Across the plateau we puffed, like joggers with impediments on our feet

IF YOU like the idea of wintry wildernesses but are appalled by the concept of downhill skiing why not try your hand at cross-country skiing instead? This was what I set out to do last month, up on the Seiseralm Plateau, one of the largest areas of high-level plateau in Europe, surrounded by the jagged Dolomites of Northern Italy.

In summer-time this is rolling meadowland, ideal for hiking. In winter, it seems tailor-made for cross-country skiing, with at least 65km of tracks leading around the plateau on circular loops in and out of the woods.

I was staying in Kastelruth, a village at the foot of the Seiseralm Plateau. Italy? Actually this was the South Tirol, the German-speaking part of northern Italy which borders Austria and which has considerably more of Bonn about it than it does of Bologna.

Initially I found the notion of German-speaking Italians bizarre. Verona after all, the nearest international airport, is as Italian as mozzarella. But during the two-hour drive north into the mountains I began to notice bi-lingual signs in Italian and German. Then I saw that half the cars were visiting from Germany.

At over 3,000 feet, the village of Kastelruth was absurdly picturesque, with spires and onion domes dimly glimpsed through the freezing fog and wood smoke. This was a town of blond forelocks, barn-sized houses, Gothic lettering and Bavarian kitsch.

Oddly enough though, South Tirolean Germans were not the only minority lurking in these hills: there were also the Ladins, an ancient Latin people now confined to a few Alpine villages. But they are rarely spotted. Horst Trocker, the young hotelier of the Posthotel Lamm where we were staying, kept telling me how satisfied his countrymen were to be German. And why not?

But what about the cross-country skiing? We started our first lesson the next morning up on the plateau, and I immediately discovered that the nicest thing by far about cross-country skiing compared to its Alpine counterpart is that the shoes are soft and comfortable like ballet shoes and do not threaten an immediate loss of blood circulation. On the other hand they do not provide support to the ankles, and flop alarmingly when you lift one foot. You cannot "lean into your boots". Given that the pace doesn't usually exceed a slow jog there is nothing particularly dangerous in this but keeping your balance is tricky to start with.

We began practising the required marching motion, arms and legs in-out, arms and legs in-out. I then discovered that cross-country skiers spend their time shuffling along through parallel tracks that have been pre- cut in the snow by a machine. In-out, in-out, across the plateau we puffed, like joggers with impediments on our feet.

To judge by my own performance it takes at least two or three days for a beginner to progress to an easy gliding lope through the tracks.

If you only have six days in which to learn you might find that your first experience of cross-country skiing is a lot about hard work and not very much about relaxation and enjoying yourself. Only on your second trip will you come to appreciate the pleasure of gliding silently through snow-bound copses.

Not that cross-country skiing is the only diversion on the Seiseralm. The rocky, jagged Dolomites form a fantastic backdrop. And there are jollities such as standard Alpine skiing, snow-shoeing or hiking along surprisingly well-laid paths.

But the bit I enjoyed most of all was conversing about culture with our instructor: a German-and-Italian-speaking Ladin. The ultimate European.

cross country fact file

Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Inntravel (Tel: 01653 628811). One week half board in the 4-star Posthotel Lamm in Kastelruth (Tel: 00 39 471 706343) costs pounds 610 per person up to 13 March, and pounds 533 per person from then until the early part of April. This includes seven nights dinner and breakfast plus scheduled BA flights London Gatwick to Verona, rail transfer and taxi (fly-drive prices are a little higher; child reductions available). Ski equipment hire, lessons and lift passes are not included in the price, and should be paid for locally.

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