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December 17, 2010 10:02 pm
The run down La Balma covers 10km, sees us drop more than 2,000m in altitude, and takes all afternoon. It’s bitterly cold when we start, leaving the pistes behind, traversing along a ridge and passing through narrow gaps in the jagged rocks. We ski down out of the wind into a succession of huge, open bowls, before coming upon a hamlet of stone chalets, shut up for the winter. The dates of their construction are carved into the wooden lintels above the doors – the newest I can see says 1782.
The lower we get, the warmer it becomes, so we strip off our jackets, tie them to our rucksacks and press on. We teeter down a steep path beside a frozen waterfall, cross an ancient wooden bridge, pass a lonely chapel, then swoop through the forest as the setting sun begins to turn the snow pink.
At the bottom we turn back and squint to pick out the now distant peaks where we’d begun. It’s a stunning run in terms of scenery and skiing but the most memorable thing is simply that from start to finish we haven’t passed a single other skier.
Tucked away at the top of a remote Italian valley, on the way to nowhere, Alagna feels separate, somehow hidden, still a bit of a secret. The usual narrative arc of the tourism industry – where a destination is discovered, developed then destroyed – doesn’t apply here. In fact, Alagna today is far less crowded than it was a century ago.
In 1842 Giovanni Gnifetti, the village’s parish priest, became the first person to reach the Signalkuppe, a summit of the Monte Rosa massif, the great wall of mountains that lies above Alagna and separates Italy from Switzerland. The feat focused attention on the village and in the following years Alagna became a hot destination for upmarket tourists. Eventually, even the king and queen, Umberto I and Margherita, began visiting regularly.
Grand new villas and hotels were built – one former cobbler managed to amass three hotels, then went on to expand out of the valley to create a chain with interests as far away as Sicily. A mountain guiding organisation was set up in 1872 to help the tourists explore the area and a series of high altitude refuges was set up to house them. In 1893 Queen Margherita climbed the Signalkuppe herself, surrounded by an aristocratic entourage, to open the refuge that had been built on its summit and named in her honour. At 4,554m it remains the highest refuge in Europe. By the start of the 20th century the village was even being referred to as the “Chamonix del Rosa”, a reference to the French town that was the original and grandest mountain resort of them all.
The two world wars put paid to all that. Hotels closed and villagers drifted away to look for work. Where once the village had a population of more than a thousand, today the 400 residents are far outnumbered by the chamois in the surrounding hills. Counting every available bed, from mountain refuges to rooms in private houses, Alagna can accommodate 915 tourists. Chamonix, by contrast, has beds for 67,000.
“Do you want to party?” asks the driver who picks us up from the bottom of La Balma, which ends on a road a mile or so above the village centre. “It’s rocking tonight at the Caffè delle Guide!” This turns out to be relative. In the tiny bar, with a vaulted roof of rough stone, Pink Floyd is playing on the stereo and there are perhaps 20 people chatting over beers, pastries and espressos. We sit outside, facing the little square and the church (built 1511, restyled 1690), listening to the drip of melting snow from the pine trees and admiring the church’s 19th century frescos. It’s about as far from conventional après ski as it’s possible to get.
That Alagna remains outside the mainstream world of ski tourism is perhaps unsurprising. For skiers coming from the US or other parts of Europe, the attractions of the Alps’ most celebrated resorts are hard to ignore. Faced with a choice of going to Val d’Isère (with 94 lifts and 300km of piste), Courchevel (183 lifts and 600km) or Alagna (three lifts, 14km), why would anyone choose the latter?
For intermediates, looking for lots of pistes to explore, Alagna is clearly a bit of a disaster, though you can ski over the pass into the next valley to Gressoney, then beyond that to Champoluc. Together, these three valleys can muster a respectable 31 lifts and 180km of uncrowded pistes, with fabulous views up to Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. But Alagna is a treat for experts.
Last winter saw the opening of the Indren lift, which takes skiers to an altitude of 3,275m. It gives Alagna a “vertical” (the maximum possible descent in one run) of 2,063m, one statistic that trumps both Val d’Isere and Courchevel, not to mention every resort in North America. The lift is actually in the Gressoney valley but from there you can push with your poles for a few hundred metres over to the ridge line and then drop into the top of the empty Alagna valley, where you are on your own in every sense. Apart from the five pistes grouped together on one side of the valley, the mountain is completely wild, unpisted and unpatrolled, the cliffs devoid of warning signs or ropes. Devotees come here for the couloirs, or canalini, the narrow ribbons of snow hemmed in by rocks, which offer the steepest and most direct route down. Their names – Marinelli, Malfatta, Vittoria – are enough to conjure butterflies in the stomach among those that have seen them.
On our second day on the mountain we are side-stepping up to a remote ridge when we do bump into some other skiers. Bizarrely, one of them turns out to be someone I know, a British guide called Nigel Shepherd, and back in the Caffè delle Guide that night I ask what brings him here. “I was in the French resort of La Grave in February 1993, where I met a Swiss mountain guide who told me he had just spent a week in the most incredible off piste ski area in Europe,” he says. “The next day we drove to Alagna and spent 10 days skiing untracked powder – alone aside from a few gnarly Swedish ski bums. I’ve been back every year since. It has everything the adventurous skier could possibly want and yet somehow the ancient villages seem unaffected by the trappings of modernity.”
This isn’t fanciful sentiment brought on by the rosy glow of exercise and rich Italian wine – in Alagna there is history at every turn. We are staying at the Tre Alberi Liberi, a stylish new bed and breakfast in Riva Valdobbia, a hamlet a couple of miles down the road from the main village. It’s new in the sense of only recently opening to paying guests, but carved in the exposed wood beams of my delightful bedroom is another telltale construction date: 1644. Breakfast is taken in the 18th century salon, with walls delicately painted to appear like marble and crackling logs in the grand fireplace. As we drive back up the lift in Alagna, our guide pauses the minibus to point out Riva’s church (built in 1473), its façade covered in a late 16th century fresco of the last judgement.
It’s the same story up on the mountain. Rather than queuing for lunch at a noisy self-service cafeteria, in Monte Rosa you eat in one of the old farming chalets which are dotted about the hills. Hidden in a wooded hollow above Champoluc is Stadel Soussun (date in rafter: 1518) where, after feasting on mountain ham and cheese, you hop in the owner’s personal piste basher for a lift back up the hill into the ski area. Not far away is Frantze, another fabulous restaurant, which opened last winter (though the rafter says 1721). If you can’t bear to tear yourself away after a long lunch, both have delightful rooms upstairs.
Our final night is spent at a skiing classic – the Rifugio Guglielmina, perched just below the ridge between Alagna and Gressoney at 2,880m. Opened in 1878, partly thanks to funds from King Umberto, in its heyday it attracted gentleman climbers from across Europe. Like everything else, it struggled after the war and was closed down in 1959, only reopening in 1994 thanks to the efforts of Alberto Calaba, a descendant of the original owner. Since then he’s gradually improved the old place, in 2007 even introducing heating and electric light to all bedrooms, but even now it doesn’t take much imagination to picture yourself back in 1878. Everything is wooden, and floors and walls lean at crazy angles, warped by the passing years. In the bowels of the building is Alberto’s pride and joy, a 7,000-bottle wine cellar, all of it Italian. “Is there any other kind?” he asks.
Outside is a big terrace, which is sheltered from the wind but catches the afternoon sun, and has views past shark-fin peaks to the plains and Milan in the far distance. It’s one of the best spots in the Alps to linger with a glass of wine.
Just beyond the terrace is a landing spot for helicopters. While heliskiing is banned in France and limited in Switzerland, here it is easy to arrange and good value. Pilots can take you to the hardest canalini above Alagna or drop you near the top of Monte Rosa, from where you can make the long, gentle descent to Zermatt in Switzerland.
When the choppers come in to land, the serenity of the Guiglielmina’s terrace is momentarily broken, but no one minds. It sums up Alagna perfectly: a delicious mix of extreme sports and extreme peace.
Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor
To get the most out of Alagna you need a mountain guide. The Ski Club of Great Britain (www.skiclubfreshtracks.co.uk) runs week-long trips to Alagna led by Andrea Enzio, an excellent local guide, for £920, including airport transfers (return flights from London add £75). It also offers guided trips to Gressoney for £1,120. A single-drop heliski trip costs about €230, including guide, see www.guidealagna.com. See also www.trealberiliberi.it, www.stadelsoussun.com, www.frantze.it, www.rifugioguglielmina.com
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