Finding a Lost Passion
During my recent trip to the Dolomites, I rediscovered a childlike enthusiasm for skiing. And how could I not? I crossed one snowy valley after another, without eve repeating a line. I went down easy runs that let me take in the alpine scenery, and the beauty of nature. I ventured down harder pistes that demanded my full attention. When I would finally take off my skiing boots and the end of the day, I found a living tradition that seduced me with flavours and stories.
It snowed all day. It snowed all night. By the time we went out, it was snowing still.
When I was younger, I spent many winters in these slopes. Years later, skiing has become only a memory; something that I did not notice I had given up, until the lure of it was gone. I justify it with the belief that ourselves, and our passions, are in a constant process of revision and growth. I had let go of my passion for skiing and moved on to different ambitions.
I was travelling with Clemens Wieser from a trade show in Cannes, when he received word that the first snows had covered the Dolomites.
“Andrea, the runs will be perfect,” he said with enthusiasm. “You must come with me to Alta Badia.”
“I haven’t skied in years!” I replied apprehensively.
The Wieser run one of the best hotels in the whole of the Dolomites. It’s certainly my favourite: Ciasa Salares.
Some travellers can become infatuated by the number of stars an establishment boasts of, an appraisal more often than not based on the number of threads in the Egyptian cotton linens. In my opinion, a meaningful holiday is better determined by the people who teach you something and inspire you. In other words, it’s all about character. And Ciasa Salares, with its four stars, is brimming with character.
AT HOME IN THE MOUNTAINS
Clemens insisted that we do the Sella Ronda, a magnificent tour of the Sella Massif, with 40km of pistes, crossing four passes and four valleys, around four hours of non-stop skiing. I protested, I had not trained for such a feat in a long time, and I feared I would be sore for weeks to come.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Alia is coming with us.” He meant Alia Radetti, one of Italy’s best freeride specialists. It is even worse, I said to myself, now I’ll look like a fool in front of a professional.
She is reassuring. The Sella Ronda has something for everyone to enjoy. Pistes for the family, pistes for the dilettante, and yes, there are several stretches for the insanely skilled and the plainly insane.
“Fine,” I agree. “We’ll do a couple of runs and if I can’t keep up I’ll go back to the hotel.”
LIKE A CHILD AT PLAY
When we set out there are no tracks in the snow, no other skiers but ourselves. The mountains frame the picture with perfection and dreamlike vistas pass us by as we hop from valley to valley. The Dolomites are like no other mountains in the world. They crop up from gentle valleys and reach upwards with characteristic force. They don’t form a single massif, but rather, each group has its own personality: the Marmolada, the Cinque Torri, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. When the sun catches them, they come to life and light up with a mountain glow, the alpenglow or enrosadira. The forests beneath them caress the valleys with their white veil of winter. It is a landscape of snowy stillness, were it not for a group of happy skiers.
Startled by the beauty, enchanted by the quality of the powder, the child in me is back charge. I regain my confidence and I ski down more difficult lines. It is a mix of exhilaration and openness to nature. When I go down a slope, I am overcome by an intense focus, I become part of the landscape. When I reach the bottom unscathed, joy bursts out of my chest.
Alia knows the best pistes, the best places to stop and eat, and the best views. She is hailed by the locals. With her, you get the family treatment. When we stopped for an aperitif at Rigufio Trieste, the owners uncorked a bottle that is not in the menu. Their cellar is full of important wines. We drink a vintage Burgundy with our ski boots on. With our appetites on the rise, we then skied to Baita Sofie, which has one of the best vistas you will ever see. The owner Markus Prinoth, picks herbs and spices in the woods and make his own gin.
I skied in these mountains for the first 15 years of my life. Going back to the slopes with a local, professional instructor is a different experience altogether. The analogy serves me well: when skiing with Alia, the mountains reveal runs that are not in the menu.
When we get back to the powder, the ski lifts are already closed and the sun is setting. We have to use our skiing prowess to get back. We go down very long descents, into woods and, canyons, beneath icefalls. I scream with happiness and my face is possessed by a curious glow, not unlike the enrosadira, that has settled on the sides of the mountains. We are the last of the romantics.
WINE, CHEESE AND CHOCOLATE
Back at Ciasa Salares, Clemen’s father, Stefan, reveals a world of pleasure as we talk. As I taste his 36 month Prosciutto di Montola, a proud smile appears on his face.
“We’ve spent ten years developing a relationship with the supplier,” he explains. “Now we get the first choice.”
I’ve just spent a week at a trade show, where travel seemed a more straightforward business. Wouldn’t it be better to cut costs in an already difficult trade, instead of maniacally pursuing product excellence? Searching well beyond what is just good, and instead looking for the most special food artisans who can provide the ultimate taste, the Wieser elevate hospitality to a fine art. Their passion for flavour doesn’t stop at food.
They have been collecting wine for decades. Cellars are a common feature of the Dolomites nowadays, and one could say the Wieser started the tradition. They have over 24 thousand bottles and over 1800 labels.
“Maybe 10 years ago we were ahead of the market,” says Stefan. “But today our customers are seeking a deeper satisfaction in what they eat and drink. They are looking for a gastronomic secret that is not immediately revealed… one that requires a higher listening capability.” I find it apt that Stefan chose the word listening instead of tasting.
People pass by and beam at him like they would an old friend… they are customers that keep coming back.
“And there is also the passion for hospitality,” continues Stefan, ”We are devoted to the art of hosting: me, my wife, my father, my mother, my son. You meet us all. You see us constantly looking at details.”
“This is our way to do things,” Clemens adds. “This is a family run property, and our home.”
Attention to detail has allowed a small village of 850 souls to to collect 5 Michelin Stars, two of which have been awarded to La Siriola, one of restaurants in Ciasa Salares. There's something about the hotel that embodies the Dolomites. It is respectful of the architecture, it blends with the mountains.
The owners have created an environment of delight and experimentation. Take for example their chocolate room. Inside, they have 65 different varieties of chocolate. When you enter, you can eat as much as you like. You can indulge your sweetest fantasies… while they play Pink Floyd in the background.
It is a contrast I don’t understand at first. The walls are filled with the history of the last hundred years: strife, loss, war, and above all, tradition. The world has moved on, I have moved on, and yet the treasures of our history are kept in places such as these.
There I was, musing about change, and I didn’t realise that some are men in love with their time and place. Men who understand how to bring together the traditional and the new. People in touch with their cultural identity, which they try to live alongside globalisation and modernity. People passionate to share the traditions and the memories of their land.
NO FOOLISH BUT INTREPID: A SKI SAFARI
I am no stranger to these valleys, and yet, I see them with new eyes. A few days at San Cassiano rekindled my passion for skiing. After the pleasures of Ciasa Salares, I find myself in the mood for a stronger taste of the mountains.
Agustina is a friend of mine who is passionate about these mountains. She is active and adventurous year-round in the Dolomites. She is taking me on a Ski Safari. The idea is simple, but it requires a flawless execution: to ski all day and spend the night high up in the mountains in different rifugios. It is a straightforward and pure way to experience the place.
We set out from Cortina, the chic wintersport heart of the Dolomites. It has been snowing all night and you would be hard pressed to find a single track in the snow. When we reach the runs, there’s no one there. The conditions are difficult but I cannot be dissuaded. After all, skiing is a passion I have just rediscovered. I am not about to let go of it again, not without a fight. So I fall… hard.
Our lodgings for the night is high in the mountains, at the feet of the Cinque Torri. Rifugio Scoiattolo is a place for the Scoiattolo Climbing Club. Walter Bonatti, a famous climber, explorer and journalist was a member. My ribs hurt after the fall. The wind outside is howling. Bonatti once said that the essence of mountaineering is not to escape, but to achieve victory over your own human frailty. I can’t say I made my hero proud today. I’ll try again tomorrow.
The next day, most of the pistes are closed because of a high risk of avalanches. We can see helicopters hovering over the slopes, dropping bombs, trying to precipitate the dreadful snowslide. Luca, one of our guides, is calling frantically to see which runs are open, which are closed. My friends orchestrate a magnificent skiing concerto. With the snowcats, we can go to the best runs for the day, where, once again, we can benefit from the unspoiled snow and the freshest powder.
AMAZING CUISINE BENEATH THE SHADOW OF THE MOUNTAINS
From the San Pellegrino pass, we venture with the snowcats into the woods. When the trees clear, we can see the houses in sight of the Pale di San Martino. There is something special in store: Rifugio Fuciade. It is a high-altitude, in the middle of nowhere gourmet heaven.
Chef Martino spouses a rather interesting gastronomic philosophy. He uses the freshest, local ingredients. However, he doesn’t stop at the traditional Ladin dishes of the region. His sights are set in the highest Italian cuisine, and he establishes a dialogue between the Ladin and the Mediterranean to create a unique experience. The place itself is a perfect balance between the traditional and the modern.
Early morning and we are back on the runs. It’s a magnificent, sunny day. We are crossing three different valleys today. In Val Gardena, under the shadow of the great Sassolungo, we stop at Rifugio Comici, named after Emilio Comici. He was another legendary Italian alpinist, and he opened many of the routes that are climbed to this very day in the Dolomites. I raise my glass to his memory, and then enjoy a perfectly executed fish menu… high up in the mountains.
JUST IN TIME FOR AN HISTORIC DINNER
We end our ski tour back in San Cassiano. I have heard much about the 5 Michelin Stars. I have enjoyed the first two. Now, it’s time to see what the other three are all about. Restaurant St. Hubertus, part of Hotel Rosa Alpina, has been graced with the honour. Chef Norbert Niederkofler has gained international renown for his alpine dishes.
I thrive in the controlled chaos of the best kitchens. As I am calmly taking an aperitif in the midst of yells of “Yes, Chef!”, I ask Chef Norbert:
“What would you say defines your cuisine?”
“It all starts with the landscape,” he says. “My cuisine is based on three adjectives: sustainable, clean and transparent.”
He is true to his values. He integrates local ingredients such as mountain pine, flowers and juniper to express a unique culinary style. He is true to the flavours he works with: his dishes are of a refreshing simplicity that delights and soothes.
“I consider transparency as a duty towards my clients,” he adds. “I never want to hide anything from them.”
I ask the owner, Hugo Pizzinini, about the black and white pictures that populate the walls. He tells me the story of the hotel. I listen to tragic tales of war and avalanches.
“Battles were fought over these mountain passes,” he says. “For example, during the First World War, this was the last Austrian Bastion before the front. San Cassiano had an enormous strategic importance.” War memorabilia can be still be found deep in the mountains.
“Before, the land was called ‘Alpenrose’,” he explains. “After the war, it was changed to the Italian ‘Rosa Alpina’.” It means, rose of the mountains.
I lose myself in the pictures hanging on the wall. This is a place of memory. The muscle soreness after relentless days of skiing begins to creep into my legs. I can hear the wind howling outside. Walter Bonatti once said that the value of a climb is the sum of aesthetics, history and ethics. My friends have made sure that the Dolomites remain a perfect example of the three. Fortunately, some things never change.