Tuesday 25 June 2019

Italy - High praise for ski beauty


Voted one of the three best ski resorts in Europe in a poll of more than 100,000 skiers last month, Livigno has long been a favourite with beginner and intermediate skiers from Ireland and further afield
Voted one of the three best ski resorts in Europe in a poll of more than 100,000 skiers last month, Livigno has long been a favourite with beginner and intermediate skiers from Ireland and further afield

Thomas Molloy

The charming and beautiful Italian ski resort of Livigno has been popular with the Irish since skiing started to become mainstream in this country around 30 years ago. Livigno's greatest assets are charm, reliable snow and relatively low costs.

Unlike many ski resorts dotted across France and some parts of Italy, Livigno has been a real village for centuries. This means it has a historic core with more than 300 shops that makes for pleasant rambles in the evening. The long history also explains the town's curious duty free status which dates back two centuries to a period when the resort's geographically distant rulers wanted to ensure that it remained populated for political reasons. Back then, the tax break meant farmers could eke out a living in an area that was dubbed Little Tibet because it was so distant from the centre of the Austro Hungarian empire.

Today, the duty-free status means a bottle of brandy costs €7 and tourists can stock up on cheap watches, sunglasses, cigarettes and perfumes as they stroll through the attractive pedestrianised town centre. That's obviously a plus if you like shopping but even ignoring the duty-free status, Livigno is better priced than most ski areas elsewhere in the Alps.

Arriving in the late afternoon after flying into Milan, Livigno is a sight for sore eyes. The typically Alpine town is spread along a fairly straight 14km road in the Valtellina valley with endless twinkling lights and old-fashioned steep-roofed wooden houses dusted in snow.

As one of the highest ski resorts in the Alps - the neighbouring village of Trepalle is Europe's highest inhabited parish - Livigno is rarely without snow. The town itself is 1,800m above sea level while some of the nearby peaks reach 3,000m which means that skiing is almost guaranteed from now until April. Livigno's altitude means that whatever snow falls naturally remains on the ground for weeks. That's an important boast these days as global warming keeps temperatures high and prevents many resorts from making their own snow. As we arrived, some French resorts were being ordered to switch off their snow-making machines for environmental reasons.

Livigno is also the natural home of the beginner and low-intermediate skier. Not being a particularly talented skier myself, I stayed close to the beginners' slopes clustered around directski.com's really excellent ski school. A friendly teacher with good English, ski lifts without any queues and the ability to stroll from our hotel to the slopes without the hassle of a bus meant that I had plenty of opportunity to improve my skiing within the small and mostly Irish group of low-intermediate skiers. And improve we did. Our group aged from 10 to 60 was able to race each other, zig-zagging between flags, by the end of the week in a sort of delirium.

Something I found tremendously useful was the instructor's use of video to highlight failings in my technique. You can be told a hundred times you are not standing correctly but to watch oneself afterwards over a cup of coffee on video as you career awkwardly down the slopes soon cures one's worst mistakes.

The skiing felt about as safe as skiing will ever feel thanks to the space and relatively crowd-free slopes. Helmets, incidentally, are compulsory in all of Livigno's parks.

The experienced skiers in our group were full of praise for the resort's more advanced slopes. Friends who were intermediate skiers came back from much longer trips with breathtaking photographs and GoPro footage of isolated mountain paths winding through pine forests which made me eager to keep learning.

The town has 30 lifts, from button lifts to gondolas, servicing the town's 115km of pistes which are roughly a third green (or easy), half blue (or intermediate) and the rest black (or difficult).

These lifts are something that Livigno does much better than most resorts. The system links the Costaccia/Carosello and Mottolino sides of the valley. Each lift seems to be better than the last with everything from heated seats to comfortable cabins. This is due to the intense competition between the various families who own the resort and try to out do one another. Lift passes (€150 in low season and €229 in high season) cover the entire valley which is a boon for those who want to experience everything the area has to offer.

Because the lift passes cover the entire resort, visitors can make the most of the location by spending the morning on the Carosello and Costaccia side of the resort before heading across the valley to the Mottolino side to catch the afternoon sun.

Nothing quite makes you hungry and thirsty like skiing so it is a boon to be in a country that takes food seriously, serves decent portions and knows how to keep prices reasonable. Everywhere we ate in Livigno was excellent in a simple and hearty sort of way. Like the rest of Italy, Livigno has a speciality; in this case a hearty pasta dish called pizzoccheri which is made of buckwheat pasta with potatoes, cabbage and taleggio cheese. It tastes much better than it sounds. The culinary highlight of the stay was a memorable dinner, held every Thursday, in a restaurant called Camanel di Planon high in the mountains. The only way to get there in the evenings is by hitching a lift to a giant tractor-like machine called a snowcat which takes you up winding, vertiginous and frankly terrifying mountain paths to find a hungry crowd determined to make the most of a fantastic four-course meal with unlimited wine along with a lively DJ who knows how to get a party started and then keep it going.

Camanel di Planon is well worth a visit but the rest of the local nightlife is pretty good too, with plenty of unpretentious apres-ski bars in the town as well as up the mountains.

The Tea Del Vidal restaurant at the bottom of Mottolino (Via La Corta 24) is one of the best places to go and also one of the best places to sample the local drink known as bombardino, Italy's answer to eggnog. Those on a budget or with families might want to plump for a pizza in a restaurant such as Ristorante La Mirage in Via Plan where large pizzas cost around €8.

Anybody who has tried skiing with a family or small group will know that at least one member of the family will want to duck out of the skiing for at least an afternoon.

Livigno is a great place to skip the slopes after the recent opening of a spectacular 10,000sqm swimming and spa centre called the Aquagranda. It is the sort of swimming pool complex one sometimes encounters on the Continent but which are unfortunately almost unknown in these parts. The centre has 12m high water slides that stretch for 100m and end in a warm pool, as well as relaxation and wellbeing areas that include several saunas and steam rooms. An adult ticket costs €18 for a day while a family is €50. While this might sound steep, it represents great value for the use of perhaps the biggest and cleanest public swimming pool you are ever likely to encounter.

High in the Alps, Livigno requires most Irish visitors to fly into Milan, and take a four-hour bus transfer to Livigno - it's all part of the adventure. And this is a fantastic resort for beginners and intermediate skiers.

Especially skiers who like their ski resorts to have the charm of Austria's best resorts but who do not want to pay the often sky high prices that Austrian and Swiss resorts command.

Last month, a poll of more than 100,000 skiers named Livigno as the third best resort in Europe and it is easy to see why.

Family-friendly, low-cost with high-altitude snow as well as Italian food and plenty to do away from the slopes, it is hardly any wonder that Livigno has remained so popular with so many skiers in Ireland and elsewhere for more than two generations.

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