Val Gardena - An El Dorado for ski lovers
Nothing beats the feeling of stepping into the very first morning gondola up to the Dantercepies summit, to watch the first rays of sunshine color the impressive Dolomites in 50 shades of gold. Under us are untouched slopes, groomed to perfection. We are at the start of three days of clear blue skies and some of the best skiing we’ve ever experienced, surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful South Tirolean scenery.
“Welcome to Val Gardena,” our local guide Christina Demetz says with a smile. “I hope you didn’t forget to put on sunscreen!”
If you’re into ski racing – in particular the men’s FIS World Cup races – you’re sure to have heard of Val Gardena. But maybe you didn’t know that this El Dorado for ski lovers is also the perfect destination for a family ski trip. The majority of the 90-plus slopes are perfect for beginners to intermediate skiers, and while experts may be better off at Italian ski resorts like La Thuile, Val Gardena does still offer them a challenge.
“We have 450 lifts, 330 snow grooming machines, 3,000 people preparing the slopes and 98% man-made snow,” Demetz reveals.
Lack of snow then is never an issue, and even in a low-snow winter like last season, the quality of the Val Gardena slopes was outstanding, thanks to the excellent snow-making capabilities.
The scale of the ski network here rivals the famed Trois Vallées in France, but with the extra perk that the Dolomiti Superski pass also covers dozens of other resorts within driving distance from Val Gardena.
But what we came to love the most with Val Gardena is that it combines the best of two worlds – the well-organized German culture, with its smooth-working structure and mouth-watering big breakfast buffets that include a variety of fresh baked rolls and delicacy spreads, and the irresistible Italian culture, with sun-drenched days, tasty fresh seafood pasta, sparkling Prosecco, crispy pizzas and lovely local wines.
For many years, the area was part of Austria, and it retains a Tirolean charm. German is more widely spoken than Italian here, but in Val Gardena the inhabitants also speak a local language called Ladin. Therefore (and yes, it can be confusing at first), most places have three names – the village Selva is also known as Wolkenstein in German and Sëlva in Ladin.
Demetz speaks all three languages fluently, and like most locals she is completely in love with what she calls “her mountains.” We call them the Dolomites.
“I grew up with Sassolungo right outside my window. And today I still have my mountain right in front of my house. I never get tired of the views, the light is always different. Today, it is a really beautiful color,” she says, gazing into the distance.
“Sassolungo has been here for millions of years and will remain for millions more. This mountain is a fixed point in my life, a stable thing. People from here love to travel and see the world, but we’re always homesick. We always long for Val Gardena, the summer as well as the winter season."
“I love the sporty lifestyle. And the people. We all know each other. You never feel alone because you can always find a friend to talk to,” she says, proving her point by waving to a group of carabinieri, members of the Italian armed forces, who make sure the ski system is safe.
If it’s your first visit to Val Gardena, the best way to get to know the ski system is to start with a tour of the famous Sella Ronda – a circular network of lifts and trails taking you on a 42km-long ski marathon around the spectacular fortress-like limestone massif, Gruppo del Sella. The tour offers more than five exhilarating hours of new slopes and takes you through three Italian provinces and four Ladin villages – Selva di Val Gardena, Corvara, Arabba and Canazei. The Sella mountains constitute the hub of the Sella Ronda circuit and the four villages are scattered around it. The ski route also links the famous Dolomiti ski areas Val Gardena/Alpe di Siusi, Alta Badia, Val di Fassa/Carezza and Arabba/Marmolada.
Before sunrise, we find ourselves on the northern gondola which takes us from our village, Selva di Val Gardena, to the summit station of Dantercepies – the starting point for skiing the Sella Ronda ski route clockwise. You can also take the Ciampinoi gondola near the village center to start the counterclockwise route.
From the top of the mountains, the stunning views are ever-changing and the Dolomiti landscape not only provides visual drama but also dictates the nature of the slopes. The intermediate level of the red ski runs suit younger members of the family and the lift system has been upgraded to clear the bottlenecks of the Sella Ronda circuit. The latest addition is Italy’s only heated eight-seat chairlift.
Like many locals, Demetz grew up in one of the many family hotels in the valley. Most hotels here are family-owned and have a cosy, home-like atmosphere.
“Well, they are in fact also homes,” she says with a laugh. And to the 60% of the guests that return every year, their favorite has become almost a “second home.”
Today, Demetz is our ski guide around the Sella Ronda – and not an easy one to keep up with.
“My father was a passionate ski instructor and he put me on skis when I was only three years old. I still love it,” she smiles, when we finally catch up with her.
“If you grow up in Val Gardena you have to love the sports the area offers. You have to hike, climb, bike and ski, because we don’t have nightlife here like in a city.”
Over the next six hours we throw ourselves down a countless number of sunny slopes, only to take yet another lift or gondola to yet another mountain. Despite the peak of the season, queues are rare and waiting times short.
The first village we reach is Corvara, where if you’re hungry you can dine at a Michelin-star restaurant. The second is Arabba, where we take the big cable car up to impressive Porta Vescovo at 2,478m above sea level. We get off the cable car at the Rifugio Luigi Gorzo, the perfect pit stop for a picnic, low-priced Italian coffee and priceless view over the Marmolada Glacier, or for an Aperol Spritz on the huge outdoor terrace.
After an enjoyable break we continue towards Arabba and the final village, Canazei. Skiing makes you hungry, but fortunately you’re never far from an inviting rifugio – the family-run mountain huts that serve hearty local food and wine, and a cappuccino with home-baked German Apfelstrudel to die for. It’s a pleasant problem having to decide which of the charming and inviting huts to stop at.
A tip for your Val Gardena visit is to stay on the Seceda side, also called “the sunny side” of Val Gardena, where you can enjoy sunshine all day long and end your day on the slopes watching the sunset from one of the many huts in the area.
But today we end our ski adventure with a fabulous fresh seafood meal at Rifugio Emilio Comici. Take it easy with the Prosecco though – you still have a long ski run left before you’re back in Selva di Val Gardena again, to relax at the hotel spa. We toast an amazing first Sella Ronda tour – and promise ourselves that it won’t be our last.
Text: Sofia Zetterman