Carving up the Dolomites
Mark Nicholls heads to the Italian resort of Val Gardena to ski the SellaRonda circuit in The Dolomites
The Dolomites are beautifully ancient. Among the oldest rock formations on the planet, in winter the crisp snow coating is pierced by giant grey splinters soaring above valleys and offering descents that form a fabulous ski terrain. The light, you soon discover, is critical in delivering the magical aura of the Dolomites. Shimmering off the rock architecture, it reflects a pinkish hue in the mornings and a vivid orange on the mountains in the afternoon – stunning on the snow, strikingly vivid in summer.
We are in the mountains above Val Gardena and the three main villages of Selva di Gardena, Ortisei and Santa Cristina. Created out of this unique landscape is one of the most exhilarating ski routes in Europe, the 44km of the Sellaronda. With much of it above 2,200 metres – and the opportunity to ski clockwise, or counter-clockwise – we accessed the Sella massif above Selva via the Dantercepies cable car, heading along the clockwise route in the morning to take advantage of the sun.
For the next few hours we covered the four valleys of Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Arabba and Veldi Fassa, skiing a route from Selva to Passo Garden, Corvara, Arabba and Porto Cescuvo with its views of the monumental Marmolada at 3,342 metres – the highest mountain in the region – and then to Porto Vescovo and into the Passo Sella area. The Dolomites offers variety, excellent continuity with long and exhilarating runs and a range of challenges from blues and reds to blacks and World Cup Downhill courses. Set against blue skies, the snowy sheen adds a magnificent dimension to the terrain of carbonate mineral Dolimiti rock.
While the Sellaronda – also an invigorating 58km mountain biking area in the summer months – is an imaginative circuit that will take the morning to ski, the most famous winter piste is Saslong, the course for World Cup downhill races and highly significant for British ski enthusiasts. It is where former alpine ski racer Konrad Bartelski produced the best ever result by a Briton on December 13, 1981, by coming second in the Alpine Skiing World Cup downhill race, just 0.11 behind the race winner Austria’s Erwin Resch.
After the thrill of Saslong, I found myself back on the slopes of Col Raiser and Seceda and in the region I had hiked through months earlier. Wearing a different coat – both the mountains and I – it had a comfortable familiarity with recognisable contours and peaks with the lovely village of Selva nestling in the valley below in the distance. This side of the valley has lots of cosy huts to choose from for lunch, drinks or snacks, whether that is for a Tirolean speciality or the chef’s special spaghetti. We paused at the friendly Sofie hutte for a bite to eat. A gourmet-laden mountain retreat with a restaurant that has nudged the attention of food critics, the food was sumptuous; seafood spaghetti and the tastiest lamb chop.
These mountain huts, rifugios or “refuges”, offer a network of sanctuary for hikers making their way through this splendid terrain or skiers stopping by to warm up in the winter. Food and drink are always an important part of the experience in Val Gardena.
The cuisine is wholesome and hotels – such as the four-star Hotel Gran Baita in Selva Gardena or the five-star Alpin Garden in Ortisei – have first class restaurants, while across the valley are numerous other excellent places to eat such as the popular Tubladel with its simple, local meaty dishes or the informal Ristorante Pizzeria Mar Dolomit in Ortisei. And for a refresher, whether in summer or winter, is a Hugo…
The ingredients of this adopted drink of The Dolomites are simple: prosecco, sparkling mineral water, the all-important elderflower syrup, a sprinkling of fresh mint leaves and ice. This zesty, refreshing aperitivo is the creation of an inspired Balzano barman and symbolic of the versatility of this region, an all-year-round outdoor playground…and a drink for all seasons.
Whilst a part of Italy, the area is the Sud Tirol and although German and Italian are widely spoken, linguistically, they are Ladin; a derivative of the ancient Rhaetian language and Latin and symbolic of the influences that have helped shaped the region over the centuries. The unique formations of this part of north-eastern Italy, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009 for their historical and geomorphological significance and among the oldest rocks on the planet, offer a wonderful palette for the elements. With long valleys between picturesque villages, the Dolomites create a mesmerising backdrop. Val Gardena is such a location, where a narrow ravine in the Val d’Iscaro leads to the 25km valley and the villages of Ortisei, Selva di Gardena and Santa Cristina.
Here, activities combine with high quality accommodation, spa and wellness facilities and excellent cuisine, whether in the restaurants of the villages or the huts in the mountains. Winter in Val Gardena also offers opportunities for cross country skiers with 115km of runs above Monte Pana, while for winter hikers and snow-shoeing the Langental is an attractive and appealing area.
What also impresses is the quality and efficiency of the ski infrastructure with lifts that are swift, efficient, comfortable and modern in the immense ski area of Val Gardena/Alpe di Suisi, covering some 500 km with some 200 lifts. Beyond that, the Dolomiti Superskipass offers access to 1,220km of slopes and 450 ski lifts across 12 ski areas and is the world’s largest ski carousel, including the famous ski circuit of Sellaronda.
Ever since the World Ski Championships of 1970, Val Gardena has been recognised as one of the leading winter resorts of the South Tyrolean Dolomites. Enjoying a ski season that starts early in December and runs through until mid-April, Val Gardena has carved a niche as a resort that combines great ski terrain with stunning accommodation and food and set amidst a magnificent mountain landscape.
The Alpin Garden, in Ortisei, is the smallest five-star hotel in South Tirol, run by host and owner Markus Hofer with friendly hospitality, luxury and attention to detail. It has rooms with views across the valley, the Egyptian-themed Kleopatra spa and wellness area set on two levels where you can relax or enjoy a massage, therapies and treatments, indoor and outdoor pools and sauna and steam rooms and a restaurant which serves the finest cuisine.
The Gran Baita Sport & Wellness Hotel offers a unique atmosphere from the heart of Selva di Val Gardena. Set in a park-like garden with a panoramic view of the Dolomites, the Wellness Oasis has various different treatment rooms named after places and flowers found in the Langen Valley. The “Saslong” Sauna has views of the Langkofel/Sassolungo and there are indoor and outdoor all-year-round pools.
Flights: Nearest airports are Innsbruck, Verona, Venice and Milan Bergamo with airlines including EasyJet, Ryanair and BA.