January 2001
   Madonna di Campiglio,
una fantasia italiana
Evening in the Alps: a soft Italian sunset turns these Dolomite towers, crags and cliffs to deep rose, deep purple, above a luminous sea of clouds. Somewhere down there at the bottom of this swirling mist is Madonna di Campiglio--but up here it's a different world: Dolomite dreamscape, deserted pistes winding down from the top of the world. All the skiers are gone now, already drinking Camparis in the 1930's lounge of the Bar Suisse in the central piazza. Common sense took them down the mountain at a reasonable hour, while uncommon light, unreal decor and powder snow have kept the three of us up here on the flanks of Grosté, skiing out of bounds (except that here, as almost everywhere in the Alps, there are no bounds, no boundries to a day's skiing) till 6:30. We're still five kilometers above the village, sharing the landscape with one lone snowcat driver, diligently packing tomorrow's runs. Drifting downhill through a moonscape of hills and craters, the high plateau slanting downwrd from Monte Spinale shrouded in mist, spiderweb chairlifts disappearing into sunset clouds. We breath in a last breath of this surreal Dolomite atmosphere and point 'em down into the shadows below. . . .

All Madona di Campiglio photos © Linde Waidhofer

It's impossible to put a handle on Italian skiing the way one can sum up the ski scene in France, or in Austria. The Italian Alps stretch across central Europe, spanning at least three cultures and twice that many seperate and distinct styles of mountain living. To the west, under the shadow of Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco ) glaciers abound, and local mountain folk often speak a crazy French patois instead of Italian. At the other end of the Italian Alps, a German dialect is typical. There the locals refer to their region as the Sud Tirol. These eastern mountains are lower in altitude with a different but equally savage look to them--mountains of rock not ice, cliff-hung peaks of pink limestone, the Dolomites. A history of passions not logic seems to have left its mark on the Italian Alps and the visitor immediately suspects that life here is full of contradicitons. But no country copes with contradiction--or maybe thrives on it - like Italy.

And Madonna di Campiglio is a perfect introduction to Italian skiing.

Start with the name: Foreigners always shorten it to Madonna, but for Italian skiers it becomes simply Campiglio, since “Madonna,” by itself, is a fairly strong swear word in this catholic country. "When in Rome..." we decided, and tried to wrap our tongues around the harder-to-pronoiunce Campiglio (the g is silent).

Consider the setting: Campiglio nestles beneath the westernmost outposts of the Dolomites, the legendary Brenta Group, whose redish spires and overhanging walls are even more familiar to mountain climbing buffs than to skiers. Altogether this is one of the most spectacular skiing backdrops anyone could imagine. Yet the 800-year old town of Campiglio is tucked between two folded green hillsides, just out of sight of all the heroic Dolomite splendor above. Still, the fact that such mind-boggling scenery is up there waiting, makes for great motivation to leap out of bed and take an early cable car to the upper slopes each and every day of your stay.

Campiglio itself seems to have successfully resisted the ugly modernization that has trashed so many Alpine valleys. It remains an authentic, aesthetic, just slightly old-fashioned and very human resort village, a delight to look at and to walk through.

Madonna di Campiglio: fur coats, flowers and flags - an Italian fantasy

Our first morning on the slopes above Campiglio. Getting to know a brand new resort is somewhat like falling in love: a bit of apprehension, the early thrills of discovery, finally an easy familiarity which, if resort or relationship really have the right stuff, never turns to boredom. The affair begins the moment you unfold the trail map and try to figure out where you are, where you're going, what looks best. But in the anarchistic style I would soon associate with Madonna di Campiglio, there was not one, but several different sorts of trail maps, from sketchy artists' conceptions to actual topogrpahic maps with accurate contour lines (known as a carta sciistica or "ski map"). After a few moments of serious perusal, a picture emerged:

Campiglio sits in a forested V-shaped valley, from which aerial tramways carry the skier to three seperate regions above. West of town the "Five Lakes" tram opens up terrain that reminded me of Shirley Lake at Squaw Valley - open and varied with friendly forests.

To the North, the "Pradalago" tram gives access to high slopes overlooking the flats of the "Campo Carlo Magno" ("Charlemagne's Meadows"), Campiglio's ideal beginner and cross-country terrain on the gentle pass above town. In this direction too, you eventually connect with the lift systems of two other nearby ski resorts.

These two sister resorts, Marileva and Folgarida (in moments of passing linguistic frustration we would sometimes refer to them as Mozzarela and Fettucine) double the skiable terrain of Campiglio. And since their slopes lie mostly below timberline, they are ideal to visit on stormy or overcast days. Indeed with its attractive lower slopes protected by trees, Madonna di Campiglio must be considered that rarity, a storm-proof Alpine resort where you can find great skiing even in lousy weather. The lower forests are of mixed evergreens and larch, which as far as I'm concerned is god's gift to skiers. Larch trees turn red-gold in autumn and lose their needles (the aspens of the Alps) but best of all they are widely and perfectly spaced for exquisite tree skiing.

The tram to the Passo Grosté, Campiglio out of sight and mind below

Finally, to the East of town, lies the best skiing of all, on the surrealistic treeless terrain stretching between Monte Spinale and the Passo Grosté--a sort of pockmarked tilted plateau that stretches upward almost out of sight, overhung on one side and undercut on the other by miles of rugged dolomite cliffs. A white playground, suspended in the sky, with the entire Brenta massif sweeping away in a semi-circle to the south. Day after day we returned to the Passo Grosté and its immense snowfields, as much for the view as for the skiing.

Still something was missing. After a week of skiing, good skiing, occasionally great skiing, on piste and off, we needed a grand adventue. We wanted to leave the ski area from the top of Passo Grosté and thread our way into the vast chaos of Dolomite peaks, boulder fields and cliff bands, and we knew we could do it. One of the marvellous ski topo maps even had the whole route etched out in a tempting orange line. But we needed perfect weather and on our next to the last day we got it:

Leaving the piste, entering a Dolomite fantasy

1:00 PM: we leave the easy crowded piste on top of the Passo Grosté, and break trail out to a giant prow of rock overlooking the Vallesinella valley, lost in haze below us. Endless gentle traverses follow, broken by steep walls which carry us from shelf to shelf down a giant's staircase. Snow varies from crust to powder and back to crust. We thread our way around house-sized boulders fallen from the cliffs above. And all the while we are the only souls in a universe of white snow and red rock 2:00 PM: we enter a hidden valley overhung by massive cliffs. You could hide another ski area in here. 3:30 PM: we ski from blinding echoing light into shadowy clouds that have risen suddenly out of nowhere. We feel our way down half-visible powder chutes under awsome cliffs and frozen waterfalls. 4:00 PM: we enter the first forest of dwarf trees. Grouse sleeping beneath the snow fly away noisily from beneath our skis. A shuttered mountain hut, the Rifugio Casinei, indicates that we're on route; and a final thousand feet of steep powder through the trees brings us to a river, a bridge, a cross-country trail, and a long walk back to town. 6:00 PM and we trudge weary but delighted past the outdoor ice rink back to our hotel.* A perfect finish to an Italian fantasy! Que fantasia! Madonna!
   January 2001
photo at top of page:
dropping down into Madonna di Campiglio in fresh snow
photo © Linde Waidhofer
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.