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Romancing Italy

Romancing Italy

Features
By Joe Cutts
posted: 10/15/2001

It can't have been easy, ruling Europe's mightiest city-state at the height of the Dark Ages. Pity the poor doge of Venice, who between conquering Constantinople and fending off Turkish hordes must have really cherished his powder days. He'd call up Marco Polo (between road trips); they'd grab their mid-fats (Nordica W70s, manufactured nearby) and slip out the back of the palace and over the Bridge of Sighs. Soon, they'd be making tracks in the Dolomite backcountry, a mere 95 miles north, with all the worries of medieval life (plagues, relations with Rome, early dentistry) behind them.

It would have been a good call then, and it certainly is today. Cortina d'Ampezzo-bitter battleground of World War I, site of the 1956 Olympics, winter playground of Italy's rich and famous-is as lovely a ski destination as a traveler could hope to find. That it lies just a couple hours north of one of the world's most enchanting cities is an irresistible bonus.

Venice: "Half fairy story, half tourist trap," wrote Thomas Mann. In its day the very nexus of the civilized world-a city-state of unrivaled wealth and influence-it is now irrelevant in the global scheme, sinking, in all its Byzantine splendor, into the sea. But what a beautiful corpse. Venice is always crowded, but never more so than during Carnevale, when half of Europe comes to party and play dress up. The excitement builds toward Lent, and by Saturday night, Piazza San Marco is a full-blown rave: flashing lights, pulsing music and gyrating dancers.

The crowd is tame and happy, but it's nevertheless important to choose your hotel well in order to have an oasis amid the din. Such is the Hotel Luna, right out the back door of San Marco and just down the alley from Harry's Bar. Now part of the five-star Baglione chain, the Luna is Venice's oldest hotel (crusaders slept here). Its breakfast salon is alone worth the price of admission: enormous chandelier, rococo ornamentation and walls 20 feet high adorned with sensuous frescoes. One half expects Vivaldi, another Venetian son, to strike up a quartet in the corner.

As sights go, San Marco is a must-vast and spectacular, ringed with architectural treasures: the Basilica, the Doges' Palace, the Campanile. A vaporetto (water bus) ride on the Grand Canale is also worthwhile. But there's so much beauty to behold in Venice that it's no use trying to behold it all. Better to pick a vague direction and wander, letting the "serenissima citta" (most serene city) reveal what secrets it will.

After a few days in the crowd, it's refreshing to rent a car and head for the hills. And what hills. Friends will warn you of the "incomparable" beauty of the Dolomites, but nothing prepares first-timers for such magnificent piles of rock. Out of an expansive, sun-drenched valley, the mountains around Cortina thrust violently skyward, tinged with redness belying their genesis as sea bottom. The peaks are as sharp, the cliffs as high, the massifs as massive as any you've seen. No wonder the great English alpinists flocked here in the 19th century, followed by Hollywood filmmakers in the 20th. Sylvester Stallone probably stayed at the Miramonti, a veritable palace just south of the village, when he was in town shooting Cliffhanger. Jordan's King Hussein prefers the four-star Poste in the village. The oldest is the unassuming Menardi, perhaps Cortina's tidiest three-star auberge.

Here at the edge of the Sud Tyrol, Cortina feels distinctly Italian, unlike Austrian-flavored villages just over the ridge. During World War I, thousands of soldiers ill-equipped for mountaineering died in the Ampezzo valley, where the Austro-Italian front was located. There's ample evidence of intense warfare, and skiing war buffs can sign on for battlefield tours.

Cortina boomed in the years just before and after its 1956 Olympics. But just as development threatened to undo its beauty, town fathers revived a millennium-old land-use code, called the Regole, in time to prreserve its charm. Today, Italy's wealthiest families come to play, and skiing is almost superfluous. Far more energy is devoted to shopping, partying, dining and strolling the car-free streets wrapped in fur. The typical ski day, as one local unapologetically describes it: Hit the slopes around 11 for a couple runs; break for a long lunch with wine; ski a couple more runs; enjoy an après-ski wine in the sun; rest; dine at 9; party till 3 a.m.; repeat.

By the end of your week, the Italian approach to ski vacationing begins to make sense. Especially those lunches. There are more than a dozen lift-top rifugios to choose from in the Ampezzo. Clomp inside, sit down to tablecloths and silverware, and enjoy the views along with beet-filled ravioli and a carafe of unassuming local red. No one rushes as you linger over cappuccino, but it would be a shame to entirely miss the skiing.

The Dolomites aren't known for deep snow. And when it does dump, be warned: Cortina skiers aren't powder-hounds, and in the morning they expect any fresh snow to have been groomed flat. They generally are not disappointed. But don't despair: Working the edges of the trails, you'll find powder for days and only have to share it with a few Swedish snowboarders. There are pockets of expert terrain, but Cortina's specialty is groomed cruisers. From the village, lifts rise up to east and the west; pick a side and stay there for the day. If you've watched World Cup races on TV, you might recognize terrain features on the eastern side, where women's speed events are staged each January. On the Schuss di Pomedes-a favorite of two-time winner Picabo Street-racers streak between two trademark rock spires. At sensible speeds on soft snow, it's a steep but manageable groomer with spectacular views. The most challenging slopes are farther up, in the Tofana area, which at 10,640 feet is the region's highest skiing.

On the west side are the slopes where a boy named Tomba honed a powerful two-footed style that made him almost unbeatable on the World Cup. A two-stage cable car from the center of town spans frightening heights en route to the base of the Faloria area, from which skiers can tour southward toward Cristallo, where Cliffhanger was filmed. Up here, especially, on sun-splashed corduroy between magnificent peaks, skiers have the sense of having cheated the mountains, of skiing where they don't belong.

By the end of your stay, you're a different person: enriched by the culture and history of the Venice, invigorated by time spent outdoors in the spectacular Dolomites. It's a tidy little package, Venice and Cortina. One fit for a doge.

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