East-central Italy: the tour continues

17th March 2019, by Chris Gill

Deserted slopes in Livigno on Saturday 9th March

Deserted slopes in Livigno on Saturday 9th March

With editor Watts substituted by photographer Riley at Bergamo airport, the next objective on my tour of eastern Italy was to catch up on the bunch of resorts just west of the Dolomites, some of which I hadn’t visited for Quite Some Time.

First up was Madesimo, a small resort in a remote, high spot north of lake Como, close to the Swiss border. It’s a quiet non-glitzy resort in a pleasant woody setting, chiefly appealing to weekenders from Milan – a two-hour-plus drive away.

The resort is mainly known for three things: a spectacularly steep hairpin approach if you choose the state road up, rather than the longer but quicker provincial road; an unusually long snowmobile route up the closed Passo Spluga road to the Swiss border; and the famous Canalone – a 1000m vertical unprepared run from 2948m Pizzo Groppera (no, autocorrect, it is not called Pizza) which is often referred to as an itinerary but on the resort map is simply called off-piste.

We drove to the resort last Thursday, 7th March, through heavy rain, and on arrival found fresh wet snow being tidied up in the village. Next day, piste conditions were adequate on the lower slopes, excellent higher up, but the snow hadn’t arrived in sufficient quantities to convince me that the Canalone would be safely rock-free. Others took a different view, and the small cable car to the top had grown a big queue. With only a day to devote to the resort, we declined to join it.

We found Madesimo offered some good red skiing, though not enough to amuse a keen skier for more than a weekend. And there is some decent blue skiing, though less than the map suggests – a dozen of the blue runs are just linking runs across the mountain, called skiwegs.

Some of the proper blues have tough stretches that narrow their appeal. A prime example is the long blue run 11 to the village, for most of its length a glorious cruise through the forest, entirely spoiled for some blue run skiers of my acquaintance by a red-gradient precipice at the very end.

For reasons we’ll skate over we spent our two nights in Madesimo in two different hotels a few yards apart – it’s a hard life. We were happy in both the Meridiana and the K2, but the more ambitious a la carte food at the latter made it the more compelling. Next, we were off to Bormio via Livigno.

I’m generally not a fan of Livigno’s rather samey treeless slopes, but if you ever get the chance to ski this place on a sunny Saturday – changeover day – grab it. Our few hours here on the way to Bormio were the stuff of red-run skiers’ dreams.

Unlike most Italian resorts, Livigno doesn’t attract a lot of weekend skiers from the northern cities (Milan is a four-hour drive away), and visitors from Northern Europe can’t delay their Saturday departures to grab more turns – they have to be on their way by 9am, before the single-track tunnel to Switzerland is dedicated to inbound traffic only.

Result? Blissfully empty slopes.

I’ve skied Bormio a couple of times before but I’ll admit that, in this case, Quite Some Time ago means decades ago. It was a bit of a revelation: The tall, narrow hill offers superb red piste skiing (and very attractive off-piste terrain when the conditions are right). It doesn’t add up to a lot, but lift passes for two days or more cover similarly good mountains nearby at Cima Piazzi (main resort Isolaccia) and Santa Caterina. It covers Livigno too, although that’s an hour’s drive away.

Our accommodation was in Uzza, on the road up to Caterina, in a simple but well run albergo that makes an excellent base for anyone with a car, La Montanara. Good food, too, much of it from the owners’ farm.

A fruitless search of Bormio for a bar showing the Six Nations match had the benefit that we got to know the back streets of the historic town thoroughly. It’s a charming, animated place, a sort of cross between Cortina and Courmayeur; we liked it a lot, although if choosing a base here we would opt to stay across the river in the ski-lodgings suburb around the gondola base, and make evening expeditions into the town.

As the lifts closed we set off for Ponte di Legno-Tonale, the new name for the area associated in Britain with high-but-cheap Passo Tonale. Sadly, our day there on Monday 11th was rather spoilt by rock-hard pistes – the result of fiercely low temperatures after a very mild spell. Only the shady slopes on and below the Presena glacier offered much satisfaction, and we bailed out shortly after lunch.

Now it’s back to the Dolomites for the final few days of this long tour, which I’ll be spending in Madonna di Campiglio and the resorts on the northern side of the Sella Ronda – Val Gardena and Alta Badia.

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