The most embarrassing moment of my childhood went by unnoticed. I had tagged along on my mother’s weekly trip to the supermarket so that I could do what many eight-year old boys wanted to do – spend quality time in the toy aisle. My mom was just ahead of me, probably hoping I wouldn’t guilt her into buying a toy, when something caught my eye. A helicopter perched on the top shelf. I had an aeroplane and a rocket but my aviation collection needed a helicopter, badly. Standing on my tip-toes, I reached for the helicopter but just could not grasp it. I stood on the bottom shelf and before you could say “Airwolf” the shelf collapsed.
I walked away with Inspector Clouseau-like nonchalance. A short while later my mother and I passed the toy aisle and found a team of workers re-packing the shelf. Nobody in the entire store, not even my mom, realised that I had done it. As it turns out, one of the most embarrassing moment of my adult life would also go by unnoticed, this time on the ski slopes of Italy.
You see, despite taking a few ski lessons I never quite grasped the snow-plough, a technique where you bring the front of your skis closer together while pushing the backs out wide. In theory this slows you down and brings you to a halt. In practice it’s not always that simple, particularly when cross-country skiing. The skis are longer and the boots you wear have more flexibility in them than the stiff-as-aboard ones you would wear for downhill skiing and snowboarding. This makes ploughing a bit trickier as you have to kick your legs out a bit wider.
The thing with falling
These are the things I wish I knew before I started to descend on the steepest hill at Campo Carlo Magna. The thing with falling is that I never manage to do it at the top of a hill. I manage to hold my balance, build up speed and start to wobble once I have reached terminal velocity. This is how I once fractured by clavicle while mountain biking, how I ended up picking stones out of my skin when I took a spill off my time-trial bike and it is precisely how I ended up with my face in a snowbank, glasses flung from my head and skis dislodged.
I stood up, looked around and realised that nobody had seen my fall. Someone else from our touring party took a similar tumble a short while later but had the misfortune of having an audience. She was mercilessly mocked for the rest of the trip while nobody had any idea that I’d used my face as a braking mechanism. Peter Sellers would have been proud.
Campo Carlo Magna has quite a bit of history behind it. The mountain pass is named after Charlemagne, who is believed to have made a crossing en route to Rome for his coronation in 800 AD. The pass connects the Val Rendena to the Val di Sole and is gaining popularity as a destination for visitors who prefer to be active while on holiday. While the winters offer excellent skiing, the summers are becoming popular for mountain biking.
Our base for the tour was a charming town called Dimaro. The town is in Italy’s Trentino district and is home to little over a thousand residents. I am certain that during peak ski season there are more visitors than locals. The modus operandi for the tour was sample. Each day started with a continental breakfast before we’d head out to try a different winter sport.
The one thing I struggled to get used to was the short winter days. We couldn’t have spent more than four or five hours faceplanting… er… skiing at Campo Carlo Magna yet arrived just after sunrise and left quite soon after sunset. Despite the seemingly short time spent on the trails, it was an experience I won’t soon forget.
The vast expanse of snow-lined trees with the Dolomites as a backdrop made for photographs worthy of postcards. There were, of course, times that were not quite Kodak moments. A tour group comprising of people who have never stood upright on a pair of boards attached to their feet lends itself to some spectacular tumbles.
Broadly speaking, there are two styles of cross-country skiing, classic and skating. As the name suggests, skating involves the transferral of weight from one leg to the other and is similar in technique to ice skating. Beginners usually start with the classic style, where participants ski in prepared trails that have parallel tracks cut into the snow.
Let the games begin
Our training began on a flat, classic track. How difficult can it be to stay upright and travel in a straight line when you’re stuck in two grooves? Judging by the number of people who fell, it’s quite a challenge. As the day progressed and the group became more confident, we moved on to longer, slightly more technical trails.
There were occasional rises, which meant we had to learn the herringbone technique of going uphill; and declines, where the slightest shift in balance would mean the difference between a successful descent and eating snow. Once we’d spent a bit of time getting the basics (sort of) right, we were shown real trails. Ones that were assigned colours that denoted a difficulty or intensity rating.
This, for me, was the highlight of our excursion to Campo Carlo Magna. The trails wound their way into the forests and away from the hubbub of the ski shop and restaurant. Here, you could stop (if you figured out how to snowplough correctly) and take in the sheer magnificence of it all. It was surreal to be surrounded by snow, 6 foot deep in some parts, when just a few days earlier I’d been wearing flip flops around the braai.
The technical trails are also where the fun begins. This is where you get to fly down the descents, power up hills with your near-perfect herringbone technique and give your arms a solid workout on the flat sections by using the ski poles to propel yourself forward. If you want to, of course. Many members in our touring party opted to stop often and snap photographs. In many ways, the difference between cross-country and regular skiing can be compared to the difference between mountain biking road cycling. One is all about pure speed; the other gives you an opportunity to stop and take in the scenery.
After a full day out on the trails we decided to head back to Dimaro for dinner. Our plan was to use the local bus service that runs between various towns and the ski resorts. We made it to the stop on time but were told to catch the next bus as there was no place aboard the current one. And how does one pass the time when the next bus is an hour away? Visit a bar, of course.
It was cold, we’d been waiting for a bus to no avail and felt that a mug of gluhwein would perk us right up. A few Brits had already ordered theirs and when we enquired how to ask for gluhwein in Italian, we were told to ask for hot wine. It seemed simple enough. What we got, however, was a demon of a drink called Punch. It should have bee named, “fill-a-sock-with-batteries-and-beat-you-senseless.”
I have had mampoer, tried Stroh rum and as a student drank vodka that was sold at R20 per litre. Nothing compared to this. It was orange flavoured and piping hot. Every time I took a sip I was given a double whack – first the fumes would singe my nasal passages and once the drink had disappeared down my throat I would sweat like an inebriate at a road block.
I can’t quite recall the bus trip back to our hotel in Dimaro but there appear to have been no attempts at karaoke or shirtless interpretative dance, so perhaps the punch had more a calming effect than a “let’s do something crazy” one. I do remember thinking that I would like to have had another shot at the descent where I fell, but I have no doubt that it was the punch talking.
What to take
Being South African, I was naturally paranoid that I would freeze to death. While we toured, Europe was visited by a Foehn, a dry wind colloquially known as a ‘snow-eater’. The wind is bad news for ice climbers and skiers though tourists from sunny South Africa might find it easier to adjust to European winters as the weather is more temperate.
A good quality ski jacket, preferably with inner lining that can be removed and worn alone, is a good place to start. Padded ski pants or shell pants will come in handy but if you’re not planning to ski often, you’re better off getting a few pairs of waterproof or quick-drying hiking pants. You’ll be able to use them back in South Africa and if you are concerned about staying warm you can always wear thermal underwear. While cross-country skiing and snowshoe walking, I often felt a bit warm and over-dressed.
Sunglasses are a must-have item on the slopes. I don’t know whether tour guides overstate their importance in preventing snow-blindness, but figured that I‘d rather not find out the hard way. We were told that it’s like “having tiny pieces of sandpaper in your eyes.” Gloves and a beanie or buff help a great deal but were often the first items to go once I’d warmed up on the slopes or trails. Sunblock is essential. You’d be surprised just how badly you can burn in cold weather.
The best advice I can give for anyone doing a winter activity holiday, is to do whatever it takes to stay dry. Waterproof hiking boots, gaiters and clothes that wick moisture away from the body will keep you happiest. Failing that, a hip flask full of gluhwein will ensure that you don’t care about being wet.
Food and drink
Local produce is the way to go in Dimaro. The townsfolk are immensely proud of the olive oil, apples, cheese, grappa and wine that are produced in the district. The fact that there are no chain stores or franchise eateries shows the level of support for local goods. A word of warning though: your bathroom scale might have a lot to say upon your return. The restaurants and hotels are only too happy to dish up large helpings of food.
You’ll notice a German influence in many parts of northern Italy. Our tour leader mentioned that in some areas, German is spoken more frequently than Italian. Weissbier and schweinshaxe (pork knuckle or eisbein) are easy to find. In fact, in some places, they are easier to track down than pizza.
Adventurers are well catered for on tours to the Dolomites but there is plenty to do on your free days. You can visit Ötzi the Iceman in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano; unwind in a spa or sample the wine for which the Trentino district is well known. No prizes for guessing which option we chose.
Trains and buses run frequently – you’ll have few problems making your way around. The only confusion, for South Africans at any rate, is that school days in Italy work a bit differently, which in turn changes public transport timetables.
Shops keep hours that tourists might not be familiar with. They tend to open early, work until midday, shut down until about 3pm, then re-open until early evening. Restaurants do the same, though the hours might differ slighlty from retailers.
You’ll be warned, probably by an old barfly, that it’s against the law to throw till slips away within 200 feet of establishments where you’ve made a purchase. A number of travel sites will tell you the same. The good news is that these laws were amended in 2003 and while shopkeepers may be fined for not giving you a receipt, you can laugh heartily as you toss it in the bin outside the store.
We found our way to Dimaro through Travelvision. We booked an Exodus Dolomites Winter Activity Week and were able to go both downhill and cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowshoe walking. Had the weather played its part we would have been able to attempt ice-climbing.
Also see the winter activity holidays page which features a selection of the top selling Exodus trips.
Incidentally, one of the guides we met mentioned that ice-climbing began in Italy. The technique, apparently, was perfected in Scotland. The Highlanders decided that using a second axe would greatly improve the sport.
Our accommodation, daily breakfast, transport and activities were all included in the tour price.
For tour options and pricing, visit travelvision.co.za/exodus