Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers, and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re in the ski resort of Cervinia on the Italian side of the Matterhorn. We’ve come here to learn why this largely purpose-built village, that dates back to 1930, is only now evolving into what should become one of, if not the most, important future destination for skiers in the whole of Europe.
Well, if you know your resorts, you’ll be saying, ‘Hang about. The people making this podcast episode don’t know their ankles from their elbows. Cervinia? The future of European skiing? I mean, it’s hardly chocolate box pretty, is it? To put it politely, with all those brutalist apartment blocks and 1950s hotels, Cervinia’s a bit short on architectural charm.’
Felice And then, of course, there’s the actual skiing. Good for beginners, particularly good for lower intermediates wanting lots of mileage and no unexpected challenges. If you’ve got a few seasons under your belt, you’re bound to get a bit bored, actually, after a few days. Sure, If you’re a proficient skier or snowboarder, you can ski over the Klein Matterhorn to Zermatt, but it’s quite a lengthy process. The lifts are prone to sudden weather closure. Basically, you can’t explore very far afield because you’re likely to run out of time.
Peter Get it wrong and you could find yourself stuck in the wrong resort. Take a taxi home? The link by road takes six hours and costs around £600. It’s worth noting that a helicopter costs £50 less and takes just 15 minutes. But best bet is to find a B&B for the night and borrow or buy a pair of shoes – you don’t want to go clomping out to dinner in your ski boots.
But all that is about to change. First of all, take a look down at your feet and what you’re standing on. In any month of the year they have snow here in Cervinia, and plenty of it. From November to May they’ve got a white playground that begins at 2050m and goes up to a literally breath-taking 3880m. That’s only 1000m less than the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe.
Remember December 2022, when quite a number of resorts had green fields instead of white Christmas card cover? In these increasingly troubled times of climate warming, what Cervinia’s got is pure gold. Of course, it’s always had that. But as you say, the actual skiing, the pistes lack diversity. Altitude alone is not enough to transform Cervinia into any kind of a prized destination for the next generation of holiday skiers.
Felice So what I’m wondering is why is the building trade booming here with smart new hotels appearing each summer? Similar resorts are looking at alternative visitor attractions like hiking and mountain biking to make up for the loss of skiers. But Cervinia’s spent £13.5 million on snowmaking, and it’s looking at ten times that sum for new lifts. More on that in a minute.
Peter When you finish looking at your feet, look up at the Matterhorn in one direction and the mighty Monte Rosa massif in the other. Linking Cervinia with the exciting terrain of Monte Rosa has been a distant dream for the past ten years. Never heard of it? Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna are the main resorts and I rank as a truly great ski area for all skill levels, from beginner to serious off-piste expert and every standard in between.
The key linking lift would be a two-stage 26-person cable-car. This would take you in both directions between a high point in the Cervinia ski area and the little hamlet of Frachey, a couple of kilometres from Champoluc in the neighbouring Val d’Ayas. What Frachey has going for it, apart from a fine 17th-century chapel, is a funicular that carries skiers up into the heart of Monterosa Ski. Is it really going to happen? Well, Frachey now has an excellent five-star hotel, Camp Zero, located just a short walk from the funicular. So Cervinia hotels apart, someone else at this far end of the link has already taken the gamble.
But the key to success for what will be one of the three largest ski areas in the world, is the construction of lifts properly linking Cervinia and Zermatt. You’ll then be able to ski from the Rothorn at the far end of Zermatt’s own ski area all the way to the off piste village of Alagna. It’s a long way and my tip would be to take a toothbrush and a pair of trainers in your backpack…kind of ski-touring without climbing.
Felice The good news is that the link has already been built. The final stage of the Matterhorn Alpine Crossing, linking the Klein Matterhorn with the Testa Grigia in Italy opens in summer 2023. Finally, the resorts are properly linked. This means you can go smoothly from Cervinia to Zermatt and vice versa in your ski boots…or in your flip flops. It’s always worth noting that Zermatt attracts more visitors in summer than it does in winter.
Peter Not the same for Cervinia, but who knows? All that could change. What really matters for Cervinia, what puts it at the heart of the future of European skiing, in my opinion, is that here you have – will have – snowsure skiing throughout the season for all standards, and this is within a lift system extending to no less than 530km of fully linked pistes. And along the way you’ll also find some remarkable off piste that I rate – at the Alagna end – as some of the best in Europe. A genuine rival to Chamonix and Verbier.
Will that make it the largest linked ski area in the world? Well, that depends on the honesty and accuracy of how individual ski resorts measure their respective areas. But put it this way, it will place it on the podium alongside the Three Valleys and the Port du Soleil. But beyond 400km, frankly, who’s counting?
Felice All this, of course, is not lost on international hotel developers who are circling potential sites in Cervinia with the kind of single minded intensity normally displayed by car drivers seeking a free parking space in Mayfair or Manhattan.
Peter As you said, this is not a pretty resort. Lots of ugly architecture from the 1930 that was followed by giant concrete apartment blocks thrown up in the 1950s and 60s. For a decade or more, the extended village had been looking tired, even exhausted by the passage of so many visitors over so many years to the same accommodation.
But now the older buildings are being repurposed or torn down to be replaced by modern four- and five-star hotels constructed in a style altogether more in keeping with this truly fabulous mountain setting. New buildings suitable for the fresh demands of today’s skiers.
Cervinia used to be famed for its nightlife, which lasted from dusk until first light the following morning. But now there’s not a single disco in or out of the town. It seems the current generation of skiers is much more interested in skiing and in wellbeing than in the pre-COVID ski holiday concept of Eurotrash music, fuelled by a hefty nightly intake of litres of Peroni beer spiced with shots of grappa.
Thomas Schmidt is an Austrian-born hotel manager who has come to Cervinia to run the brand new Valtur Cervinia Cristallo hotel. So Thomas, you find yourself in the unusual position of being an Austrian trying to run the strange combination of a four- and five-star hotel all in one building…in Italy. How did that come about?
Thomas Well, it’s all about love, you know. So I basically moved to Italy in the year 2000 because I met my wife, my Italian wife, on a cruise liner. Then we lived together in London for three years, and then, of course, I moved to Italy. You know, so this is first of all, the first time I’m back in the mountains after about 30 years, because I did a lot of seasons in Austria when I was younger. This is the first time back in the mountains, and it was occasionally also because my bosses are coming from Apulia, so I think that it’s trustworthy to put an Austrian up on the mountains, you know.
Peter Well, it’s certainly different. It’s a long way in terms of culture from Zell am See in Austria, which I know well, to Cervinia. But the challenge was to open a combined four- and five-star resort hotel in a major Italian resort. That’s quite a challenge.
Thomas Yes, absolutely. I think it is a new project. It’s a project which for us is very important because it’s all about lifestyle. And if you talk about lifestyle, of course, you need to give the opportunity for clients to have the four- and the five-star concept inclusive. My background is five star; my employers are having a huge experience in the four-star area. So I think if you bring these two experiences together, we are going to do very well.
Peter Now, this hotel, I remember I think it was a Club Med many years ago. Is that right?
Thomas Yes, exactly. It was actually for 19 years a Club Med. The owners of the buildings are from Milano, and they had a very long contract which was then interrupted because of COVID. And the young generation was taking over and they did not want to carry on with Club Med. They wanted really to see something new, to get a big change out of it.
There was about 30 competitors, also international competitors, who wanted to be part of this new concept. And at the end of the day, it was my company, Company Nicolaus with the brand Valtur winning this challenge. And I think the future is based on this great collaboration between the owners who wanted to do something new and change the Club Med concept, and my company which is having a very clear idea about the Italian lifestyle.
Peter So, yes, certainly there’s a few echoes of Club Med here in a very upmarket way. You look after your guests extremely well and in a very inclusive way. When you come back from skiing in the afternoon, you have a free buffet.
Thomas Yes, exactly. I think it’s a special moment, especially in winter time when you are back from the skiing pistes and you are tired, but at the same time your body is full with adrenaline and you had a great day. You still don’t want to straight away go up to your room, lie down and relax. I think we created this nice moment, the après-ski moment, and you have some drinks on the side and then people can order anything they wish at the same time.
Peter And then as we get on into the evening, there’s a choice of restaurants.
Thomas Yes, exactly. We have we have a four- and a five-star restaurant. So one restaurant is related to a buffet – it’s called the Gargantua. It’s a story about a giant who came to Cervinia many years ago, so we thought it’s nice to relate it. So we have a buffet which is changing every day; you can find a very rich choice of Italian dishes.
We have a regional evening where you have all the kitchen from Val d’Aosta, and we have we have a gala evening as well. Then we have an à la carte restaurant, which is by Alfredo Russo, our Michelin star chef strategic partner. He’s got a beautiful restaurant in Torino. He’s at the moment signing our menu and, alongside an amazing wine list as well, we are giving the guests an experience of à la carte.
Peter I’m just going back to the buffet restaurant. Wine is included with the meal?
Thomas Yes, absolutely. We have beverages, soft drinks, water and wine inclusive in the buffet.
Peter And you’re getting quite a lot of international guests. Talking to you last night, it seems that your guests come from all over the world.
Thomas Yes, I think this is the most important part for us is if we want to do lifestyle there would be no point to have only Italian clients or only English or Scandinavian clients. So I think the biggest success of this resort at the moment is that we have a really, really international clientele. Since we opened – we are only open for two months now – we had South Africans, Australians, we had France, Germany, Switzerland, you name it all, you know. So I think it’s a great opportunity for us, to have this international mix in our hotel.
Peter Now, the resort itself is slightly out of Cervinia. You can walk in there, but I gather you have a transfer service, a taxi service that’s really very regular indeed?
Thomas Yes. We are taking good care of that. You know, we have these shuttle buses. They are everyday available from 8.30 to 5.30 in the afternoon, bringing our guests to the pistes. Then to keep even more related to the skiing experience, we have a magic carpet.
Peter So I was going to talk to you about that. If you’re a skier, you go to your Rossignol-dedicated ski room, which has quite a good choice of skis and boots and other stuff. Then you go outside into the snow, and although you’re quite a long way outside by road from the resort…I say quite a long way…it’s a few minutes in the car, but there you are with your skis and you go into an enormous magic carpet. It must be 200m long?
Thomas Yes, exactly. It’s 160m. And you can reach with this magic carpet now a direct connection to the departure of our cable-car in Cervinia. So I think this is something new – it’s a new-build piste that the clients can take. You need to be already not a beginner because it’s not an easy track.
Peter It’s quite a steep magic carpet, actually.
Thomas It’s a steep magic carpet. Exactly. And also the piste going to the cable-cars is not the easiest one. It’s about one kilometre and you reach directly to the bottom of the cable-car. But the great thing is that you can leave the hotel with skis on; I think this is what key holidays are about.
Peter You can’t actually ski back to the hotel. You go down into the town and get the shuttle bus back to you?
Thomas You can actually also come back by skis. There is a direct connection with one of the most spectacular pistes. It’s called Cielo Alto, which is a blue piste…very, very spectacular. They made races on this piste many, many years ago, and it’s directly connected with Plan Maison and Plateau Rosa. So you can go back with the skis directly in front of this elevator, which brings you back into the ski room from Rossignol.
Peter You have a high standard of cabaret in the evening for the guests after dinner.
Thomas Yes, exactly. This is very related to the DNA of the company. At 9.30 every evening, we’re going to have a theatre with a nice dancing show or singing shows. It’s part of your holiday experience with us.
Peter Yes, certainly, talking to the British guests I’ve met here, they find that a really important part of the holiday.
Thomas After skiing you for sure go to the restaurant, you need, of course, to integrate your body with carbohydrates and proteins. Then in the evening, you’re tired, because, of course, you’re waking up early in the morning. Cervinia is a tough place because it’s above 2000m, so for sure you get tired from the height as well. And we have, together with Switzerland, more than 360km of skiing piste. People are having a great experience, but they’re tired in the evening.
Peter Well, certainly it applies to all resorts, and Cervinia is no exception to that: that the need to have discos and late night partying until 3am seems to have disappeared in favour of wellness and exercise and sport.
Thomas Yes, exactly I think this is our future, especially Cervinia is visited a lot by people who just want to regenerate the body, want to improve their skiing skills. That’s why we were investing a lot as well in our swimming-pool. We have a huge swimming pool with a 24m length and 215m² and a pool of 40m² only for children, together with a nice spa where you have hot tubs and saunas and steam baths. So I think the wellness part, but also the sportive part, is very, very important in winter and in summer.
Peter You’ve got a lot of people who come to your gym as well. So I guess there must be people who really don’t go skiing; they just relax in the spa.
Thomas Yes, actually the percentage of people which are not skiing is higher than I expected. And then, of course, during the day, people are taking care of their body or relaxing or maybe just going around with the snowshoes, having nice walks. We have personalised guides as well in our hotel who can assist you during these experiences, but many people are coming to us as well, only for relaxing, just to take off some days or a week from work and regenerate.
Peter Now, your staff is something that we talked about a lot. You have a big focus on lifestyle, and indeed you have a special department that’s devoted to just lifestyle. You have a lifestyle manager, an assistant lifestyle manager. What do they actually do? It’s a wonderful title.
Thomas Yes. This is something that we invented ourselves. If you invent a concept like this, you need somebody to take care of it, somebody who is taking care of our of our clients in a special way. So when we’re talking about lifestyle managers…for me, lifestyle managers are already pre-assisting our clients before arrival, upon arrival, maybe just dropping an email or giving you a call, figuring out what your needs are during your stay. Then during your stay from the check-in on, they are going to assist you and make sure that you’re having a great time, that you’re living the experiences which sometimes maybe are not that obvious. You can make the heli-skiing, you can go around with the air balloon, dogsledding as well. These are all experiences that need to be laid out, but organised at the same time. So it’s like a historical concierge from a five-star hotel mixed together with guest relations.
Peter So how do you see the future now of a resort like Cervinia, which has now got closer and closer ties with Zermatt on the other side of Monte Cervino, the Matterhorn, it’s becoming…has become…a huge resort, as you say, with 350, 360km of shared piste. And there’s talk in the future, very serious talk of linking it to Frachey and Champoluc in the Monterosa ski area. And it will then become one of, if not the largest, ski area in the world. The thing for Cervinia, do you think, and for your guests?
Thomas If it’s more…well, as you connect, the larger the opportunities are getting, there’s more possibilities our clients are having to move from one valley to the other. So already in June 2023, this year we are getting the Alpine Crossing, which is possible to go to Zermatt and back even in summertime, even if you’re not skiing. So this is for me, great value, a great opportunity.
Peter And that’s actually being completed, I think, in June 2023.
Thomas Exactly. The Italians are cooperating very good. It’s a huge project. It’s a 60 million project they developing at the moment? Because they they’re working on 3500m of height. It’s really something unique, a unique project. And on the top of that, then, as you just said, if the connection is going to be as well with the Monterosa ski resorts, it could become one of the biggest ones. And definitely for me, this is going to be a huge plus.
Peter I understand that the link will cost something in the region of €100 million. These are big projects, aren’t they?
Thomas Yes, absolutely. It was in the pipeline for many years, but even COVID could not stop it. Actually, COVID maybe was giving the opportunity to kick off, you know, with the work. This is big opportunity for both countries.
Peter So this to me sounds like a very good moment to create a brand new five-star and four-star hotel here in Cervinia?
Thomas I think timing is perfect, yes. That’s why I’m here, because I think this project is having a great future. We’re having a very important objective in front of us. The snow guarantee in Cervinia is going to be very soon one of the most secure ones in the whole of Europe. So we know already now that in a few years it’s going to be very, very tough to find ski resorts where you have a guarantee of snow. And this is the only reason why the clients are coming. You can ski here from 2000 meters up to 3400.
Peter And you could do that almost all year round now.
Thomas Yes. Now with the Alpine Crossing as well, there should be the possibility to keep the lifts open over 300 days a year. So that’s a huge guarantee.
Peter It seems like you’ve made the right move from Zell am See in Austria to Cervinia in Italy.
Thomas Yes, exactly.
Felice So Peter what’s the hotel actually like? A mixture of four and five stars sounds like a recipe for disaster?
Peter Well, it’s certainly a challenge. You can do it on a cruise liner, so why can’t you do it in a ski hotel? I mean, it’s not rocket science. But actually it works here remarkably well. I’m sure you remember the old Club Med here up a road on the edge of town from the resort’s original five stars, the Hermitage and the Sant Hubertus. This hotel company based in Puglia in the south of Italy, completely gutted the building and then put it back together again with a four-star wing and a five-star wing and then some communal and other separate facilities.
It’s a really, really complex layout. I guess they had to work around the original Club Med layout of internal walls, etc. I stayed there for three nights and it took me all of that time to work out how to get from my room to the various far-flung corners of the hotel and back again. It’s a bit weird having five star and four star ski lockers leading off from the shared Rossignol ski shop. I mean, one lot go one way and one lot go the other, and one lot’s got more luxury than the other. It’s quite difficult. But lots of facilities like the gym, spa and truly magnificent pool are all shared. So that’s ok.
Five-star guests obviously have a superior room and then there’s the a la carte restaurant. Breakfast here is served for five star guests, but four-star guests can also book a table in the evening…if there’s availability.
Actually, the giant main buffet restaurant has such a wide choice of cuisine that I prefer to dine here most nights. It offers such variety. I’ve not seen many rivals anywhere in the world. There’s a special ‘free from’ section as well, occasionally for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone with allergies like gluten, dairy or anything else.
Then there’s a cabaret for all on stage after dinner. The quality of the performers was pretty high, I thought. I saw an impressive magician who did the traditional cutting the lady in half, but he did it well in front of quite a large audience; and a compilation of Italian opera arias, along with some pretty sensational Leonard Cohen covers from the hotel’s resident singer, Daniela. I really liked those.
Importantly for families, there’s a programme of inclusive childcare staff look after toddlers, take older children to and from ski lessons, and even look after them in the evenings so that parents can enjoy dining in peace.
Felice What impressed you the most?
Peter Well, I think that has to be the friendliness of the staff. As Thomas explained, they have this lifestyle department run by Anna and Luca, who seem to speak any language that you happen to speak. They and their team make it their business to make sure that you’re really enjoying yourself throughout your stay. You want a ski lesson? They organise it. You want to go heli-skiing? They organise it. Snowshoeing? They organise it. You need a restaurant booking? Etc etc etc.
The second thing that really bowled me over was Marina, who is part of the lifestyle team. Now, bear in mind that it’s a big hotel, 230 rooms and 30 suites, catering I suppose for a total of around 500 guests. Marina stands outside the entrance to both the four- and five-star breakfast rooms each morning. And she greets everyone with a huge smile and greets them by name, and what’s more, she greets them with their room number. She knows their room number. Now, when you think each number is made up of four digits, so we’re talking about over 1,000 combinations and she does this without any form of prompting. The normal length of stay is seven days. So each weekend she scrubs her mind clean and learns the new names and room numbers. As a feat of photographic memory, it’s mind boggling.
Felice So Peter, would you come back?
Peter Yes, I would come back here for a family holiday. Yes, you bet. I think the Valtur Cristallo really is an interesting resort hotel and absolutely ideal for families. Yes, I’d come back. Definitely.
Felice If you want to know more about Valtur Cervinia Cristallo, check out their website…and that’s Cristallo with two Ls. If you want to know more about the resort, it”s www.cerviniatourist office.com
If you want to know more about the Aosta Valley and its resorts, including Frachay, Champoluc and Gressoney, go to their website www.aosta-valley.co.uk
For people based in the UK, the only tour operator offering holidays to the hotel, including travel at the moment is Crystal and their website.
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