Italy's cutting edge: Everyone's a winner when the stars hit town

As the host of next week's world skiing championships, Bormio has been given a major facelift. Minty Clinch is impressed

The biggest names in world skiing - Hermann Maier, Bode Miller, Alain Baxter and friends - will gather in Bormio on Friday for the biennial FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. The chance to play host to such a prestigious event has transformed the fortunes of this small medieval town in the Valtellina ski area, but that shouldn't be taken to mean that it's for experts only. Overall, the resort caters best for holiday skiers and families

The biggest names in world skiing - Hermann Maier, Bode Miller, Alain Baxter and friends - will gather in Bormio on Friday for the biennial FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. The chance to play host to such a prestigious event has transformed the fortunes of this small medieval town in the Valtellina ski area, but that shouldn't be taken to mean that it's for experts only. Overall, the resort caters best for holiday skiers and families

Bormio claims to be the site of the first chairlift in Italy, built in 1946. The capacity to lead the way in new facilities did not last, alas. Unlike their generously funded Alpine rivals, Italy's winter sports resorts are largely self-financing, and Bormio suffered - until the world championships and substantial state grants.

The queue-prone cable car to the midstation at Bormio 2000 has been replaced by an eight-person gondola. An infamous yellow chair - a 12-minute white-knuckle ride towards the 3,000m Cima Bianca - has been reinvented as a covered high-speed quad. The result of these and other new lifts is a well-designed network of red and blue runs with fine views of the tangled glaciers and dense forests of Italy's largest National Park on the other side of the valley.

Named after the Stelvio Pass - at 2,750m the highest road crossing in Italy - the classic downhill course, the centrepiece of the World Championships, is famed for its length, and dauntingly steep at the start. Much of it is included in the 1,785m vertical descent from the Cima Bianca to Bormio: do that in one go and you'll know it. La Rocca provides a welcome pit stop on the main trail back to the mid-station, while the bleak cafeteria at Cima Bianca has been transformed into a prime lunch spot aptly called Rifugio Heaven.

One of Bormio's big pluses is that it is Italian to the core. The British faithful return year after year, but the resort is still surprisingly little known outside Italy. The old town is largely pedestrianised, a maze of cobbled streets and crumbling churches dominated by the Via Roma, recently transformed by smarter shops and bars. Pub Clem has Bormio's lone pool table, but playing on it is a challenge, as it is often surrounded by louche Italian teenagers wearing Burberry scarves and disdainful sneers.

The restaurants have improved too: the Valtellina is proud of its traditional food, air-cured meats, and gritty pizzocheri pasta with cabbage. These and other local specialities are offered on a seven-course set menu at Agriturismo, where halfthe produce is grown on site.

In neighbouring Santa Caterina, where the women's races will be held, the change is even more dramatic, with three new gondolas opening up previously unpisted terrain. Alberto Pedranzini, the 23-year-old son of the course designer, allowed us to make the first tracks on the new women's downhill, named after Deborah Compagnoni - Italy's darling after winning gold medals in three successive Olympics in the 1990s - who was born here. We felt it was an achievement to get through the ruts to the bottom, but Alberto was upbeat. "All we need is a multi-storey car park and we'll be the new Zermatt," he said cheerfully. Maybe, but this isolated hamlet on the banks of a stream has some way to go.

For families with children too young to go out at night, a good case can be made for staying at Bormio 2000, dominated by the Hotel Girasole, an architectural carbuncle but the most convenient of ski-in, ski-out billets.

The Romans were the first to profit from hot water, delivered by nature at 38C, stopping at the bottom of the Stelvio pass to bathe in pools in the caves, before resuming their all-conquering journey northwards. The town is set at a mountain crossroads, a pivotal location that encouraged commercial and cultural development from the Middle Ages onwards. Distinguished bathers included Leonardo da Vinci in 1493, Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1859 and Vittorio Emanuele III, en route to inspect the troops at the front during the First World War, in 1917.

Today's visitors have a choice of three hot water complexes. The newly renovated swimming pool in the centre of town is the most convenient. The Bagni Vecchi, on the original Roman site, were developed at the turn of the 19th century and refurbished at the start of the 21st. The result is a magnificent spa complex, a three-star hotel, and one of the most beautiful outdoor pools in the Alps. The Grand Hotel Bagni Nuovi is Bormio's only five-star hotel. Built in 1836 and reopened in 2003, it is a sumptuous palace, with indoor and outdoor waterworks.

Not Zermatt perhaps, but possibly the new Courmayeur - atmospheric, historic and cool.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted and Luton to Milan Bergamo from around £60. British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester to Milan's Malpensa and Linate from around £80.

Where to stay

At Alpi & Golf Hotel, via Milano 78 (00 39 0342 901 341), seven nights' half-board accommodation costs from €333 (£238) per person. Ski passes for the Altavaltellina ski area (00 39 0342 902 770; www.altavaltellina.it) start at €32 (£23) per adult per day or €171 (£122) for seven days.

Further information

Bormio Tourism (00 39 0342 903 300; www.valtellinaonline.com). The World Alpine Ski Championships ( www.bormio2005.com), 28 January to 13 February.

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