It is only when you come to make a financial transaction that you remember why Italy is so special. "How old are your daughters?" asked the smiling woman at Châtillon bus station, an hour's train ride north of Turin. "Six and three," I said, beaming with paternal pride. "You mean 'about to be six', surely," she replied, eyeing me knowingly. "Well, no actually ... she's been six for a while," I said, hastening to the defensive. Children under six are half price and she was trying to save me, a complete stranger, a few bo
Yes, the clichés are true, as always, but after a long train journey, I felt entitled to indulge in some casual (and benign, I hoped) stereotyping. We were on our way to Cervinia, which is up an Alpine cul-de-sac, on the Swiss border. Most famously, though, it is underneath the 4,477m-high Matterhorn, a constant reference point from everywhere in town.
And when I say "underneath" it is not just a presence, it is positively on top of you, sometimes obscured by clouds, sometimes brilliantly sunlit, but neck-craningly above you. Our hotel, the four-star Europa, could not have been closer to this majestic monster. The ski lifts were scarcely any less handy, all of 100m away, and give access to a total of 150km of the finest Italian runs.
But the trick about Cervinia, which isn't as well known as you might expect, is that you get two countries for the price of one. If you have had enough of people kindly offering you discounted bus tickets, eating unfeasibly large meals and singing "O sole mio" (and I never could have enough by the way, even if they really did sing "O sole mio"), you just hop on to a couple of ski lifts, cruise up to Plateau Rosa, within touching distance of il Cervino (as the Italians call the Matterhorn) and you're in Switzerland. From there, with its top-of-the-world views over Mont Blanc – I defy you not to take a picture – you have access to 200km of pistes, ending in Zermatt.
This could not be more Swiss, being small, pretty and carless. What more could anyone – particularly children – want than a village where practically the only vehicles are horse-drawn? But if your main interest is the skiing, you are in luck. If the weather is poor, stick to the lower runs and enjoy lunch. The Findlerhof, near the Sunnegga lift station, is said to be the best restaurant around, and offers magnificent views of the Matterhorn to enjoy with your mushroom risotto. Booking is advised, but it's worth taking the trouble. If the weather is good, there is no end of thrilling runs to choose from, if you can drag yourself out of the restaurants, which on the Swiss side of the border seem to be aware they have neighbours to live up to. If you're careful (and you need to be), you won't spend a fortune. One other warning: if you get too carried away, you will lose track of time and miss the last lift back to the top, and be marooned in Zermatt. Either that, or take a five-hour, €500 taxi ride home.
But back to Cervinia, which is a bit short of trees and architecturally nothing to write home about. There is no shortage of pizzerias and other restaurants, plus the inevitable bars with expensive beers, big-screen TVs and regulation ski bums. Out of season, Cervinia is an agreeable retreat, and has one of Italy's oldest golf courses, so the flavour of the town also reflects a degree of gentility. Cervinia's on-piste skiing, by general agreement, is even better than Zermatt's. Also, being 2,050m above sea level, snow is rarely a problem. (They even do sci estivo, summer skiing, above 2,900m, from June to September.)
A lot of Italians nip up there for weekends, so there is no nonsense about fobbing foreigners off with second-rate food. It is also more safely priced than some of its Swiss partners over the mountain. At the Europa, the family-run restaurant looks unmanageably large, but the service is excellent, the food abundant, and the menu probably unchanged for decades. This, too, was a caricature of Italy, where the waiters charm your children into behaving (nearly) and, with every dish, insist on you having just a little bit ancora.
But the real point of Cervinia is the skiing, especially if you like long, fast runs. One of the longest, which extends down to the lower valley of Valtournenche, is a real cobweb-clearer. It isn't a place for the battle-hardened type who wants challenging off-piste skiing. While there is plenty of snow, a strong wind can play havoc with the fresh powder. Zermatt – with a guide – is probably a better bet for pioneering spirits. Or, if you have the budget, the heli-skiing is highly recommended. And if you really want to forget work, life and everything, try a late dinner in a mountain restaurant and a moonlit ski down the "Ventina" (run number six), for which the pistes stay open three times a month.
Would I go back? Certainly, and not just because I missed a good deal of the skiing with a twisted knee. You can't go wrong with Italy and Switzerland on your doorstep.
HOW TO GET THERE
James Hanning travelled to Cervinia with Rail Europe (0844 848 4074; raileurope.co.uk), which offers return fares from £141 to Châtillon. He stayed in Cervinia with Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights' half board at the Hotel Europa from £767 per person, including return flights from London Gatwick to Geneva and resort transfers. Ski-pack items and international area lift passes can be arranged. Inghams is offering a Ski Saver Pack, including a six-day international lift pass, ski and boot hire and three days' tuition, for £354 per person.