For further information about winter sports, contact the Italian Winter Sports Federation, Federazione Italiana Sport Invernali, Via Paranesi, 44/b, 20137 Milan (www.fisi.org).
The country has over 2.5m keen skiers, who are joined each year by millions of foreign visitors from around the world. Both alpine or downhill skiing ( sci alpino or lo sci) and cross-country skiing ( sci di fondo) are well catered for in Italy (most resorts provide facilities for both), although downhill skiing is far more popular.
Italy has some of the best ski resorts in Europe and each year hosts the middle stages of the World Ski Cup.
The best equipped and most famous ski resorts are in the Alps, conveniently situated close to the northern cities of Milan, Turin and Genoa (see below). However, skiing is also possible locally if you live in Rome, Florence or Naples at smaller (and cheaper) resorts in the Apennines ( Appennini), the Abruzzi (at resorts such as Campo Felice and Roccardo) and even in Sicily, where you can ski on Mount Etna, famous for its active volcano (see below)!
For snowboard fanatics, the best resort in the area of Rome is Campo Imperatore (L’Aquila).
The Italian alpine resorts are arranged in a number of distinct geographical areas, each of which have extensive networks of interlinked resorts. The main areas include the Dolomites (Dolomiti) in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto-Friuli regions, the Milky Way (Via Lattea) in the western Alps, and the Aosta Valley (Valle d’Aosta) and Lombardy in the north.
In the east, the Dolomite Superski area is the largest in the world and takes in many popular resorts, including Campitello Matese, Canazei, Cortina d’Ampezzo and Selva. It offers spectacular scenery and includes over 40 ski resorts, some 450 ski lifts, an incredible 1,200km (circa 750mi) of runs (pistes piste) to suit all abilities and a large number of ski schools.
All lifts can be accessed with a single pass. An unusual ski tour in the Dolomites is the 77km (48mi) Great War Route ( Giro della Grande Guerra), which wends its way among the most spectacular peaks of Trentino, Alto Adige and Veneto, and explores some of the major First World War battlegrounds where Italian, German and Austrian forces fought. A map of the route is available at tourist offices in Alleghe, Arraba, Cortina D’Ampezzo, Pescul and San Cassiano, enabling skiers to guide themselves along the route, which never exceeds red (intermediate) grade.
In Lombardy, in the north of Italy, the main resorts include Aprica, Bormio, Lavigno Livigno, Madesimo, Ponte di Legno (one of Italy’s highest resorts) and San Simeone (good for beginners). Further west are the Milky Way and the Aosta Valley.
The Milky Way, close to the French border, is based on the resorts of Clavire, Sauze D’Oulx and Sestriere, and has over 200km (124mi) of slopes and links with French resorts. The Aosta valley is situated in the north-west of Italy, running from the Mont Blanc tunnel towards Turin, where the main resorts include Cervinia, Courmayeur and La Thuile, among the most fashionable and expensive in Italy.
Cervinia is linked to the famous Swiss resort of Zermatt, from Courmayeur you can ski the famous ‘Vallée Blanche’ (which runs down to Chamonix in France), while La Thuile borders the French ski area of La Rosire, which is included in the ski pass.
There’s also year-round skiing on glaciers, which include Marmolada in the Dolomites, Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) and Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn) in the Aosta Valley. The Italian ski slopes are generally on the sunny south side of the Alps and therefore offer less reliable snow conditions than the northern slopes in other alpine countries, as well as a shorter season.
These drawbacks are overcome in many resorts by the use of snow machines, which help keep runs open when the weather doesn’t oblige. Before booking, it’s wise to consult a good ski guide or a travel agent regarding the snow record at the time of year you plan to ski (or, better still, delay booking until you can be sure of good snow conditions).
The most southerly skiing in Italy is on Sicily’s Mount Etna, which rises to over 2,600m (8,539ft). The short season generally runs from January to late March, but the area has become more popular in recent years thanks to its breathtaking views, lack of queues and low prices (the cost of a daily lift pass is only around €20), and it now has nine lifts serving the southern and north-eastern faces of the mountain. Volcanic dust from Mount Etna regularly blackens the snow but doesn’t call a halt to the skiing. If the rumbling gets too much for your liking, Sicily’s beaches are just 45 minutes away by car, so it’s possible to enjoy skiing and sea swimming on the same day.
The ski season generally lasts from December to late March, although at higher altitudes and in good years it can be longer. It’s important to check the snow conditions, as it’s hardly worth skiing when there’s little snow or snow conditions are bad, e.g. ice or slush. When snow cover is poor many runs are closed, particularly those down to the valley or lowest station, and you must endure a lot of queuing and walking between lifts.
Many resorts have installed snow-making equipment (snow cannons) and are therefore able to guarantee that a limited number of runs are (nearly) always open. Information about snow conditions is published in many Italian newspapers and the English-language International Herald Tribune (IHT), which includes a weekend ski report on Thursdays. There are also numerous websites containing ski information and most resorts have their own websites, as do regional tourist associations.
If you’re a beginner, it’s recommended to hire equipment such as skis and poles (from €40 for six days) and boots (from €18). However, this still leaves you needing to buy a ski suit, gloves and goggles/sunglasses (at a cost of around €125 or more), as these cannot be hired.
If you plan far enough in advance, you can save money by shopping during end of season or pre-season sales, or by buying second-hand equipment (often little used and available via ski clubs).
Lift passes can cost over €40 per day for an adult in a top Italian resort. In many resorts you can buy a limited area lift pass or a half-day pass, e.g. from noon, which is cheaper than buying a day pass for a whole area (you need to be an Olympian or Superman to ski a large area in one day).
You can buy a lift pass in most resorts from 1 to 21 days or for the whole season – the longer the period, the cheaper the daily cost. Be aware, however, that in bad weather, which occurs quite often, many runs are closed and there’s usually no compensating reduction or refund in the price of lift passes.
Skiing in some resorts, particularly at weekends (Sundays are the worst), entails a lot of queuing. It’s wise to leave the top resorts to the experts and frequent some of the smaller, cheaper areas, at least until you’re sufficiently skilled and fit to take full advantage of the more difficult runs.
That isn’t to say that the bigger, more expensive resorts don’t provide good value. A top resort may offer up to ten times the number of lifts and prepared runs of a small resort, while charging ‘only’ an extra 25 to 50 per cent for a lift pass.
If you’re a newcomer to skiing, it’s definitely worth enrolling at a ski school ( scuola sci) or taking lessons from an expert ( maestro di sci) for a week or two to learn the basics – and it’s much safer than simply launching yourself off the nearest mountain, both for yourself and other skiers.
Private and group lessons are available at all resorts, and English is widely spoken by instructors in Italy. The cost of beginners’ ski lessons in a small group starts from around €15 for a two-hour session, with individual lessons starting from around €30 per hour.
Ski packages, known as ‘white weeks’ ( settimane bianche), can be purchased from travel agents or you can contact resort or regional tourist offices directly in your areas of interest.
Packages include accommodation and may also include equipment hire, lift passes and tuition, if required. This is usually the most economical way to book a skiing trip lasting for more than a few days. However, if tuition or equipment hire aren’t included in a particular package, they can easily be arranged on arrival at a resort.
You can book a skiing holiday at a travel agency or contact resort tourist offices directly (many are on the internet) if you’re planning to make your own way to a resort and just require accommodation. Accommodation in ski resorts is much more expensive during holiday periods (Christmas, New Year and Easter), when the runs are also very crowded.
During public and school holiday periods, the crowds of school children may drive you crazy, both on and off the piste, particularly when queuing for lifts. It goes without saying that these periods are best avoided, if possible. Mondays are usually the quietest days to ski in resorts close to the major cities. All large and many smaller resorts provide baby-sitting services or a ski nursery school, although most schools won’t accept children below the age of five.
It’s certainly wise to do some preparation and take a few precautions before attacking the ski slopes:
- Insurance – Check that your group is fully insured for ski accidents, including helicopter rescue. Many annual insurance schemes exclude skiing, unless you pay an additional premium to have it specifically included. Even then, the type of skiing covered may be limited and off-piste skiing may be excluded.
- Off-piste skiing – Only ski where it’s permitted. In some areas, off-piste ( fuoripista) skiing is forbidden ( vietata) to protect plants and wildlife. Trees are planted in many areas to help prevent avalanches and are easily destroyed by careless skiers. Some areas are designated as nature conservation areas and you can be fined for skiing there.
Don’t ski off-piste unless you’re an experienced skier and always hire an experienced local guide in an unfamiliar area. Each year over 150 skiers are killed in avalanches in the Alps, usually when skiing off-piste. Never ski off-piste on your own. Never ignore avalanche warnings ( avviso di valanghe) or attempt to ski on a closed ( chiusa) run or anywhere there’s a danger of avalanches (information is available at ski lift stations).
Although cross-country skiing ( sci di fondo) doesn’t have the glamorous jet-set image of downhill skiing, it’s popular with Italians. It appeals to both young and old, particularly those whose idea of fun is a million miles away from hurtling down a hill at 100kph (62mph) with a thousand metre drop on one side and a rock face on the other. Cross-country skiing can be enjoyed at any pace and over any distance, and therefore has great attraction for those who aren’t very fit or keen athletes. It can be exhilarating, particularly if you make the effort to learn the correct technique and persevere beyond the beginners’ stage. It’s also rates highly as a total body workout and is claimed by many to be one of the best forms of exercise.
Cross-country skiing also has the advantages of cheaper equipment, lower costs, fewer broken bones and no queues. No expensive lift passes are necessary and essential equipment costs as little as €140 for skis, bindings, poles, boots and gloves. No special clothing is necessary apart from gloves and boots, provided you have a warm pullover and tracksuit. You can, of course, buy more expensive equipment and special clothing.
Prepared cross-country trails, usually consisting of two sets of tracks ( piste per sci di fondo), one for each direction, are laid on signposted routes. There are cross-country ski trails in many ski resorts in Italy, some of which are floodlit for night skiing. You can enjoy cross-country skiing anywhere there’s sufficient snow, although using prepared trails is easier than making your own (as is common in Scandinavia).
Many Italian ski resorts offer heli-skiing, which is a version of off-piste skiing that involves being taken to your starting point by helicopter. Most skiing is off-piste and therefore you need to be an expert skier and many heli-ski operators won’t take groups without a guide.
Italy is the only alpine country that lacks nationwide legislation governing heli-skiing, although regulations vary from region to region. For example, in the Trentino-Alto Aldige region, heli-skiing is possible only within strict guidelines, while in the Valle d’Aosta the rules are more flexible.
The absence of legislation may change in future in response to calls from environmentalists for restrictions on heli-skiing. Contact a tourist office in the region where you plan to ski for the latest information.
Costs vary according to the length of the flight to your drop-off point, the number in your party and whether or not you take a guide. However, you should expect to pay at least €125 per person for groups of four or five people. For groups of ten or more, costs can fall to as little as €60 per person.
Increasingly popular throughout Italy, snowboarding has a cool image and is a popular alternative for many, predominantly younger, thrill-seekers. With your feet attached across a single board you ‘surf’ down the mountain in soft boots and without poles. Snowboarders often share runs with skiers, although in some resorts there are separate runs.
Equipment hire is available at most resorts for a daily cost of around €15 for a board and €6 for boots, while lessons cost around €20 for two hours. Information about facilities can be obtained from resort and regional tourist offices or a guide book such as the Good Skiing and Snowboarding Guide (published in the UK by Which?).
Ice skating ( pattinaggio sul ghiaccio) is possible in many ski resorts during the winter season and also year round in major cities. In resorts, rinks are often outdoors and therefore subject to the vagaries of the weather.
Instruction for beginners is usually available, which can significantly reduce the amount of time spent hanging on to the edge of the rink or a companion before you gain the confidence to glide off across the ice. Elsewhere, opportunities for ice-skating are surprisingly limited, although most major cities have at least one indoor ice rink.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.