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ITALY: Our Country Is a Castle


The place is so perfect in its high mountain setting that the people who live there consider it their own little kingdom. They speak a different language from their countrymen down in Milan and Rome, and for years nobody cared that few outsiders came around. In fact, old-timers insist that when the first skier came galumphing over the Passo Sella in 1894 and looked down into Val Gardena, the locals all figured that the Devil had come to pay a call.

Not too much has changed since then. True, there are now more than 85 cable cars and lifts strung across the surrounding slopes and a devil of a lot more skiers come every season. There are 11,500 beds for rent, and someone figured out that in 1968 the area experienced 874,000 tourist-nights, whatever a tourist-night is. But Val Gardena is so monumentally isolated up there on the sharp, ragged top of the Dolomites that it still wears that undiscovered look.

This is the ski world's bonus this season, since Italy is where the action will be. Italian skiing has always had a special feel to it anyway, more relaxed and well fed, with none of the hup-hup discipline of the rest of Europe. But the crowds who have already found Cortina now have a new place to discover, a vast hideaway with crazy slopes and a casual air.

The timing is right: the 1970 FIS world ski championships will come in February, bringing an invasion of excitement and glamour—enough to add extra splash, but not enough to stand the place on its bucolic ear. Perhaps the chief reason is that Val Gardena is not precisely a ski town or resort; it is more a fine Italian state of mind, made up of three small villages—Ortisei, S. Cristina and Selva—that spread along the valley floor. The name Val Gardena, by an ancient translation, means "pasture near a wood," and it covers a lot of pasture land.

The centuries of isolation and all those wars between the Germanic tribes to the north and Latins on the south have left the place with a language all its own, called Ladin, and a people who are quietly proud to belong to the valley, not the country. In fact, Val Gardena may be the only ski area in the world where the communities all have at least two names, which adds a dash of confused charm to the scene. Ortisei, for example, also is St. Ulrich and in Ladin it's Urtijei. Nearby, the town of Selva also is Selva in Ladin, becomes Wolkenstein in German and uses both names interchangeably.

But no matter what they call the place, the skiing has been there all along. The Italians, never known to turn aside a cliché, call the Dolomites their Mountains of Light, the Enchanted Mountains and the Magical Mountains, all of which—however full of Bolognese it may sound—are applicable in Val Gardena.

Fine ski runs abound on all sides, more than 75 miles of major trails fanning out for this season's travelers to discover. Here one can start the day with a "coretto" for courage (a heady mixture of coffee and grappa), then try such slopes as the Forcella del Sasso Lungo—where you can see the world spread out in wide screen—or the Val de Mesdi, so steep at the top (a 4,000-foot drop in two miles) that you jump right out of your socks to make a turn. There are others: the Monte de Seura run; the Passo Sella, which has skiing to suit all abilities; and the Carousel, on which you can ski 40 miles all around the Gruppo del Sella, roughly like taking a long traverse around Colorado.

All of it—the superb runs, the people, the settings—fits into the overall European ski picture for 1969-70. The wise traveler first will see Cortina, where folks swing and ski in roughly equal proportions, then Val Gardena, with its air of easy living. There will be new touches just for this year—torchlight parades, world class skiers and ceremonies. And old touches that are always there: oompah bands and beer; postcard architecture out of the past. The atmosphere is one of happy seclusion in a high kingdom all its own. And at the drop of a cannelloni, any good Val Gardenan will recite a stanza of an old valley poem that tells it all:

Our country is a castle of hard rock
Made with love and care by God
Who has placed us, the Ladins,
As guardians between the Germans and the Italians;
Yes, we are Ladin, and remain Ladin!