by Isabel Conway –
Sestriere is Italy’s first purpose built ski resort, transformed from a barren mountain back to 1934 when the founder of Fiat Giovanni Agnelli decided to give the glitterati of industrial northern Italy their own ritzy version of St Moritz or Verbier closer to home. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were among its regular celeb guests back in the day.
Nowadays Sestriere is the domain of more ordinary skiers, Italians and international including quite a few Irish families (with direct flights to Turin} drawn to nearby extensive ski terrain suitable for all abilities, a reliable snow record and reasonable prices. Last but not least, as you would expect, Italy delivers large dollops of La Dolce Vita wherever you go. And Sestriere has been rated by specialist ski magazines and reviewers as one of the most affordable and family friendly ski resorts in Italy.
A gentle bit of sightseeing in Turin, shopping and cafe crawling for a day or two in either direction, fits in perfectly with the rigours of skiing, hauling all that ski rental equipment around and the knee knocking sensation of exiting the top of a chair lift into zero visibility.
Stylish Turin at the foot of the Alps is much more than a gateway to the mountains. It is one of Italy’s great cities, bursting with museums and culture, bustling yet walker friendly full of grand squares and small hidden piazzas with their cosy pavement cafes and interesting mix of ancient and modern architecture. It is also home of the famous Turin Shroud, Fiat cars and Juventus football team.
A viewing of the shroud turns out to be an anti- climax. The relic is kept well hidden in a casket and visitors view a screening of somewhat confusing diagrams pointing to where the face hands and feet of Christ are supposedly imprinted. The latest technical research dates the Shroud as no earlier than the 14th century so suspension of disbelief comes in handy.
Arriving from drizzly Ireland on a Saturday morning we were instantly seduced by sunshine and style wandering towards Piazza Vittorio Veneto along arcades, covered walkways, stopping for the best cappuccino (€1,50) I have ever drunk at historic Caffe Mulassano in the city’s central Baroque Piazza Castello.
In the afternoon we took the city’s hop on hop off sightseeing bus – perfect for those strapped for time – getting our bearings of all the main sights, out into the suburbs and into hillsides dotted with industrialists mansions and superb mountain views, crossing the Po river back and forth. The commentary was eclectic: Turin also known as the ‘capitol of taste’ is famous for its wonderful chocolate, cakes and ice cream and reputedly the city invented the choc ice known as a “Pinguino”.
Arriving late on Sunday night in snowy floodlit Sestriere the piste bashers are out in force on the slopes that start steps away from our hotel Villaggio Olimpico. The cavernous hotel was built for the 2006 winter Olympics alpine events. Reminders of Sestriere’s beginnings are still evident from the fascist style block buildings since softened by high round towers poking out from them like monstrous chimneys.
On the high slopes above Sestriere awesome mountain peaks abound. The sharp outline of one was instantly familiar and eventually I found out why. We film buffs have been looking at it our entire movie going lives. The 3820 metre high Mont Viso is the one surrounded by stars used by Paramount pictures as the opening scene in all their movies.
Sometimes called ‘the bright star of the Milky Way constellation’ (though not everyone would agree) Sestriere ticks off all the facilities for a great winter sport break amid beautiful Alpine scenery with plenty of inexpensive cosy mountain restaurants. La Coche where I eventually arrived exhausted that first day bringing up the rear behind fast skiers from France and Canada was picture perfect. Rifugio Aquila Nera another authentic skiers high mountain hideaway featured polenta and typical Piemonte food. Covered in snow some us looked like polar explorers on arrival having all but missed this welcome refuge in the thick fog ravenous with hunger and thirst. But that’s what makes a ski holiday such a treat. From stunning landscapes to rich cultures and the history of Turin and Sestriere, our travel guide to Italy has everything you need to plan the perfect trip to any destination.
Factfile: Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com) flies Dub-Turin on Saturdays with early March fares from €35 one way. Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com)Dub- Milan Linate daily with train connections to Turin. In Turin try Hotel Genio close to central station (www.hotelgenio.it) See www.turismotorino.org/en for further information on Turin and Sestriere. Crystal ski holidays brochure and www.crystalski.ie feature ski and flight packages to Sestriere staying in some of its best located accommodation, or visit your local ITAA member travel shop.