Skiing in the slow lane
There's no need to hurtle downhill. Gentle exploration of the pistes makes for a more rewarding experience
Wednesday 11 January 2012
Isn't that just cross-country?" asked a friend when I told her I was going "slow skiing" in Cervinia, northern Italy. But the latest fad to hit the slopes over the past year has more in common with lasagne than langlauf. Appearing at resorts as far afield as Canada and Switzerland, downhill "slow zones" may have been introduced as a way of discouraging on-piste collisions, but they've since developed into a whole slow-food inspired philosophy. Why ski downhill at breakneck speed, the thinking goes, if you can amble instead – taking in the scenery, spotting wildlife, stopping for a locally sourced lunch and maybe even pausing on a picnic bench to rest your ski boot-addled legs along the way?
There's certainly plenty to take in around Cervinia, which opened its first slow-skiing piste last season. Deep in the Aosta Valley, it's one of the highest resorts in the Alps, promising guaranteed snow and almost year-round skiing. But a greater attraction is the view. Cervinia takes its name from Monte Cervino – or the Matterhorn, as the neighbouring Swiss call it – and the 4,478-metre peak peers haughtily over the resort. Up on the slopes a dramatic panorama opens out, embracing skiers in a mountainous amphitheatre that, on a clear day, includes Mont Blanc.
First I had to get there. In keeping with the slow-skiing ethos, I decided to travel to Cervinia by rail – an overnight journey involving a Eurostar train to Paris, a sleeper train to Milan and a local Italian train; the journey was made more civilised by a dinner stop at Le Train Bleu in Paris's Gare de Lyon, surely the most beautiful station café in Europe. Beneath a gilded ceiling and between elaborately carved wooden wall panels, suited waiters brought me the perfect walnut and lamb's lettuce salad – and a cheese trolley so vast to navigate that I was forced to follow it with a not-so-slow sprint over to the nearby Gare de Bercy to catch the onward sleeper.
When you fly direct to a destination your head takes a while to catch up with your body, but this way there was none of that brain-lag. By the time I arrived in Cervinia the following morning and checked into the cosy, family-run Hotel Mignon, I had already adjusted to the slower mountain pace and was eager to get on to the snow. The director of the local tourist office, Enrico Vuillermoz, had explained that Cervinia's slow piste had been created by the lift company to appeal to people who "work all year, have a tiring life and prefer to slow down on holiday". It sounded convincing in principle, but there was a problem in practice: no one in Cervinia seemed too keen on it.
"Slow skiing? Yes, of course," said my instructor, Andrea Perron, greeting me in the hotel's wood-lined lobby. Then he promptly led me on a tour of Cervinia's classic (and fast) downhill pistes.
A mountain guide as well as an instructor, Perron has climbed the Matterhorn 127 times. Later that day, on the chairlift up to Plateau Rosa and some of the highest pistes in the resort, I pressed him about the slow-skiing concept. "There is a slow-skiing piste here. It was chosen for the views," he said. "It's very close to the Matterhorn and you can see chamois and mountain goats if you take time to stop and enjoy them."
That wasn't on our itinerary, though. The closest I got to slow skiing came towards the end of the afternoon, when we took a long, quiet blue run back down into the village. "This is the perfect day to be in the mountains," Perron said as we paused to soak up the silence part way down. "With blue skies, no wind, temperatures not too cold and not too many people, it's the best."
Finding slow food was a much easier prospect. Over the next few days, I would eat perfect local spaghettini at Da Mario's, polenta-and-sausage stew at Rifugio Guide del Cervino and drink Aosta Valley spumante at Copa Pan and chilled local chardonnay at Tuktu – most of these places were members of the local Saveurs du Val d'Aoste association of food producers and restaurants.
There was plenty of opportunity to try some slow après-ski too. On one day I headed into the mountains in the late-afternoon sunshine for a hike, the crackle of my snowshoes through the crème-brulée topping of month-old snow making an long-horned mountain goat stop and stare at me from his perch on a neighbouring hillside. Another day I headed to Les Neiges d'Antan, a sleek wood-and-stone hotel 4km from Cervinia. Here, after a late lunch of larch-smoked salmon, Seuppe alla Valpellinentze – a hearty cabbage, cheese and bread soup – and organic polenta with a trio of meaty casseroles, I was led off to snooze by an open fire until the slow food-style feast had digested enough for me to tackle the spa.
Run by Ludo, the original owner's grandson, Les Neiges d'Antan blends sustainable credentials (it's partly run on solar power and heated by a huge woodchip boiler – one year it was fed by hazelnut shells, the by-product from a nearby Nutella factory) with exquisite design. Old wooden tables are dressed with pale linen cloths, vintage cutlery and Riedel glassware. There are paintings and photographs of the Matterhorn on the walls and there's an outside lounge area, complete with blanket-covered armchairs for smokers. "The hotel is perfect for people who want to come and unwind," Ludo said. "Most want to get here as fast as possible and stay in Cervinia, right by the ski lifts, but here the pace is slower. If you have time to enjoy it, it's a wonderful escape."
It wasn't hard to agree with him, ensconced in the hotel's wooden spa area later that afternoon. Having soaked in an outdoor hot tub, surrounded by snow and watching as the sunlight faded to a tiny triangle on the very top of the Matterhorn, I retreated to the spa's relaxation area to lie back and watch the stars start to appear through its glass-and-timber ceiling.
The only thing that stopped me from falling into a deep slumber was the nagging thought that I hadn't yet done any slow skiing. That would be resolved, unexpectedly, the following day when, taking advantage of my international ski pass to go cross-country skiing from Italy into Switzerland (Cervinia is lift-linked to Zermatt), Perron led me on a long winding run around the back of the Matterhorn. Clearly marked as a "slow ski" piste, the run had signs asking skiers to be considerate and careful. "On modern skis people can go very fast and be a bit crazy," Perron warned, as we zigzagged down past fir trees dusted with snow into the Swiss village of Furi with its pick-and-mix collection of ancient wooden chalets.
On the way back, we stopped for hot chocolate at Rifugio Teodulo, looking out at the mountains silhouetted against a cloudless sky. "Sometimes when there's a full moon my friends and I take the last cable car up to the top and then ski down to Cervinia in the moonlight," Perron said, wistfully.
The next morning, my last in Cervinia, I persuaded Perron to head towards the slow-skiing piste; it was only when we got to the top of a (for me) terrifyingly steep red run that I realised why he had been so reluctant to take me there before. I had, foolishly, assumed that any slow-skiing run would be gentle. But with Perron's patient encouragement I eventually made it down to the "city of rocks", a field of smooth boulders where two picnic tables were placed right at the foot of the Matterhorn.
Here we sat with the sun on our backs and swigged water from a flask while we took in the view. Across from us, under a rocky overhang, we could just make out a flock of chamois. "In the summer you get marmottes, too, but they're sleeping at this time of year," Perron said.
Just below us, a sign proclaimed that our "slow-ski adventure" had come to an end. "We trust that you have enjoyed this skiing experience under the gaze of Monte Cervino and this particular descent has helped you recharge your batteries, your mind and your soul to go back to everyday life happy and carefree," it said. And, formidable red run safely behind me, it had.
Return fares from London to Châtillon, the closest station to Cervinia (a 45-minute taxi ride – try skitaxicervinia.com – or bus ride away) start at £151 (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk).
Staying thereHotel Mignon, Cervinia (00 39 0166 949 344; mignoncervinia.com). Doubles start at €100 (£85), B&B. The hotel is right by the ski lifts.
Ski rental starts at €12 per person per day through Sport Center (00 39 0166 948 077; sportcenter.it).
Breuil-Cervinia lift passes start at €35 per person a day, with international passes an extra €30 per person per day (cervinia.it).
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