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Skiing to relax

Italy takes the slow-food movement to the slopes

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View from the restaurant atop Col Druscie in Cortina is somehow less intimidating when refracted through a full glass of wine.

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View from the restaurant atop Col Druscie in Cortina is somehow less intimidating when refracted through a full glass of wine.

For the low-intermediate skier like me, a visit to a true mountain resort means a continuous search for the blue run, the safe and hopefully picturesque way down the hill.

So when I hopped off the lift at the top of Col Druscie in Cortina, Italy, I knew I was in trouble. Only one piste was in sight: black. Disappearing down a vertiginous slope. I could not see bottom. Hmmm.

Choices were limited: Turn right, point my skis down the hill and risk some combination of heart attack, broken leg or public humiliation. Or turn left, take off the skis, walk into the restaurant, order a plate of spaghettini alla carbonara with a very large glass of red wine and sit and enjoy the view.

I chose the latter.

This was my introduction to the prototypically Italian concept of "slow ski." The nation that brought us the Slow Food movement has now adapted the concept to one of the world's fastest sports.

"We have to balance skiing and also stopping to eat and enjoy the view," explained Guido Pompanin, a leading proponent. He owns one of the many rifugios (refuges) that dot the slopes around Cortina -- rustic eateries where skiers can stop mid-run for a break that refreshes.

Pompanin's Rifugio Lagazuoi is one of the highest, at the end of a steep cable car ride up to the top of a mountain. When we visited, the weather closed in and all we could see was white, but on normal days there is a spectacular 360-degree vista of the Dolomites.

After a delicious lunch, Pompanin joined us to tell the Lagazuoi story. During the First World War, it was at the centre of one of the most bizarre military confrontations ever -- the "war of the mines."

The lines between the Austrian and Italian forces ran right through the centre of the mountain. Unable to mount frontal assaults, both sides dug tunnels underneath enemy positions and attempted to blow them up, to little effect. Cold weather and avalanches killed more soldiers than hostile action.

"It was a strange war," said Pompanin.

In 1965, his father Ugo built the rifugio at the peak of Lagazuoi Mountain -- an entrepreneurial concept that required strong legs and lungs because he and his construction team had to hike up to the work site every morning.

Now it is one of the most popular and picturesque of a series of similar lodges in the region. Skiers in winter and hikers in summer can visit for lunch or an overnight stay, then ski or walk back down.

Rifugio Lagazuoi even enjoyed a Hollywood moment, when it posed as a Colorado lodge in the 1990s Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger. Cortina d'Ampezzo has often hosted movies, including the original Pink Panther and a James Bond chase on skis in For Your Eyes Only.

Whether it is 007 or Inspector Clouseau, moviemakers traded upon the spectacular scenery and the posh setting.

"It is a very Italian resort," Marianne Moretti told me in her office at the Cortina Tourism board.

"At others, the goal is to put in as many runs as possible. Here, the idea is to slow down a bit and enjoy it."

Only a two-hour drive from Venice, Cortina also has a reputation as a place where Italians come less for skiing than to stroll along the elegant shops of Corso Italia looking beautiful. Moretti insisted most do visit for the mountains. But they clearly still appreciate "la bella figura."

I spotted one woman wearing a fur coat on the slopes. She was walking into another of the many eateries on the hills, Col Taron, where I discovered a Canadian who had been lured to Cortina by romance.

The story started in the late '60s, when Vancouverite Joanne Jorowski made a life-changing visit to Whistler.

"I wasn't a very good skier, and a friend said told me there was an instructor from Italy," she said. His name was Mansueto Siorpaes.

Forty-something years and three grown children later, the husband and wife team run the Col Taron restaurant.

We sat outside on the terrace drinking in the mountain scenery, savouring a tasty combination of grilled vegetables and a chunk of the regional cheese dobbiaco.

Mansueto, wearing a feathered alpine cap, was staffing the outdoor grill, flipping a specialty of the house: panino salsiccia, which looks like a local take on the burger.

Joanne (who now goes by Giovanna) told me that, although they benefit from the concept of slow ski, they also cater to skiers who do not want to wait in line to get a table, but who just want a quick bite before jumping back onto their skis.

At the end of a long day on the slopes, our aching muscles appreciated the spa at our hotel, the Lajadira -- particularly the three different saunas and the Jacuzzi jets in the pool. It was also my first experience with chronotherapy, a medicine method that uses coloured lights to balance a person's energy; for reasons I cannot explain, I found it strangely relaxing.

You may have gathered that I survived my visit to Col Druscie without having to brave the steep ski to the bottom. With a full stomach, I found that there was a blue run behind the restaurant that took me down both safely and satisfied.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 E4

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