Felice This week we’re in the Sella Ronda. It’s one of those world-renowned but slightly mysterious ski circuits that no one ever quite explained what it actually is, and indeed how good you have to be to be able to complete it.
Peter It’s been a while since we were last in Covara. Now this is the most important of the half dozen villages that make up the magical region of Alta Badia.
Felice On a beautifully sunny afternoon we travelled from Venice Airport deep into the Dolomites, along narrow roads with a dramatic backdrop of rock faces and snowy slopes.
Peter We settled into our extraordinarily comfortable five-star hotel, the Sassongher – more about that later – and took a late afternoon stroll around the village before meeting up with Patrick, our ski guide.
Peter So what do you think of this so far?
Felice Well, it’s grown a lot since I was first here. A lot of these buildings are actually quite new.
Peter Yes, I agree. I think I’ve certainly been here many times over the years, but it appears to have really come on, hasn’t it?
Felice Not that many shops and things like that, it’s mainly hotels, apartment, lots of accommodation. Above all, the incredible scenery – that’s the main thing.
Peter Yes, as you walk down the road here you look up – it’s four o’clock in the afternoon – you look up at the most extraordinary rock faces, great cathedrals, soaring cathedrals of rock against a blue sky and…describe the colours?
Felice The sky isn’t as blue as it was. It was bright, bright blue in the middle of the day today. But now it’s going towards sunset, so it’s sort of getting a bit lighter, whiter, and the rock has the sun full on the top.
Peter You’ve got shades of yellow that over the next half an hour will go to a very delicate shade of pink.
Felice The moon’s out. We’re standing right next to an old church, a white painted church…looks very pretty.
Peter The last skiers of the day are coming down the mountainside behind us, coming right down to the Boè lift.
Felice That’s the lift that you take if you’re doing the Sella Ronda.
Peter So Patrick, tell us really what the Sella Ronda is?
Patrick The Sella Ronda is a skiing route around the mountain that is called Sella Ronda Gruppe. We have four valleys that are connected by four hills and you can ski all around this mountain – so a true four valleys; I think it should be around 20, 25 kilometres.
Peter So in all it’s about 20 lifts, so it’s quite a long morning. It much depends upon the traffic: if you wait for five minutes on each lift that’s 100 minutes extra, so it’s a variable time, right?
Patrick Yes. Usually if you have a medium/expert skier that can ski pretty fast, without queues on the lifts you can do the whole round in two hours and a half, three hours. But of course, when it is very busy you will need to calculate four or five hours.
Felice So people can join a Corvara ski school class and do the Sella Ronda?
Patrick Yes, of course we do it at ski school, not just lessons. We also guide people to do nice tours…the Sella Ronda can be one of them. There are many, many possibilities; you can change route every day.
Peter Then of course there’s the tour of the battlefields of the First World War, because this was a major theatre of war in 1914-15, wasn’t it?
Patrick Yes, that’s also a very interesting tour to do. In this case, it’s always recommended to start pretty early in the morning because you have also to take a bus two times and it needs some time to do the whole route; it’s a pretty long route.
Felice But when you do the Sella Ronda you don’t need to take a bus, is that right?
Patrick No, for the Sella Ronda you can just ski the whole time without buses, without anything. And if you do it pretty quickly, you can also choose in every valley to do one or two slopes more to enjoy your skiing day.
Peter You can ski clockwise and anti-clockwise?
Patrick Yes, it’s possible to do it on both sides. On Sella Ronda if you drive it by car, it’s 50 kilometres, so if you calculate on skiing you will have half on the lifts and half on the slopes. So we calculate around 20/25 kilometres of skiing slopes.
Felice If you want to, can you do that all on blue and red runs?
Patrick You can do it also with blue and red runs but there are a few pretty challenging red slopes – they are not very easy, but the most…let’s calculate. On the clockwise it’s a little bit more difficult. The anti-clockwise? It’s a bit easier, so if you do one or two reds it’s enough. You can do it with pretty easy slopes.
Peter But any competent intermediate can manage to do it in good weather?
Patrick If you are an intermediate skier, you have no problem to do the whole route on both sides.
Felice Do you have a favourite run?
Patrick My favourite run on the Sella Ronda is the Cir slope that starts from Passo Gardena at the top of Dantercepies and moves down in the direction of Val Gardena. It’s a black slope and it’s a pretty long slope, and also the steepness changes always, so it’s not an annoying slope.
Peter Well, now we’re taking a bit of time out to chill after a truly magnificent dinner washed down with some spectacular wines from this region in the main restaurant of Hotel Sassongher. I’m pretty sure this is the only hotel I’ve ever stayed in where you get ingredients such as seafood, including whole lobsters and langoustine and shrimps and game on the half board menu.
Felice Yes, this really is a very special place. The Sassongher sits on a rise, dominating the village just under the mountain of the same name. It’s a family-run hotel, traditional but with a contemporary twist as well.
Peter Francesco, the owner, seems always to be on duty at every hour of the day and night. He’s at the front of house or in the bar, greeting guests and seeing to each one’s personal needs. This is a kind of level of service that you can never normally replicate in a hotel. There seems to be a wide range of nationalities among the guests. Italians are here in force, but Austrian, English, and Dutch are in the mix.
Felice Francesco seems to be able to speak so many languages, including, of course, his own mother tongue, which is Ladin. Don’t confuse Ladin with Latin or even Ladino, which was spoken in Spain and throughout the world by Sephardic Jews.
Peter Yes, the native language of Corvara and the other villages in the Alta Badia is quite separate to Italian. This is not an Italian dialect, but a Latin-based language in its own right. There are indeed about 41,000 speakers of it in the region, which has its own culture and cuisine.
Now, this can be quite confusing to visitors to the Dolomites. The villages, mountain passes, peaks and refugees all seem to have two official names – one Italian and one in Ladin. To add to the confusion, most of the region is based in Sud Tyrol, formerly a province of Austria – and not Italy until 1919, and some villages are predominantly German-speaking along with the Bratwurst and Gulaschsuppe that goes with their mixed heritage from the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War One.
Felice A ski guide who once told me that he was firstly a Ladin, secondly an Austrian and thirdly, rather reluctantly, Italian. Others think the reverse of the last two. It is pretty confusing, but the whole mix is all part of the unique charm of the Dolomites. Here’s our host. Let’s find out a bit more about the hotel from him.
Peter So, Francesco, what a wonderful hotel. Now this has been your family for how many years?
Francesco So it’s family-run since 1933. I’m the third generation, so I hope then that my son becomes the fourth generation and we grow him up year by year to do our best for this hotel.
Felice I saw a picture of the hotel in 1933; it was much smaller. When did you first add different stages of it to make it bigger?
Francesco So after the second war, most of the people saw so much potential here for skiing, tourism and in the summer also for hiking tourism. The valley was growing up very fast, and there was then in the end of the sixties the first boom of tourism, winter and summer.
Peter Is that still growing at the moment?
Francesco At the moment we have a bad situation with this pandemic of COVID but for sure when this will be finished, I hope soon all will be returned normal and the world international tourism comes back to Alta Badia in Corvara.
Peter Certainly today on the slopes, there were a lot of Italians, but not many other nationalities. I didn’t hear very many other languages, but no doubt that will come back.
Francesco Yes, now it’s the problem. The international guests to come here have to take a flight, and before taking a flight they have to do a test. And now it is Omicron. One out of two persons are positive, so every day we become a cause that they can’t come because they have tested positive. So we have only to wait that this situation will be finished soon and then all will be fine and international tourism comes back.
Felice Do lots of people come here in summer as well, or is it mainly winter?
Francesco Main international is in winter; we here at Hotel Sassongher have normally 40, 45 different nationalities. In the summer, it’s in Italian hands so we have 90% Italian and then a mix of German, Austrian and some UK people. But in the winter is the most international tourism.
Peter Summer in the Dolomites is almost better than winter, in some ways. It’s so beautiful.
Francesco I also like the summer more. It’s completely different. I like to hike, I like to go by bicycle. We have only to promote it more because I’m sure that when the summer tourists come here and see this magnificent place, the Dolomites, they will come every year absolutely.
Peter Just to talk about the hotel: you have 65 rooms now, is that correct?
Francesco Sixty-five since 2018, when we’d done the new renovation, before it was 52 and now 65, most of them are very big-sized rooms because our entry category is 26 square metres, then we have the Superior and Deluxe between 45/55 square metres and two suites starting from 60 square metres.
Felice Do most people stay here half board?
Francesco Yes, most people stay…99% stay here half board, first of all because they know about our cuisine. They like it very much. And then you are on holiday and Corvara is not a big city, so to go out in the evening it became a little bit difficult. So most of the people decided to do half board.
Felice What we ate in the main restaurant and the food was fantastic. What’s the name of your chef?
Francesco Our chef is called Raffaele Matera. He comes from Ischia, so all his crew is from Ischia, and I hope he will stay a long, long time here with us.
Peter I mean, in the half board menu, there were things like lobsters and venison and wonderful lamb chops.
Felice As the chef comes from Ischia, does that mean that there’s a Mediterranean influence?
Francesco Absolutely, yes. But he grew his career in Switzerland. So in Switzerland, he also knows all the technical methods to cook venison or local food that can be alpine food. But absolutely, we have international cuisine.
Peter The hotel is a landmark in Corvara. It stands on on a hill overlooking the town. It’s a little bit of a walk into town, but I think you have a courtesy bus?
Francesco Yes, we have two shuttles that are going around all the day bringing our guests to the slopes, pick them up or bring them in the village to shop or whatever they want. So they are going all around from eight in the morning until eight in the evening.
Peter You have lots of luxury things like you have a beautiful pool and you have a sauna, and what else?
Francesco Maybe now with the new, spa with the new construction, we extended to circa 1000 square meters on the wellness area, and absolutely the top is the open area – the panorama sauna that every kind of guest will try it one time when they’re here in the Sassongher.
Peter In the year 2000, you completely renovated the hotel?
Francesco Yes, that’s true. We were closed in the summer season because of the renovation. So we started at the end of March after the winter season and finished one week before…in December…before we reopened again for the winter season.
Felice You mentioned that this year you’re going to put oak floors in every bedroom?
Francesco Not in every one because some guests want to have carpet. But now we have 40 rooms out of 65 with oak floors. So we try to put in another 10 and the remaining will be with carpet.
Felice We saw some beautiful rooms, but one of my favourites was Hubertus, which is not a huge room, but really, really sweet and wooden everywhere.
Francesco Felice, yes you like the Hubertus Suite, it’s 72 square meters high. But the particular of this with its 99% all with wood, from the wall to ceiling. So it’s a special room. It was in the ‘80s our bar, one of our main bars, and after it became the room called Hubertus because Hubertus is the protector of our hunters here.
Felice Another suite that I liked was the Cinderella Suite.
Francesco Cinderella was built during the new construction in 2018. It’s 85 square meters big, combining traditional style but modern style.
Felice So Cinderella can stay there after she’s met the prince.
Peter What I love too are the old rooms, because you’ve got Stubli…very old rooms which you’ve imported into the hotel.
Francesco Yes, we find it in the ‘80s in a mountain hut not so far from here, and we don’t know exactly if it’s from the 14th or 15th century.
Peter Francesco, thank you very much indeed. We hope that you have a wonderful rest of the season, followed by a full summer season, and we all get properly back to normal before the start of next winter.
Well, that was the Sella Ronda – 20 lifts, 25 km slopes. Actually, it’s a bit more like 30, I think, because Patrick was determined to show us a few of his favourite runs along the way that were not directly a part of the circuit.
Felice Yes, it was amazing skiing. We set off towards Arabba on the slightly more challenging route that took us towards Pordoi, Selva Val Gardena and back again to Corvara via the little village of Colfosco. What did you think of the snow, Peter?
Peter Well, it was pretty amazing considering it hasn’t really snowed for about three weeks now here, but the sunshine overhead made up for a lot, but underfoot it was remarkable. I mean, this is an area that is really good for artificial snow.
It all goes back to the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, there were three successive really poor snow seasons, and the area suffered really badly, and they started to develop an artificial snowmaking circuit, which was and is one of the biggest in Europe. They were very much the pioneers in this. They managed to create such a big circuit that when you get to a winter like 2016, when there was virtually no snow at all, they actually laid a carpet of artificial snow that was 200 kilometres in length and pretty wide as well. So you could actually ski the whole circuit …quite a lot more as well…without actually running out of snow. No, it’s great.
Felice Some people complain this is motorway skiing. Well, I suppose it is in a way because the runs are wide and there are lots of them, but you wouldn’t ever find a motorway with views like this and virtually no people today, either. I don’t think we’re queued anywhere for more than about two minutes. What do you think of the lifts?
Peter Well, they’re all very modern now. Back in the day, the whole circuit took so long because the lifts were so slow. I think there are only two old-fashioned double chairs that are left now, and no doubt these are bottlenecks on a busy day, but as the people were few and far between today we didn’t waste any time at all. So Felice, overall is the Sella Ronda a sensible day out if you go on holiday here?
Felice Definitely. You’d want to do it once during your week, not every day, but you do need to have a reasonable level of fitness. We skied without stopping from top to bottom of every run. You do get a bit of a rest on the lifts, but it was a workout definitely. By the time we got to Refugio Col Alt back again in Corvara, I really felt I’d earned my lunch.
Peter The mountain restaurants are amazing, aren’t they?
Felice They’re some of the best. There are just so many good ones, and the views are fantastic from all of them.
Peter And as I said earlier, the cuisine varies quite dramatically from village to village. Because of the cultural heritage, you get Ladin dishes with lots of very tasty dumplings and things, and then you get Austrian food when you’re going to a German-speaking area. And then, of course, there’s a wonderful Italian pastas and grilled meat.
Felice I definitely choose pasta every time as I’m in Italy. Rather than doing the circuit every day I think it makes sense to check out different areas on different days. So one day you could do Arabba, another day you could go to the Marmolada. You can also do the World War One battlefield tour. That’s worthwhile.
Peter Yes, that’s pretty amazing.
Felice So it’s time to go back to our hotel again.
Peter So what do you think of it, the Sassongher?
Felice Very comfortable, it’s not in the centre. Don’t expect it to be, but you have lovely views over the town because it’s slightly higher up overlooking it. There is a good shuttle service taking you to from the left and the town whenever you need it.
Peter Yes, and that’s very efficient. It’s just a couple of minutes wait at any one time, so it doesn’t actually make any difference being slightly out of town. And of course, it’s very quiet. All in all, as far as I’m concerned, Corvara is a great place for a holiday for any intermediate skier, families it would be good.
If you’re a family with small children, don’t even begin to contemplate doing the full tour, but perhaps somebody can look after them or they can be in a lesson when you go and do it yourself.
Felice The thing about Corvara is that it really is probably in the best position to do the Sella Ronda – or of the whole area anyway, because you can reach all the other bits of it very easily. You’re not off on a tangent or anything like that.
Peter Yes, I particularly like this corner of the Alta Badia. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is just for intermediate skiers. It’s for all standards. And there’s some really dramatic off-piste runs here. You can go from Passo Pordoi across the centre of the Sella rock, the Sella group of rocks, I should say. It’s called the Val Mesdi, and it starts with a 45-minute, roughly 45-minute, easy walk up with skis. And the reward is a dramatic descent, really quite steep in places, with these walls of rock on either side. You come out near Colfosco and then you can easily get back to Corvara from there. But that’s a very special run with a guide. And then there are lots of very, very demanding couloirs, again only to be done with a guide.
Felice If you want to book hotel session or find out more about it. Go to Sassongher.it
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