Snow's up
Italian ski resorts are currently good value, thanks to the weak lira. But one stands out - in principle, at least - as being better value than the rest: Livigno, a large village isolated in a high, remote valley close to the Swiss border.

Livigno is a duty-free enclave. What you might expect the resort's status to mean is that prices would generally be lower than in other Italian resorts. In practice, the difference in the everyday cost of living is slight; when I travelled from Livigno to the nearby resort of Bormio last winter, lunch on the mountain and an apres-ski beer seemed to cost much the same in both.

Perhaps a serious spirits drinker would reach a different conclusion. But the real difference between Livigno and neighbours like Bormio is the duty-free resort's heavyweight shopping opportunities. The long main street and its side-shoots are flanked by smart clothes shops, camera and video shops, perfume shops and, of course, ski shops. And, yes, the prices are temptingly low.

When I was there, one of my fashion-conscious companions filled a small suitcase with new shirts, trousers and sweaters. Whether they actually represented quite the savings he perceived, we'll never know. (Stroll down the main street of any Italian resort these days and you're likely to be impressed by at least some of the prices.)

But the same companion also studied ski equipment, and calculated handsome savings on a set of Salomon skis and bindings; sadly, the skis he wanted were sold out (this was March, after all). I was sorely tempted by a Nikon compact camera on sale for perhaps pounds 50 less than in Britain. But in the end I, too, kept my plastic dry, and contented myself with a tankful of duty-free petrol.

I was deterred partly by nagging doubts about the liability to pay duty and tax on goodies bought in Livigno when you take them elsewhere. My subsequent conversations with HM Customs and Excise have not been exactly conclusive, but it does seem that goods bought in Livigno are treated just like goods bought in a duty-free shop at an airport or on a Channel ferry: you're allowed to import a few quid's worth, but you soon start to pay the appropriate tax and duty.

The situation is slightly complicated by the need to import your goodies into "mainland" Italy or Switzerland before bringing them home. In principle, it is possible to defer the payment of duty until you return home. Whether in practice you can count on the average Italian or Swiss customs person to go along with this is doubtful.

But I dare say that most people who buy a camera, a bag of clothes or a pair of skis in Livigno have no intention of paying any duty. Naturally, I couldn't possibly encourage such behaviour. But if that's your plan you may wish to know that I found the Italian border guards more vigilant than the Swiss.

Perhaps Swiss duty-evaders look first to their own duty-free enclave of Samnaun, on the Austrian border (and sharing a ski area with Ischgl). They thereby save the cost of changing francs into lire - but, of course, they also lose the advantage of low Italian prices. For bargain-hunting British skiers, a better alternative is Andorra, in the Pyrenees, where the savings on duty do seem to translate into lower bar prices as well as lower shop prices.

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