Fun and games in Italy's Alps

A stylish, multi-million pound skiing base built for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics is finally open to the public. Stephen Wood checks out its sporting credentials

On the eve of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, a new ski-village resort opened at Pragelato, just down the valley from Sestriere. Built at a cost of €100m (£77m), it comprised 101 chalet suites and 104 "residences", plus a hotel centre with restaurants and other services at the top of the site. From just across a small piazza, the towers of a recently installed ski-lift stepped up the hill towards Sestriere, figurehead resort of the Via Lattea ("Milky Way") ski area. On each journey the new cable cars could deliver 60 skiers to the area, which offers 400km of pistes served by 86 lifts.

This might have appeared to be a classic "back-door" development, whereby a satellite hotel or village gains access to an established ski area, as – for example – Ritz-Carlton's Bachelor Gulch did at Beaver Creek in Colorado. But such were its accommodation standards and facilities that the five-star Pragelato Village was more a stylish gateway to the Via Lattea. It made Sestriere seem like the back door.

Yet when the Olympics were over, Pragelato Village closed. Since then it has re-opened twice, closed again, had an "official opening" and – in December – finally been unveiled in its intended form. Which is quite a lot to pack in to less than two years.

The story of Pragelato Village begins at a dinner party in Monte Carlo, in early 2004. There, the Dublin restaurateur Peter White met a man who had just seen a cherished project sabotaged by the sudden withdrawal of his financial backers. White listened to his story, then repeated it to a friend. Soon afterwards the friend – and three other Irish investors – took over the project, for the construction of the new village and cable-car in the small community of Pragelato.

As the original developer had appreciated, the Turin Winter Olympics presented a golden opportunity. The exposure that the Sestriere area would enjoy during the event was a significant marketing factor; but more important was the availability of funding for infrastructure improvements in the overall budget for the games, which ultimately reached €1.1bn (£846m). The Pragelato project was contingent upon the building of a lift-link into the Via Lattea. And although Pragelato's Olympic events (ski-jumping and cross-country skiing) did not demand a cable car, the local mayor procured €6m (£4.6m) from the Olympic organising committee to build it.

The Irish backers got their lift; and they also got a €5m (£3.85m) grant from the organising committee for the building of the village – as did other projects, substantially increasing the local stock of guest beds. Logically, the money came with a requirement that the beds be available during the Olympics. So Pragelato Village opened on time, despite delays on-site. Then, with the games over, it closed so that construction work could be completed.

Sestriere, the main stage for the Alpine events at the Olympics, was created in 1934 by the Fiat car company. Set in Italy's western Alps, it was essentially a company facility, providing holidays for the workforce and their families, as demanded by Mussolini's social welfare legislation. Photographs in the manufacturer's archive show the resort in its early days, with a crowd of children dressed in identical, Fiat-supplied, holiday uniforms in a vast recreation room.

Things are different today. What was then a ski village is now a substantial town, grown fat and rather unattractive on its proximity to wealthy Turin, Fiat's historic industrial base. But Fiat is no longer part of the picture: it sold out just as Sestriere was gaining international renown.

It would be hard to say with any conviction that Sestriere itself benefited from the pre-Olympic bonanza, since its main slopeside aspect is now marred by an Olympic Village that looks like an early Eighties architectural experiment which went wrong. Yet the Via Lattea – a substantial but underrated ski domain – was certainly improved, gaining a slew of new lifts and an expansion of its snow-making system, already one of the most capable in the world.

Although there is expert terrain and plenty of accessible off-piste areas, the Via Lattea's strong suit is its extensive intermediate skiing, some parts suitable for those barely off the nursery slopes, others for skiers getting a taste for black runs. The latter can enjoy the long, wide and fairly steep descent from below the Fraiteve peak to Sansicario, rated as a black, which was used for the women's downhill in the Olympics. For the former there is, for example, what has long been among my favourite pistes, the descent from the Triplex lift to Jouvenceaux in Sauze d'Oulx. It's not steep, but continual twists and turns, crests and camber changes keep interest high as it drops down into the trees, where it is so cut off from other pistes that one rarely sees other skiers.

Most of the Via Lattea's skiing is concentrated on its eastern side, around the resorts of Sansicario, Sauze d'Oulx and Sestriere; so Pragelato Village's location is very convenient. And although the cable-car connection to Sestriere's slopes is open to the public, it feels like a private facility: the public parking spaces near the base do not get much use. If the top station was just a fraction higher, the village's ski access would be perfect. As it is, you do have to do a little poling to get to the Via Lattea's most easterly lift. It is hard to fault most of the other aspects of the village, too. Among the four restaurants, Pan Beni is the place for truffles, foams and €2,200 (£1,700) bottles of Brunello; my preference being for plain but well-prepared Italian food, I ate at La Taverna and got just what I wanted, the three courses and two glasses of wine costing a more-than-fair €44 (£34). The chalet suites, with either one, two or three bedrooms, are very well finished and equipped, tasteful rather than stylish, and comfortably sized. This being a five-star realm, they are obviously not cheap, ranging from €344 (£265) for a single-bedroom in low season to €1,560 (£1,200) for a three-bedroom at Christmas/New Year, including breakfast and spa access.

Being no longer a teenager, I could have done with a set of instructions for the TV/home cinema, and for the whirlpool bath: the latter's six jets and 30 spurting studs gave the bathroom a thorough hose-down before I mastered its controls. A further minor quibble is that the grouping of the chalet suites on the car-free site is quite tight, and the dominance of sand-coloured façades creates a somewhat institutional aspect.

On the other side of the main, central pathway, the buildings look very much the same. But these are the 104 "residences". The difference? They are for sale. These days it is normal practice to finance resort development by building and selling residential property within the scheme, potentially a much more profitable business than running a hotel. The two years of closing, re-opening and relaunching Pragelato Village were a preparation for bringing its residences to market – this year – with a smooth-running hotel operation, year-round attractions (a nine-hole golf course opens in spring), and a reputable brand-name with a 110-year history. Since December the resort has been officially Kempinski Pragelato Village. The hotel-management company gives buyers of the residences – which cost from €434,000 (£334,000) for a two-bedroom, fully furnished – a guarantee of the continuing quality of the village services.

Job done for the Irish investors? Hardly. There's a second phase of 126 residences in the pipeline, and Alistair Tidey – the active partner – is busy working on adding value to the village. I spent a morning scouting out Pragelato's own, rudimentary ski area with Tidey, his wife and an experienced ski guide from Switzerland. The area lies directly above the resort; and with 50km of runs, it has considerable potential – especially with a derelict village on the mountainside, owned by a developer from Northern Ireland, also crying out for redevelopment. Tidey had a lot to think about as we skied the almost-deserted slopes.

It was appropriate that I should be using five-star skis on my trip to Pragelato; and their Ferrari branding sat well on the slopes of Sestriere, for so long a fiefdom of Fiat, which owns Ferrari. I had seen the skis being used by the Ferrari Grand Prix drivers earlier in the month in the Dolomites, and I thought I should have a go on them, too. They are quite unforgiving skis, intolerant of laziness; but they respond well to firm instructions, and are not deflected by changes in the snow surface. Are they worth the £700 price, including bindings? That depends upon the value you put on having the Ferrari name on what are actually Dynastar skis.

One thing puzzled me about them. I'm not a marketing expert, but is it right to make the Ferrari name most apparent on the bottom surface of the skis, where it is visible only when the skier has fallen down?

Traveller's Guide:

GETTING THERE

The most convenient airport is Turin, which is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted and Bristol; and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Luton.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

STAYING THERE

Kempinski Pragelato Village, Via Rohrbach – Frazione Plan, Pragelato, Turin (00 39 0122 740011; www.kempinski-pragelato.com). Double rooms start at €344 (£265) including breakfast. The sales representative for the residences is Investors in Property (020-8905 5511; www.investorsinproperty.com).

MORE INFORMATION

The Ferrari skis (also boots) are available priced at £700 from White Mountain Sports in Wolverhampton (01902 773395; www.whitemountainonline.co.uk).

Pragelato tourist information: 00 39 01 22 741 728; www.comune.pragelato.to.it

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