ORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy — Most travelers to Italy know of the Apennines, that gentle range of vertebral humps that runs down the center of the boot, but some are unaware of the 80 peaks--more than 12,000 feet high--that crowd the sky for 700 miles between the Ligurian Sea and the Gulf of Venice.
As Hannibal and his elephants discovered, the southern terminus of the Alps slips its biggest toes into the northern end of the boot. These toes get a nice tan, for Italy has the south-facing slopes of these peaks all to its own. Which makes for some pretty good skiing.
Although the central Alps have several fine ski resorts, the far eastern and western portions of the boot top--the Valle d'Aosta and Veneto regions, respectively--have the most to offer winter vacationers.
Valle d'Aosta is Italy's smallest province, but contains the highest peaks in the Alps. Cervinia and Courmayeur are its top resorts. Veneto's beacon, Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Dolomites, has a fur-coat-and-precious-jewel quotient equal to its Swiss partner in glamour, St. Moritz.
Cervinia, at the far end of the Valtournanche and a two-hour drive north from Milan, is presided over by the snaggletooth pyramid of the Matterhorn.
On my first day of skiing in Cervinia, sheets of snow raced sideways across the mountain and blanketed the piste (trails) in white. The Matterhorn had snagged a cloud, and in so doing had torn its lining and emptied it of snow. The light was flat. It was difficult to distinguish the gradations in the slopes.
I spent a lot of time off-balance or tumbling in the new-fallen snow. Finally I asked my guide, Claudio, how he manages to ski so smoothly when he can't see where he is going.
"You must let your feet read the slopes," he said. "You have to feel where the bumps and drops are and then adjust." I don't own such sensitive feet and decided to break for an early lunch.
Italians not only rise late to ski, enabling more punctual nationalities to enjoy the slopes to themselves in the morning, but they attach little importance to breakfast. Meals start with lunch.
At La Stambecca, one of several dining rooms on the mountain, tables are set with china plates and crystal glasses and silverware on starched cloth napkins. Attentive waiters bring fresh bread, a pate of crushed olives, spinach gnocchi, mocetta (dried chamois meat) and a large bowl of polenta, an Italian version of grits made with maize. The meal is a far cry from the watery broth and plastic-wrapped sandwiches served cafeteria-style at most U.S. ski resorts.
Later that evening, in the lounge of the Hotel Chalet Valdotain, our host produced a carved wooden bowl with individual drinking spouts called a coppa dell'amicizia (friendship cup).
Into it is poured grappa : strong hot coffee mixed with an aquavit flavored with mountain herbs, nutmeg, cloves, juniper berries, lemon and orange rinds and a dash of Grand Marnier.
My feet began to tingle with new sensitivity, and I noticed that my knees bent automatically, as they should while skiing, when I stood to walk.
In nearby Courmayeur, Italy's best all-around ski resort, it is easy to be dispirited upon awakening, for a vaporous cloud often enters the valley and envelops the township. The resort's 132-passenger tram, one of the largest in Europe, carries skiers from the center of Courmayeur to a complex of lifts high above the village where the sun shines brightly.
From that vantage point the lower valley appeared to have pulled a plump white blanket of fleecy mist up to its chin.
A gondola and a chairlift ride later, I stood at the top of Cresta d'Arp. The adventurous skiers in the group slid along a ridge and plummeted down a steep field of untracked powder, but the intermediates stuck to the groomed slopes and reached a crest above a frozen lake where a towering bulwark of ice and rock stared us in the face. This is Mont Blanc.
Europe's tallest mountain at 15,781 feet is not a single summit but rather a cluster of peaks, a great broad-shouldered king flanked by bishops, castles and knights. The reddish-brown massif is furrowed by tongues of ice, and from its vast granite bulk emanates silence, power and majesty.
Courmayeur's long, wide runs, most with a testing pitch, are ideal cruising terrain for intermediates. Even the black trails--the piste difficile-- lean toward the gray area of manageability by semi-accomplished skiers.
Most of the runs are carved from spruce, larch and pine forests that swallow skiers in a tunnel of greenery before delivering them onto an open snowfield.
Later in the season--usually by early March--snowfields at higher altitudes are opened. Those with sure skills and the services of a dependable guide can traverse the Vallee Blanche, a legendary 12-mile glacier run that skirts the roof of Europe and leads to Chamonix, France.
Jewel of the Dolomites