It’s the one holiday that I always dread. If you’re going to ski, you really need to start when you are eight. This is what my children did – although they, of course, had a father who was much more generous and far-sighted than my own. I first hit the slopes when I was 40 and I’ve never really got the hang of it. Yes, I can just about get down a mountain – but with style?
My sons may be two speeding bullets but I’m more akin to a camel falling out of a freight plane, and there have been many times when I’ve thought of giving up altogether. God knows how many lessons I’ve had, lined up with other middle-aged men, making wobbly figures-of-eight in a crocodile line on the hillside. I really hate them all – Wolfgang, Heidi, Jean-Claude and Chuck, smug instructors with their contradictory directions and their indecipherable diagrams scratched out in the snow. I can’t do it. Why am I even trying?
The Corvara resort at night Photo: Fotolia/AP
I also have an overactive imagination. I can’t see a rescue helicopter take off without imagining myself stretchered out inside it. Every piste is a potential deathtrap. I’m nervous that I’ll fall off the ski lift, assuming the bloody thing manages to stay upright in the first place. If it’s a button lift, I worry that I’ll let go too late and the button will tear off my private parts. It’s even occurred to me that I may break one of my fingers trying to close the steel snap-locks on my ski boots.
And yet this year I spent Christmas in Corvara in the Italian Dolomites. We flew with easyJet to Venice and then rented a car for the easy, three-hour drive. We could have stayed on the motorway but made a diversion to visit the Alpine city of Belluno, which sits impressively on the edge of a cliff, then stopped on the outskirts for lunch at the Ristorante Alla Stanga, a family restaurant that felt as old as the hills that surrounded it. The ancient communal fireplace alone would have made it worth a visit but the food was excellent too. So far so good.
There was no snow in Corvara. Not a single flake. Our hearts sank as we followed winding roads through faded green and brown hills into a town which I cannot honestly describe as beautiful. I’ve never really bought into the clumsy architecture of ski resorts with their high-end shops, high-price cafés and those cumbersome ski chalets which seem to have too many windows and balconies. It’s the snow and the sparkly lights that create the illusion of beauty. There need to be icicles hanging off the roofs, children throwing snowballs in the street. Corvara had none of it.
What it did have was a wonderful position, in a huge basin surrounded by epic mountains. I would have been happy sitting with a book and never leaving my room. But Corvara has a secret: the best artificial snow in Europe. Despite the crazy weather, bright sunshine and blue skies, almost 90 per cent of the runs were open. Better still, there are two circuits, which allow you to travel 21 kilometres along pistes that are perfectly groomed every night, some of them two or three kilometres long.
It’s odd though. You’re sitting on a lift being wafted across a meadow and there’s no snow in sight. When you arrive, a single white carpet leads you on the next phase of your journey.
I skied for five days, also driving to the neighbouring village of San Cassiano, which is a little prettier than Corvara, and the slopes here are lovely – like skiing in Narnia.
This being Italy, all the ski areas offered first-rate restaurants and bars. On Christmas Eve I found myself sitting with my family in
T-shirts, sipping glühwein on a terrace high up in the mountains, and it occurred to me that if this were a different sort of article for another newspaper it might be a dire warning about the perils of climate change. Instead, it’s a recommendation. As far as I could tell, there was no snow anywhere in Europe this December. So if you want to be certain that you’re going to ski, head for Corvara.
There’s more to the resort than skiing. You can visit medieval towns less than an hour away or you can go hiking. On Christmas Day my wife dragged me along a twisting, precipitous path that climbed over 1,600ft through the fir trees to a restaurant and bar called Rifugio Col Alto. We were rewarded by breathtaking views and cappuccinos and spent a happy hour sneering at the skiers who’d come up on the lift.
Photo: Tiberio Sorvillo
We stayed in the Hotel Col Alto, a 10-minute walk from the nearest lift, but there’s a regular free bus. I’ve always found ski hotels to be much the same: too warm, claustrophobic, often with too much furniture. But this one was terrific with a great spa, good service and often excellent food… important, as we were on half-board. If you’re looking for something more exclusive and more romantic I can also recommend the Hotel la Perla with its warren of cosy bars and dining rooms. It’s next to the 14th-century church of S Caterina, which is worth a visit in itself. It has an exquisite cemetery – in case the skiing goes wrong.
One word of warning. When we arrived, Corvara was virtually empty: there were just 16 people staying in our hotel, which has a capacity of 250. We had the slopes almost to ourselves and never queued for a lift. But that was the week before Christmas. On Christmas Day, by which time half of Italy had arrived, my sons reported packed slopes with too many inexperienced skiers making life dangerous for everyone else. But that’s true of every skiing holiday. A great week or a terrible one is largely a matter of chance.
I left Corvara refreshed and reanimated. I’d done more exercise in a week than I manage in a month and I’d benefited from the intoxicating air, the astounding views, the sense of having lived a little on the edge. And although I fell over a couple of times, I didn’t actually hurt myself at all. I may have dreaded it but I also loved it. The truth is, I always do.