Skiing: The flat of the land

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There's more to skiing than screaming down the black runs and scaring the life out of your nearest and dearest. David Bowen took a gentler route across country - and found a few natural

bonuses along the way

The ibex is a strange beast, with great, curving horns almost as long as its stumpy legs. Though it was on a ledge on the mountainside opposite, and we had no binoculars, there was no mistaking those horns. We tramped back through the forest, following a path trodden in the snow by some maniacs who were climbing frozen waterfalls farther up the valley. We passed a couple of elderly locals, the first people we had seen for an hour. They lent us their binoculars and, yes, there was the ibex with its horns. Funny looking things, ibexes.

The funnier thing was that we were supposed to be on a skiing holiday.

We were indeed on a skiing holiday - but not the sort where we and 1,000 others went up a mountain slowly and came down it fast. This was cross- country skiing, the gentle cousin of downhill.

One of its advantages is that you can, if you want, take off your skis and go ibex-spotting instead. No pressure, no lift queues- and shoes that are more like comfy trainers than Neil Armstrong's number 12s.

Cross-country skiing is the original form of skiing - indeed, it was the only form until some plucky Brits built the first ski lifts 100 years or so ago. It has many names: cross-country, langlauf, ski de fond and - here in Italy - sci nordico. In some places it is still just a way of getting about, but in Italy it has developed into a sport with at least some of the trappings of the downhill jobby.

We were staying in Cogne, in the Aosta Valley - not much known among downhill skiers (though there is a cable car, and some of the emptiest pistes in Christendom), but a great centre for cross-country skiing. The day after we left, 1,300 skiers were to take part in the Marcia Gran Paradiso, a 45-km slog to the ends of three valleys, then back to the centre. The ski trails were hardly crowded, but most of the people we did see were in full, Lycra-clad training mode. My wife and I felt like a couple of Morris Minors that had strayed on to a practice session at Silverstone - but the Ferraris were good humoured, hopping out of the prepared tracks and whooshing past us without any opprobrious (or, at least, audibly opprobrious) comments.

We had chosen to go cross-country skiing because we wanted to ski but were of quite different standards downhill, so would not otherwise have spent much time together. We decided, slightly nervously, to ignore those who told us that cross-country was the most exhausting sport there is: none of our informants had in fact tried it. Remarkably few British people have - principally, I suspect, because it is not offered by any of the big travel companies. I eventually tracked down Inntravel, an admirably efficient operation in York that specialises in slightly offbeat holidays, and had a number of cross-country options.

We chose Cogne mainly because it looked pretty in the brochure, but also because Italy is a rather safer bet than France for vegetarians (of whom my wife is one). It all worked beautifully. The first nice surprise was that after the first day, a Sunday, Cogne became peaceful almost to point of somnolence: a real Alpine village rather than a ski resort. It gets crowded only at weekends, when cars with Turin number plates pour in. We spent hours sitting in a bar inhabited by locals playing cards. We could have spent days.

Secondly, the food was excellent (few problems for a veggie), not least in the three-star Hotel Sant'Orso where we stayed. A bonus for non-Italian- speakers is that almost everyone in the Aosta valley speaks French - an inheritance from the time when it was part of the kingdom of Savoy.

Thirdly, the skiing was gently puffing, but not exhausting. The equipment was delightfully light compared with that for downhill skiing: the comfy shoes clipped at the front on to slim skis. We spent an hour with an instructor, which was plenty for the basics. If you can walk, you can ski across country.

It is possible to ski on unprepared snow, but we stuck to the tracks, which are "bashed" daily. These are a combination of rail and road: you can either fit your skis into the twin grooves that run along each track, or you can go freestyle on the flat section. You are most likely to do the latter either if you are skilled enough to "skate", or if you need more control going up or down a hill.

Hills are the only potential source of disaster. Uphill involves "herringboning", or putting your skis in V formation and waddling - surprisingly, not too exhausting. Downhill requires variations on the snow plough - but because the track can be narrow, anything more than a gentle incline can be alarming. At least you can take your skis off and walk.

In our week's skiing, we found only one seriously bothersome slope. It was worth it, though, because it led back into the village of Lillaz from the valley of Valleille beyond. This was a magical place - frozen waterfalls to either side, in the middle a bubbling stream straddled by wafer-thin bridges of ice, and complete silence. Well, almost complete: the occasional Ferrari whooshed past, more intent on reaching the finishing line than staring ibex-hopefully at the crags. We looked for ibexes, we looked for chamois and we looked for golden eagles. During the week we saw them all - but then we were Morris Minors, not Ferraris.

David Bowen paid pounds 500 through Inntravel (01653 628811) for the week's cross-country skiing in Italy. The price included return flight to Geneva, train and taxi transfers and three-star, half-board accommodation.