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Winter sports: Natural distractions

Amazing food, glamorous après ski and stunning landscapes: Sarah Barrell manages to fit in some skiing around South Tyrol’s numerous diversions

 

The snow-crafted Ice Bar at Club Moritzino is slumped slightly sideways in the fierce, late-season sun. The patrons of this piste-top restaurant and bar, however, are holding up impressively, doing a deft job of not spilling glasses of Ferrari rosé, a sparkling wine from nearby Trento, while stomping along in hefty ski boots to the challenging techno version of the Italian national anthem. The fact that it’s only 3pm and most of the dancing has already stepped up to table-top level raises not an eyebrow.

They’re a classy act, here in South Tyrol. Usually quietly so — après, where it happens at all, usually starts early, involves dinner, and finishes likewise. But Moritzino — a let-your-hair-down landmark that’s overlooked the Badia Valley for the past 50 years — is the exception. Its eponymous silver-haired owner casually tells me that ever since Brigitte Bardot’s husband demanded it, when skiing here back in the 1970s, he’s had fish flown in daily from Venice to supply the venue’s perennially packed little restaurant. I award him top marks for Euro-riche-glam.

It’s a wonder anyone gets any skiing done in the South Tyrol. The distractions are numerous — there are more Michelin-starred restaurants here than in any other region in Italy, for one — and the views too jaw-dropping to simply speed past. Distinct from the sharp, dense peaks of the central Alps, these mountains are softly rounded, arranged around wide, open valleys like rows of panettone, sugar-snow dusted on top. These pink granite ranges blush pinker still as the sun sets, casting the sort of warm rosy glow beloved of Golden Age Californian movies.

But, of course, people do ski. From the village of San Cassiano, where I’m staying during this visit, I’ve access to the 745 miles of piste included in the Dolomiti Superski Pass area. This comprises no fewer than 12 ski-linked resorts (albeit small sections of it bus linked), the star of which is the Sela Ronda, a looped circuit around a particularly wedding cake-like crop of those pretty granite mountains. The local Alta Badia ski pass opens up 80 miles of slopes — mostly wide blues and cruisey reds — connecting the resorts of Corvara, Colfosco, San Cassiano, La Villa and Badia.

This string of traditional, wood-hewn villages is geographically in Italy, but, like many in South Tyrol, look as Austrian as The Sound of Music. South Tyrol is neither, really. The local language is Ladin, which dates back to the Roman occupation, preserved despite being spoken by barely 2,000 people. As part of an infamous First World War deal, the region was handed over to Italy from Austria and the numerous vie ferrate mountain routes (beloved of today’s adventure travellers) are a lofty map of the old frontline. But local food is perhaps where you see this cultural mix at its most lively.

At La Siriola — one of the 20 Michelin-starred restaurants that line the South Tyrol’s valleys — I dine on a cold pesto shrimp spaghetti, the signature dish of chef Matteo Mettulio. This might not sound hugely appetising but Italy’s youngest chef to head up a Michelin star-garnering kitchen has a mature authority when it comes to mucking about with traditional dishes. A close second comes the so-wrong-it’s-right punchy pecorino cheese chocolate — one of some 50 varieties on offer in La Sirolina’s Aladdin’s cave-like Chocolate Room.

It’s hard not to splurge when the food is so good and the setting for many of these establishments is so gemütlich — often in centuries-old stube (living rooms), with cavernous cellars where wine, cheese and cured sausage are treated like royal guests. But similar gourmet treats are found up on the pistes for a fraction of the price if you book a Skisafari. At select times a year these see skiers, boarders or snowshoers hot footing it between some seven rifugio (mountain huts), to enjoy Michelin-starred tasting plates and matching wines, devised by the likes of Norbert Neiderkofler and Matteo Metullio.

With 28 varieties of local wine — 98% of them DOC-listed and few of them exported — if you’ve got the legs for it, a wine safari opens up a unique viticultural world. I’m not sure if it’s the Gewurztraminer I succumb to during a morning’s wine Skisafari but my final run down to the valley has to be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever skied.

The five-mile Armentarola piste leads me from the Lagazuoi cable-car through the deep, canyon-like Hidden Valley, flanked by pink, craggy cliffs. These open out dramatically to views of the broad Fanes Valley, before closing in again to azure walls of ice with a heart-stopping sculptural beauty. The run tips out along a frozen river at Sass Dlacia, where a horse and cart pulls skiers to the Armentarola ski lift. Like I said: it’s a wonder anyone skis here with so many unique distractions on hand. But when you do…

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