Snow still clung to the midnight crags above the village of Cortina d'Ampezzo when we drove in from Venice on the first day of May.
Golden light swept the streets of that Dolomite fastness, where Italy was host to the 1956 Winter Olympics; bells pealed fervently from a stone campanile, tolling far beyond the hour as if to honor each shuttered hostelry resting in off-season peace.
The wooden door was ajar at a white chalet hotel called Natale. Natale means Christmas in Italian, and that seemed a festive omen. It turned out also to be the name of the owner--Natale de Lazzer, a curly-haired ski instructor and carpenter. He and his wife Nicoletta opened the inn last Christmas Eve.
The place glistens with knotty pine walls and cabinetry, with bright linens and floral comforters and the fresh scent of a new country home. Under wide eaves are balconies and a deck, and a mountain in every window. Mine held the twin masses called Tofane, burned pink with alpenglow.
With eight double rooms and three singles, the Natale is open all year, there at No. 229 on the street called Corso Italia. That's nice to know in late April and early May when the proprietors of Alpine inns and pensions traditionally take family holidays. Many of the fabled resorts of Italy, Switzerland and Austria also are locked for seasonal rest and refurbishing.
Crowds are slim in this spring break and room rates are cut. Chic shops are often latched in those weeks between the melt of snow and the warmth of summer.
In the Engadine upthrust of Switzerland we drove through a soft snowfall to the sunny walls of St. Moritz. The mighty Palace Hotel was closed; workmen's vans filled the entry drive. Nary a prince nor a countess strode the winding streets, at least no one that I recognized.
Night life was nil in St. Moritz, and day life was close to it. Wildflowers were threatening to take over the slopes; the frozen lake had cracked into a jigsaw.
By following the snap of Swiss flags, we found an open hotel called Albana. In the small hours of the morning, from the windows of Room 613, I stared down as snowflakes swirled through pools of lamplight like small white moths in summer. The green roof of the Palace was lightly powdered, as were bushes of forsythia and roses.
There were only four cars in the heart-of-town garage, where the exit was controlled by a Swiss machine that refused our note. A young man sensed our predicament and walked in from the street. With a smile, he took the crisp 10-franc bill and crumpled it into a ball. Then he smoothed it out and successfully fed the machine.
In the international spirit of St. Moritz, we said danke and grazie and thank you and arivederci and auf Wiedersehen and ciao --all of which takes time.
But there is more of that in the off-season.