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On board off piste

Image: Alamy

Matt Carroll discovers the thrills of free riding in Livigno

I’ve always had a soft spot for Livigno, ever since I learned to snowboard here during the Millennium new year. Indeed, if I close my eyes I can still hear my instructor’s shrill cries of “bend zee knees!” echoing off the hillside, as he watched me disappearing down the mountain at an alarming rate. Poor old Marco.

Returning here 15 years later, however, things are different — for starters, I’ve learned how to turn my snowboard, instead of simply pointing it at the base of the mountain and hoping for the best. But the biggest change is the resort’s attitude to off-piste skiing.

Tucked away in the Alps at the top of Italy, Livigno was traditionally renowned as a beginners’ playground, with miles of mellow groomers spread over two sides of a wide, open valley. For years, those who ventured under the boundary rope in search of untracked snow risked incurring the wrath of the Italian authorities.

Now, though, things have changed, with the opening of a designated ‘free-ride’ area giving powder junkies the chance to indulge their habit with a clear conscience. Located on the Mottolino side of the valley, it gives you the whole back side of the mountain to play with.

This may look modest in comparison with the resort’s 115km of runs, but you could easily spend a good few months here exploring this alternative side of Livigno, and never ride the same lines twice. I only have a week, but intend to make the most of it.

Armed with the requisite avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe, I join my guide for the free five-minute bus ride from the village to Mottolino. Conditions are perfect for this return visit to my snowboarding birthplace, an overnight dump of spring snow having coated the mountains in pillows of fresh powder.

After taking the cable car up to the Mottolino hut, we take deep breaths, strap ourselves in and slip through the gateway that leads into a wide, expansive powder field. A reassuring beep as we pass through the gate announces our transceivers have triggered the sensors that log you in and out of the area — another safety feature designed to ensure everyone has the proper equipment. Now the fun begins.

Spread out before us is an open area of fresh fluff, like a newly-iced Christmas cake. I get first dibs and point my board straight, sending a rooster tail of snow cascading out behind me as I bank left and catch a face-full.

No matter how many times you do this, the buzz is always the same; an involuntary grin spreads across my face as I float down the mountain, leaning over with an outstretched hand to etch my name into the snow. On a good day you get a cracking view out over the back side of Mottolino, handfuls of Monopoly houses clustered into the valley below.

In total, there are five designated off-piste routes to choose from, each entered through gates from the main slopes. My favourite follows the valley down from the Valfin chairlift, perched at the top of Monte Della Neve at almost 2,800 metres. From here, you cruise all the way down to the village of Trepalle at 2,086 metres — it’s Italy’s highest, so I’m told — where a chairlift will take you back up the mountain for more. Veer too far to the right, however, and you’ll be needing a taxi home.

After spending my first day scribbling lines all over Mottolino, the next morning brings clear blue skies as we head over to Carosello on the other side of the valley. In all, Livigno has 78 runs to explore, all bar 12 of them red and blue; on my first visit here all those years ago, I had no idea all this existed. As we make our way up Carosello in the cable car, I feel like a child who’s been allowed to sit in the front seat with the grown-ups for the first time.

Shop ’til you drop
That evening I book myself in for a massage at the Hotel Lac Salin, where a patient masseuse irons out the knots. An hour later, I’m floating down the main street, reinvigorated and ready to shop.

Although referred to as ‘Little Tibet’ by locals, such is its remote, mountainous location, Livigno has shops stocked with the latest lines from the world’s biggest brands (including every incarnation of Ray Ban you could possibly imagine), all of them tax free.

Resisting the temptation to blow all my pocket money, instead I soak up the views of Mottolino’s omnipotent peaks, now stained the colour of strawberry ice cream by the setting sun, the air thick with the smell of wood smoke.

Behind me, a gaggle of newbie snowboarders are trudging their way back to their hotel, chattering excitedly with their instructor about what the next day will bring. It’s like Millennium New Year all over again.

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