Piemonte, Italy: Getting High on Skis in the Via Lattea
By Cindy Bigras
Wanna race to the bottom? photos by Cindy Bigras.
Panic, anxiety and extreme fear hit me like a runaway Vespa. After not having skied for over a decade, I had impulsively decided to go skiing in the Italian Alps… the very slopes that hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics in the Piemonte region of Italy.
Fortunately, my early reactions morphed into the excitement of embracing a new challenge — but I knew it would be crucial to prepare.
I hit the gym nearly every day for three weeks before departure, eagerly looking through ski magazines while using the Stairmaster and treadmill. I did countless sit-ups, free weights, the stationary bike — even squats while brushing my teeth! The guys at my local ski shop became my “go to” advisors when it was time to get attired.
I learned that thermal fabrics are best at wicking sweat away from the body so I got good long underwear, thick waterproof ski pants, jacket, gloves, wool hat, polar fleece tops, and goggles. Looking the part began to boost my confidence.
The 2006 Winter Olympics were held about 50 miles west of Torino, Italy on the stunning, sunny mountains of the Via Lattea (Milky Way).
Five communities make up this area and include the towns of Sestriere, Sauze d’Oulx, Claviere, San Sicario and Cesana. A reasonable 34 euros gets you a one-day ski pass with access to more than 200 interconnected trails.
Get yourself a trail map and have your morning espresso in Sestriere, a modern ski town built by the Agnelli family in the 1930s. Continue on to quaint Sauze d’Oulx for lunch in the historic town square. Take that thought one step further and ski as far as Montgenevre, France making this a truly international ski day!
Fortunately there are trails for all skill levels as well as snowboarding, cross country, dog sledding, snowshoeing and heli skiing. Children learn to ski quite young; expect to see groups of five- and six-year-olds practicing with instructors even high up on the mountain.
Experienced adults also work with instructors to guide them through the mountains and help perfect style; it’s advisable, especially if you’re here for the first time.
Monday morning we rented our equipment in Sestriere — get this part right if you want to have an advantage on skis. The boots feel clunky and make me tip forward. It’s important to get the right fit — not too loose, not too tight. The ankle should be snug in the boot and you should be able to wiggle your toes so that circulation isn’t cut off.
Next up are the skis. Over the years the designs and materials have changed and parabolic skis are said to be easier to use, but I have yet to experience it. I place my trust in an Italian skier with a beautiful smile who brings out just the right rentals for me.
There were five in our group of beginners. We started with the basics, and that means the snowplow. This technique is used to control speed and our instructors quickly assessed our skill and confidence level. Thanks to muscle memory and the shape of the parabolic skis, Lisa and I were almost immediately promoted to intermediate level.
Off we went with our instructor, Riccardo, to practice more snowplowing and basic turns on the wide trails that crisscross the mountains. This area is known to have some of the top snowmaking facilities in the world and the snow is soft and fluffy. Ice is nowhere to be found. On the highest trails the only sound interrupting the silence is the rhythmic swish of advanced skiers passing by.
These are common throughout the Via Lattea, even at high altitudes and on advanced trails. My American friends, all much better skiers than I, don’t like poma lifts, but I found them to be an entertaining part of my return to the sport.There are more than 92 ski lifts here, all state of the art. In addition to chairlifts and gondolas, you’ll find numerous poma lifts, a type of drag lift in which a disk shaped seat is suspended from a cable; the key is to remain standing after you’ve slipped the seat in place and allow yourself to be pulled up the slope.
Bardonecchia & Lunch on the Mountain
The next day we headed to Bardonecchia, the area’s only town accessible by train from Torino via the Val di Susa (Susa Valley). High-speed rail has been proposed between Torino and Lyon, France but the locals in the valley are vehemently opposed because of the environmental damage it would cause. The pristine nature of the valley would be forever changed by the intense blasting that would widen sections of the valley and carve tunnels through the mountains.
In the name of progress, the remote, small-town feel of the area would be gone forever. Today’s lesson consists of learning to lift the inside ski as we turn, keeping our skis parallel, constantly shifting weight back and forth.
Our instructor, Walter, takes us on several trails and we see and feel the mountain’s natural beauty, stopping periodically to chat and admire the panorama.
We’re above the tree line at more than 2500 meters’ elevation, looking down on the half pipe where the Olympic events were held, and off to the west we see peaks in France.
We weave down, staying away from the snowboarders and the five-year olds, who look a lot more natural at this than we do. However, I sense the re-awakening of my skills and try to remember how and why I ever stopped skiing.
It’s time for lunch, Italian style! La Grangiais an alpine chalet located mid way up the mountain. Don’t expect a cafeteria free for all! You’ll walk into a cozy and vibrant pub-like setting of wood interiors and big windows.
Have a seat at a weathered, wooden table next to strangers and take your time for a real meal with table service. Today’s offering includes local fare of delicious venison stew, sausages, warm polenta, cheeses, and freshly baked bread, all accompanied by local Barolo or Barbaresco wines. This is Italy, after all!
Meeting the locals is fun in Sestriere!
It was here that I first heard of Occitania, a region of southern France and part of Piemonte that existed during the middle ages. The language of Occitan, also known as Languedoc or Provencal, is still spoken to some degree by a half million people with some of the oldest residents describing it as their native language.
The earliest Piemontese language was very similar to Laughing on the slopes. Occitan. The locals I met rattled off words or phrases in the foreign tongue.
Stop for Espresso
On the third and final day, back in Sestriere, I have instructor Riccardo all to myself. He seems to have great confidence in my abilities and takes me over the mountain to Borgata. We stop for an espresso and bond as friends. In talking with him I determine that skiing is a great way to stay young in body and spirit after learning his age, because, he looks decades younger than he truly is.
We take off again for the slopes winding over and around the mountain so that I can practice my turns and speed control. There are many advanced slopes, some with moguls and jumps, but we leave those to the more experienced skiers. Towards the end of the day, with a twinkle in his eye, Riccardo has a special treat for me. About three lifts later I’m questioning his judgment of my Alpine abilities. This is the highest peak I’ve been on.
Sunny day is Sestriere.
An enormous blue sky and Alps embrace us, down below Sestriere appears as a fly in a bowl of milk. Below us lies a wide but very steep trail. It’s at this moment that he tells me this slope was the setting for the men’s freestyle downhill event in the 2006 Olympics. My heart skips a beat and I have the sudden urge to sprout wings and fly away, but he’s been a better judge of my abilities than I realize.
That is when and where I happened to ski my best ever run in the Alps. Down we went, stopping frequently to chat and admire the magnificent view. “Brava, Cindy, Brava!”, he said each time and I’m hooked on skiing in Italy.
Italian Airline – Alitalia
Via Lattea Ski School: Borgata Ski School
Bardonecchia Ski School: LiberiTutti
Piemonte Tour Guide Carol knows this region very well and has the resources to help you with business or pleasure travel.
Ski Travel Specialist/Planner (groups and individuals) Sami Azer
The owner with our waitress at Du Grand Pere Ristorante in Sestriere.
Hotels in Via Lattea Region:
Villaggio Olympico Sleep where the Olympic athletes slept! Ambiance is that of a hostel; offers basic suite with optional meal plan in a cafeteria setting. Internet available only in lobby area; on site supermarket. Gondola located opposite the entrance. Don’t expect a lot of frills.
Hotel Cristallo Lovely upscale hotel located in center of Sestriere.Featuring spa and ski lifts opposite the entrance.Several cozy sitting areas in and around lobby and cocktail lounge.
Roseo Hotels Upscale hotel surrounded by snowy trees and mountain vistas, welcoming lobby and dining areas. Beautifully renovated. Ski in/ski out to Via Lattea slopes.
Shackleton Mountain Resort Small family run resort surrounded by stunning mountain vistas. Each roomn is unique and has a balcony.
Hotels in Bardonecchia:
Best Western Large hotel with attractive suites, conveniently located at base of mountain, ski lifts located outside rear lobby door.
Piemontese Restaurants Near Via Lattea:
Le Ortiche located in Sauze d’Oulx, bustling setting for everything from pizza to elaborate local fare – Try the wild mushroom risotto with rosemary.
Du Grand Pere Located in Sestriere in old stone building that was a stable in days gone by; menu includes local Occitane dishes
Hotel Belvedere Located in the center of Sestriere. Excellent fondue!
La Grangia Alpine chalet on mountain in Bardonecchia. Wonderful atmosphere.