No one would call this your average ski experience – three skiers peeking out of a porthole-like opening in the massive rockface of 2,800m Mount Lagazuoi above Cortina, with a view across some of the most spectacular mountains in Europe.
We looked down upon a sprinkling of skiers enjoying the wide, open run beneath us, realising that they could never have guessed they were being observed – which was exactly the point. For the spot where myself, David and Fiona were crouched was an observation post that had been excavated out of the solid limestone peak during the First World War when Italian and German troops fought a two-year battle for control of Passo Falzarego beneath.
You can now ski up to the tunnel entrances, unclip from your bindings and clatter around inside the galleries (tricky in ski boots) to get a feel for what life may have been like up here almost a hundred years ago – “Great views but bloody freezing!” as David pointed out.
Emerging from the cold gloom of the tunnels it’s a relief to clip back into your skis and swoop off down the long and undulating piste that takes you from the top of Lagazuoi down the ‘Hidden Valley’. You pass first across a high limestone plateau where the snow glints beneath crystalline blue skies, then drop down between vast honey coloured crags to a small mountain restaurant in the eponymous valley, where most skiers stop off for a cappuccino or bombardino whilst gazing awestruck at the beautiful mountains that surround them.
Coffee break over, the surprises keep coming once you continue your descent. Just a few hundred metres further down the piste you suddenly whiz past a frozen waterfall, cool blue in the mountain shadows, immediately after which those skiers in the know will hit maximum speed on the steep descent that follows in order to get up momentum for the long flat section ahead.
This eventually leads, several kilometres from your start point, to the next ski lift – a horse and sleigh. Pay a few Euros, grab hold of the rope behind the sleigh, and travel under one horsepower to the final schuss of the Hidden Valley and the end of one of the most memorable ski runs in Europe.
And in case you’re beginning to think this all sounds a bit tame, all you need do to get the adrenaline flowing properly is head for the high level slopes of Ra Valles directly above Cortina. Last time I was there I enjoyed some unforgettable off-piste skiing on a classic Cortina winter morning – a few inches of fresh powder, a clear blue sky and even as late as ten o’clock in the morning only four other people on the untracked powder fields before me.
When fatigue set in I skied down to the restaurant at the base of Ra Valles with a couple of Swedish dudes I’d met earlier to enjoy some of the loveliest views in the Dolomites – limestone towers and crags poke up into the sky in all directions whilst Cortina basks contentedly in the sun below.
On the opposite side of the valley can be seen the resort’s two other ski areas of Faloria and Mietres, where a week later I was yet again lucky enough to score more fresh powder and sunshine, this time picking lines between the trees and eventually heading up to the base of the rickety old chair that takes you to the top of Cortina’s steepest run, 2930-m high Staunies.
If skiing like this was all there is to do in Cortina most people would be more than happy, but there’s much more than that – which is the cue for a list…
WHAT TO DO IN CORTINA
• People watch – wander onto Corsa Italia, Cortina’s main strip, and be amazed as ladies of a certain age emerge from the shadows to display what were once the warm outer layers of various small mammals draped across their nipped and tucked frames.
• Go window shopping – if you’re tasteless enough to want one of those furs, no problem, plenty of furriers here, not to mention jewellers, yacht brokers, real estate agents and high fashion stores all keen to lighten your wallet.
• Head to Enoteca wine bar (+39 0436 862040) on Via del Mercato for their sensational range of over 700 wines and fine tapas-style snacks. A great place to meet the locals too.
• Dine on the mountain at Rifugio Averau (+39 0436 4660) at Cinque Torri – it’s worth a visit just for the views, and the pasta and wines are magnificent.
• Enjoy a day in Venice – just over two-hour’s drive away and a great option on bad weather days.