so Monday morning we were raring to go. An elaborate breakfast buffet was laid out in the dining room, including everything from cereal and yogurt to eggs, cold cuts and fresh fruit. After fortifying ourselves for the day ahead, we hopped on the ski bus for the ten minute ride to the base gondola at Folgarida. We had decided not to schlep our equipment on the plane, so shortly after we had arrived at he base lodge, we walked out of the rental shop with state of the art equipment. The price: a whopping $36 for the week.
Although four of the seven ski areas that our pass allowed us to ski were interconnected, we spent the first day familiarizing ourselves with Folgarida and Marilleva. Each area boasts about 50 miles of marked runs, and although the majority of them fall into the easy or moderate categories of difficulty, there were enough difficult runs, as well as off-piste skiing to keep our more intrepid friends happy. Add to this the fact that we were blessed with sapphire blue skies and brilliant sunshine all week, and our toughest decisions were which area to ski each day, and which charming ‘rifugio’ to stop at for lunch. And as the Italians like to sunbathe almost as much as they like to ski, snow chairs and picnic tables are lined up outside of each restaurant, with every face turned toward the sun. Just another ho-hum day in paradise.
Of all the mountains we skiied, my personal favorite was Madonna di Campiglio. Soaring up to almost 13,000 feet and offering the widest variety of runs as well as restaurants, it also offered the most spectacular scenery, although trying to pick one area over the other is a bit like trying to pick one’s favorite child. Many of our friends preferred the glacier skiing and the snow fields of Paso Tonale, and Pejo boasted not only great skiing, but thermal baths and much needed massage therapy. I asked Doug Cohen of Needham, an avid (some might say rabid) snowboarder, what he liked best about his experience. His face split in a wicked grin as he replied, “Carving freshies every day!” Although I have no idea what that meant, he assured me that other boarders would.
The Italian group who shared the hotel with us was friendly and solicitous, eager to know whether we were having a good time. Although for the most part we were unable to get past “Buon Giorno”, having Dick and Ann there to interpret made communication a lot easier, and our last night together sparked a spontaneous dance party the likes of which I’ve never seen. E-mail addresses were exchanged, offers for places to stay in Italy were proferred, and we all expressed a most sincere wish that we would meet again next year. As for our group, after skiing all day and laughing all night together for a week, we’re all determined to keep our end of the bargain.
SPECIFICS ON THE VAL DI SOLE
In the heart of the Trentino region just below Austria, the Val di Sole’s direct north/south alignment allows for more sun than any other ski areas of Europe, and the highest peaks in the Central and Eastern Alps, ranging form 7,000 to 13,000 feet, guarantee an abundance of snowfall. But unlike other more well-known areas like Innsbruck, which has no snow-making capabilities, the Skirama consortium has an 85% snow-making capacity, covering over 138 of the 204 miles of slopes and trails. One hundred and forty lifts, from gondolas to rope tows, are capable of moving 30,500 people per hour, making for short lift lines. A total of 45,000 beds in the surrounding towns, from 5 star hotels to apartment rentals assure that, whatever your preferences may be, you will find what you need. Although four of the ski areas in the group are inter-connected, allowing you to ski from one to the other, a free ski bus is also available to take you to the more far-flung areas.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE NOT A SKIIER
First and foremost, with the dollar as strong as it is, the shopping is pure paradise. In a world where a glass of wine goes for about 90 cents, even on the mountain, Italian shoes, clothing and gold jewelry are also quite a bargain. The chic town of Madonna di Campiglio is a bit more expensive than some of the smaller towns, but Prada bags, Italian couture and Swiss watches abound. For the ambitious, there is also, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, ice skating, sled-dogging, swimming, or visiting the thermal springs at Pejo for a day of pampering. Venice is about three hours away by bus or train, convenient enough for a pleasant day trip.
In summer, hiking, rafting, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking and canoeing are among the many outdoor activities that will help work up an appetite for the typical Tyrolean cuisine predominant to the area. Tours of local farms allow you to watch cheese, wine and cider produced. But winter or summer, if you are otherwise inclined, there is always plenty of what the Italians call “il dolce far niente”, or the sweetness of doing nothing”. And in the Val di Sole, there is always plenty of sunshine in which to do it.