Skiing in Cervinia: it's tempting to look everwhere but downhill

It was snowing the day we arrived in Cervinia. Big, fat flakes floated slowly down onto the steep Alpine roofs and quaint balconies of the houses and stores, melted into the crystal-clear waters of the brook that babbled through the center of town, and powdered our jackets and hats. Everything was quiet and very serene.

But then, as if on cue, the snow stopped, the clouds rolled back, and a patch of blue sky showed through. Framed by the steeple of the little village church there suddenly appeared a most amazing sight -- a truly magnificent mountain crowned with snow and sunlight. It was the Matterhorn, that craggy, noble giant. This was the first of many tantalizing glimpses we would have of it over the next few days.

For it never stopped snowing for long in Cervinia. When one is a skier, of course, one should not be heard complaining about the snow, for without it one would be hiking. In early December there were already three feet of snow on the slate roofs of Cervinia, with another 71 feet expected before the winter was over.

These statistics make Cervinia sound like a skier's dream -- especially to enthusiasts in the eastern United States, who have endured a much-too-balmy winter.

Cervinia is nestled above the tree line at the end of a long, glacierdug valley on the northern border of Italy. It's a small, picturesque town, but one of the largest open-slope ski facilities in Europe. The vertical drop is almost a mile from a top elevation of 11,484 feet to a base at the village of 6,765 feet. You could ski different runs every day for an entire week and not begin to exhaust the 125 miles of ski trails traversing this terrain.

The runs vary from very, very steep trails, called "walls," because they drop away so suddenly, to very long, gentle, open runs that go on for miles above the tree line.

Since there are so many miles of trails at Cervinia and so many lifts to serve them (seven cable cars, 12 surface lifts, two T-bars), you rarely find lift lines. With 20 percent of the trails for beginners, 60 percent for intermediates, and 20 percent for experts, everyone can find enjoyable and challenging trails.

So it was for us on the last day of our stay in Cervinia. We boarded the gondola at the village and were at the first stop in five minutes. We let the poma lift carry us another few hundred feet, and then connected with the chair lift for the final assault on the peak, reaching a point that I felt we just might never get back down from.

The first part of that run was without a doubt the most glorious I have ever made. The slope was so wide, so long, and so gentle that I felt like I was riding a bike -- no handed -- down a long, smooth pavement. It was that easy, that effortless, and that exhilarating.

Afer a hot drink at the gondola stop, we started on the last leg of that memorable run, headed for the village and dinner. This was where I learned that even the toughest slopes that test the very limits of your skill have rewards besides a successful descent.

This run was steeper than any I'd ever been on before; there were a few "walls," some unexpected moguls, and some off-trail powder skiing. All the time we were inside a snow cloud. It was often all we could do to keep the trail markers in sight.

But halfway down, the sun again found that hole in the clouds. It illuminated orange splotches of lichen on the rough of the village below, and set afire the summit of the Matterhorn, towering above us. It was a moment well worth the effort of getting there.

It was also at this point that my instructor sighed and said, "Your trouble, ma cheriem, is that you look everywhere but downhill." True enough.

But when the snow stopped and the clouds lifted and the distant peaks and valley came into view, it was impossible not to just stop and stare. For if there is any one thing that truly sets Alpine skiing apart, it is the sheer size and beauty of those mountains.

A run that attracts expert skiers with magnificent scenery and high adventure is a border crossing from Italy to Switzerland -- on skis. Leaving Cervinia early in the morning, you can ski across the top of the glacier and be in Zermatt, Switzerland, in time for lunch. Then it's back up the gondola on the Swiss side and a long, tough run back down into Cervinia -- a round trip of 18 miles.

After a hot, soothing bath, it's the restaurants that are of prime interest. Do as the Italians do and make the most of those long, multicourse meals.

One especially memorable meal for us was at a restaurant called Cime Bianche. The place is a quaint Alpine chalet, the oldest structure in Cervinia. Inside, it has warm, brown, paneled walls; lace curtains; red-check table cloths; and hurricane lamps. That night we ate specialties of the region -- red peppers spread with anchovy paste and then broiled, ham crepes in bowls of melted local chees, tender veal with mushrooms and herbs.

As we left the restaurant that night, the skies had cleared, and there was a beautiful view of the snow-laden conifers and towering mountains, illuminated by a full moon. The owner of the restaurant stood with me, enjoying the beauty, and he told me of yet another adventure awaiting visitors to Cervinia, nighttime skiing.

Romantic? Yes! The Alps are a great place for a ski vacation full of adventures to be told and retold on long winter evenings back home -- and at affordable prices, too. Practical information:

My trip was part of a Trans World Airlines Getaway Ski program. These specially priced tours go to eight different ski resorts in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and France. The price of around $1,100 a person a week includes round-trip air fare from New York, seven nights hotel (double), two meals a day, transportation from the airport to the hotel and back, service charges, baggage handling, and tour assistance. Ski rentals and lessons are extra, but cost less than in the US.

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