|Originally published on www.welove2ski.com|
The hidden gems of Italy's Aosta Valley
We have all heard of Courmayeur and Cervina, but there are little gems just down the road that you can have all to yourself.
Given how many Brits go to the big-name resorts of the Aosta Valley, we thought it was time to explore their smaller brethren. In fact the word “exploring” rather overstates the task: the Aosta valley has a recently completed motorway running its entire length, providing easy access to all of them. We wanted to find out if the small resorts, only normally used by locals, would make an interesting alternative or would they just be hopeless relics? In fact we found some remarkably modern infrastructure and, to our astonishment, some of the best off-piste skiing in Europe.
We started by basing ourselves in Aosta , the regional capital, for two reasons. Firstly, it is geographically fairly central for the whole region and is right on the motorway. That means if you are driving from England through France, it is just 30 minutes from the Mont Blanc tunnel. Secondly, it is a very unusual ski resort. For a start, not many Alpine resorts were originally built by the Romans - indeed, Aosta has more Roman remains than any city outside Rome itself. As well as being old, it is also extremely beautiful - all the modern buildings are in the outskirts, which means that the pedestrianised old town maintains its historic splendour. It also has its own ski resort - Pila, linked by cable car.
Given its proximity to Aosta, Pila can hardly be described as “undiscovered”, but it is relatively unknown in Britain, unless you are one of the thousands of children who have been taught by Interski, the big British holiday company. Pila is smaller than Courmayeur, but it usually has gloriously uncrowded slopes and some quite challenging skiing at the top of the mountain (a very decent 2700m), where an unpisted bowl provides hours of fun when the snow is fresh. We were there at Christmas and, even then, some of the upper slopes were deserted, as the beginners all huddle around the green area below the La Nova chair.
- Pros: It is uncrowded (apart from the Chamole lift in high season), but it is not really a small resort. Good for beginners and intermediates and some excellent off-piste in the right conditions, off both Couis 1 (next to Black 8) and Couis 2 lifts. Red 2 down from Chamole is a real blast.
- Cons: Pila town is very isolated and it ain't pretty. If you are planning to explore the valley, stay in Aosta.
- Places to stay: If Pila is part of a wider trip, stay in Aosta.
- Pistes: 70 km
- Height: 1800m - 2700m
For our first truly local resort, we headed in the direction of Cervinia. About half way between the motorway and Cervinia (so about 35 minutes from Aosta) is the tiny-picture postcard village of Chamois (population 93). It can only be reached by cable-car from the town of Buisson on the main road, as the villagers decided in 1955 to build a cable car rather than an access road. It has a wonderful village centre, with just a church, a couple of bars and few houses and feels like what skiing must have been like in the uncrowded 1960s - but without the dangerous equipment and the drag lifts.
One intrepid group we met was raving about the place. The Wood family from London was whooping it up in the fresh powder snow. With three main lifts, the number of pistes is naturally limited, but the family was enjoying the completely untouched snow at the edges of the runs. Tim Wood, who has skied in both Europe and North America reckoned it was, “a hidden gem - and when there is fresh powder it is just fantastic.” It should also be said that the pistes are kept in superb condition - they are groomed as a matter of course every night and the limited number of skiers mean the snow is not scraped off by hundreds of beginners skidding down the mountain. At the top of the highest lift, we were amazed to be greeted by the Matterhorn, so close you felt you could reach out and touch it.
We should also mention the quality of the lifts. We expected antiquated chair lifts and the odd rickety button, but all the chair lifts were perfectly respectable, with the top lift being only two years old. This was a pattern to be repeated in all the other small resorts, for reasons we will come to.
It also has a very good beginners area, with two lifts - one short magic carpet and a longer button lift. Being so uncrowded, these smaller resorts are actually quite a good place to learn - although more experienced skiers would get frustrated staying in the same place for a week.
- Pros: One of the most charming and picturesque little resorts you are ever likely to find. Well maintained pistes and some decent off-piste next to the runs.
- Cons: Well, it is small. Some people do stay for a whole week (the Hotel Cly is a very pleasant and modern place to stay), but you might get cabin fever. It is also very sunny - great in January, not always so good in March when the snow might have melted.
- Places to stay: There is only one hotel - Hotel Cly. Fortunately, it is very stylish.
- Pistes: 12 km
- Height: 1800m - 2500m
Torgnon is on the opposite side of the valley to Chamois. You drive up to the town, rather than taking a cable car, which is a 15 minute trip from Chamois. It is much bigger than Chamois, being more like a smaller version of a main resort.
Most of the skiing is on medium reds, but there is one area around the Col Fenetre lift that has runs curving down through the trees (reds 6 and 7) that would keep any advanced skier happy. Both runs also leads into Rientro (red 1) which takes you back to the base station in town, but be prepared - it can get very icy at the bottom. One of the main advantages of Torgnon is that it combines piste skiing and cross country - indeed there more kilometers of cross country than downhill (23 km downhill, 28 km off piste). Hence, if you have a mixed party of downhill and cross-country skiers, Torgnon is one of the best places to visit. Just a word of warning though. The first time you look at the piste map, you will wonder which way is up, until you realize the solid red lines are cross country runs - downhill runs, uniquely, are the dotted lines. One other feature worth mentioning is that some of the slopeside restaurants offer evening meals, with transport up from the village being provided by piste bashers converted to all-terrain minibuses.
- Pros: Great views and enough skiing to keep you happy for a few days. Excellent cross country facilities with tracks through the forest. Brand-new main chairlift.
- Cons: Like Chamois, sunny and therefore not snow sure late in the season - and it is a bit lower than some of the other resorts. Medium sized, which is a good balance to some, a compromise to others.
- Places to stay: see www.torgnon.info for details of local hotels
- Pistes: 23 km plus 28 km of cross country
- Height: 1500m - 2250m
About 50 minutes drive to the ski lifts, Brusson is on the way to Champoluc (parallel to the road to Cervinia) , with the road to the ski area confusingly signposted “Estoul” and/or “Palasinaz” - presumably to keep away curious foreigners. It has two lifts (one of them, of course, being new) and has an interesting claim to fame for freeriders. Champoluc, up the road, is part of the Monterosa ski area, a mecca for off-piste skiing. However, when there is a high avalanche risk, local freeriders all head to Brusson which has a 2600 metre peak (above the top of the main lift)and almost zero avalanche danger as the slope has a constant gradient with nothing above it. For on-piste skiers, the slopes are mostly medium difficulty - and like the other small resorts, are very well maintained.
It also has 38 km of cross country skiing , making it the second largest cross country area behind Cogne (located in the Gran Paradiso national park but Cogne has very little downhill skiing) . However, it should be said that the larger (28 km) and very picturesque cross country area is down near the town, rather than next to the ski lifts. Hence a mixed group is not going to be meeting up for lunch if they use the larger cross country area.
- Pros: Small and friendly, with good cross country facilities - and that one big free-ride area (although you have to hike to reach it).
- Cons: Although a free ski bus runs in holiday periods from town, in low season (e.g. January), you will need to drive up from town every day - a 15 - 20 minute run up a very twisty road.
- Pistes: 16 km plus 38 km off-piste
- Where to stay: There are a couple of hotels in Brusson. Two of the most popular are Hotel du Foyer and Hotel Italia.
- Height: 1750m - 2250m
Champorcher is the very last resort before the border with Piemonte : it is the most distant ski area, being about 1 hour from Aosta. In fact calling it Champorcher has a touch of Ryanair about it - it is at the very far end of Champorcher in a village called Chardonney. This is more of a medium sized resort than a small one and has a large cable car going up to the main ski area. Most of the skiing is high intermediate to advanced level and has one run that would grace any resort. “Bosco” (red 7) is used by World Cup racers for training and is a superb run through the trees. It is challenging rather than terrifying, and the sign at the top saying “Expert skiers only, maximum gradient 65 degrees” is there to frighten off beginners: we reckon the gradient is around 35 degrees at most. It leads to the only drag lift we found in the whole week, which made us feel almost nostalgic for the hundreds of them that used to infest Italy.
The other main attraction is a long, looping off-piste run from the top of the mountain to the centre of the resort, called Dondena (red 14). If “off-piste run” sounds like a contradiction, it means it is not pisted or patrolled and is great when the snow is fresh. Again, there are lovely views from the resort as it is set in an exceptionally pretty area next to the Mont Avic natural park.
Overall, the skiing is a higher level than most of the other resorts, making it attractive for higher intermediates and advanced skiers, but a bit intimidating for those trying to progress beyond the nursery slopes - there are no easy blue runs here.
There are also off-piste excursions in the Champorcher Valley - see www.champorcherski.it for more details.
- Pros: Runs that will stretch good skiers. Its position at the southern end of the Alps means a good snow record. This is because Italy tends to get good snow when the wind is from the south, as winds from the west dump on France first.
- Cons: Quite remote unless you are coming direct from Turin Airport, in which case it is an hour's drive.
- Pistes: 21 km
- Where to stay: see www.champorcherski.it for details of local hotels.
- Height: 1450m - 2500m
Crevacol is very convenient if you are staying in Aosta - it is just 25 minutes north, heading towards the St. Bernard pass and Switzerland. It has pistes that are generally wide-open, and being at the very top of the valley, has superb views looking back into Italy. Having already visited four small resorts, we thought we knew what to expect: how wrong we were. When we reached the top (a respectable 2450 metres), my partner said, “Bloody hell, it's Japan.” She was referring to the astonishing powder - 48 hours after the last snowfall, there were acres of it. I pushed down on my 130 cm pole and it disappeared completely. We skied from top to bottom (an 800 metre vertical drop) in knee-deep powder. Crevacol is completely off the radar of international powder-hounds (which is why there is still virgin powder two days after a big dump) but, on the right day, has as good conditions as anywhere in Europe.
For those of us not looking for deep powder (and I must admit we just got lucky with the weather), the pistes are a mixture of blue, red and black. At least black in theory - we skied the whole black run in the mistaken belief it was a medium red. It is a good resort for a group of mixed ability skiers, as all the runs funnel back towards the bottom lift, so everyone can meet up periodically. However, like many of the smaller resorts, good skiers should only go there if there is decent fresh snow - the pistes aren't going to inspire an advanced skier.
- Pros: Good pistes and astonishing off-piste, great views.
- Cons: Can get very windy at the top (it faces the opposite direction to Pila and is less protected). Not a resort as such, just a collection of lifts and bars.
- Pistes: 22km plus off-piste guiding on the back side of the mountain (accessed from the Testa Bassa lift).
- Places to stay: Aosta, or one of the villages on the road up to the St Bernard Tunnel (e.g. Gignod, Etroubles)
- Height: 1450m - 2450m
We started off unsure whether the trip would be worth the effort and came back converted to the charms of these small resorts. We were genuinely surprised at the quality of the skiing, while the fact that we did not have to queue for lifts even in the Christmas holiday was a joy (even the busy Chamole lift in Pila was almost queue-free). The other great advantage is the sheer value for money - how about a good hot lunch (including drink) for under 10 euros, or a lift pass for 21 euros per day? On the subject of ski passes, you can buy a pass for the whole valley which makes life easier and there is the option of buying a pass for non-consecutive days if you fancy a day or two doing something else - see www.skivallee.it for more details.
We also uncovered the mystery of all the new ski lifts. The regional government has decided that improving small ski resorts is a good way of encouraging locals to stay in their villages, and so is pouring money into the infrastructure. However, over a drink, a local tourist official said that development was a bit lop-sided. He said that the skiing conditions were now as good as they could be, but the big problem was accommodation. The number of hotels is fairly limited and the condition of local apartments is variable. At this point, I should declare an interest: experience of renting in the Aosta Valley a few years ago led us to build our own apartments, Terra Alpina.
If you do to the region and have a car, travelling round some of the smaller resorts will add a new dimension to your holiday. Skiing on empty local runs will make you feel more like a traveller and less like a tourist. We voted with our feet and, a week after doing our research, took a party of 12 Greeks to Chamois for the day - they loved it. Meanwhile, we are keeping the powder of Crevacol for ourselves. The only word of warning we would give is that these smaller resorts (except Pila) are best experienced early- and mid-season: unless the second half of March turns out to be cold, good snow could be hard to find.
Karen Howes is a regular skier, but the winter of 2008/09 was the first time she and her family drove to the Alps. “It was a revelation” said Karen. “We had never tried skiing in multiple resorts before and the variety of Pila, Courmayeur and the charming little resort of Chamois made the week so much more interesting.” I was a little worried about the children, but they loved the whole aspect of “Where are we going today?” We are definitely coming back as we had such a great time - and the fact that Italy is much better value than France is an added bonus.”