Photos by Mattias Fredriksson

Courmayeur Ski Resort Italy

When the strangers arrived in Courmayeur Italy the town rolled out the red carpet. To begin, all were invited to march in a parade. It wound along cobblestoned Via Roma, led by concertinas, cymbals, and drums that echoed from stucco and brick facades as they had for eight centuries. Crowding balconies, villagers waved to the newcomers, whose flags represented every country of the alpine world. At the ancient church, the column dispersed onto the plaza, with its cross-valley view to the wrinkled feet of Monte Bianco, a kingly massif whose alabaster cape was draped on a corner of the sky. From a small stage, dignitaries welcomed the crowd to cheers and applause. Camaraderie flowed like warm syrup. Excitement stirred, and when the luminaries filed off, it manifested as frenzied bacchanalia. For the townsfolk had also laid out a feast long tables traversing the plaza set with mounds of regional meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, olives and breads. There was also wine and beer and grappa. Many of the visitors had never seen such a volume of quality food-and all for free. With the mien of starving wolves, they fell upon what seemed their last sustenance.

It wasn’t, of course. And most of the food consumed during the 1992 World Telemark Skiing Championships held in Courmayeur Italy, would be drawn from a similar citizen horn-of-plenty. For the town doesn’t take its largesse lightly-whether feeding dirtbags or royalty.

Royalty were indeed common callers in ages past, stretching from the jet-setting 1960s back to the Romans, whose fortifications, aqueducts, roads, and grapevines still constellate Valle d’Aosta. These days, Courmayeur Italy at the valley’s terminus, hosts a different sort of royalty: on weekends, Via Roma becomes a see-and-be-seen catwalk for Milano and Torino celebrities and fashionistas, many of them non-skiers. The upside of this phenomenon is that demand for top dining, fabulous coffee, and extraordinary wine has elevated Courmayeur’s local delicacies-long produced with artisanal methods in a challenging environment to those of a gourmet destination, willingly shared with villagers, humble mountain guides, and wide-eyed skiers.

As one of the former, there to compete in 1992, I was duly impressed, a feeling only inflated on each subsequent visit. In Courmayeur, I learned, visitors were valued, and never an inconvenience; in place of potential indifference, one found warm embrace. It wasn’t just servers who welcomed you to a table here, but the restaurant’s owners as well.

Courmayeur Italy Skyway Tram
Courmayeur Italy Skyway Armani EA7 Tram

This rarified experience extended to the skiing. Though officially the smallest of ltaly’s 20 regions, Valle d’Aosta can boast within its bounds the Matterhorn, Monte Bianco, Monte Rosa, and Gran Paradiso, each over 14,000 feet. Few of the world’s ski regions can match the variety, charm, cuisine, and spectacular scenery found here let alone the almost 550 miles of pistes spread among 28 villages, of which Courmayeur was but one.

And yet Courmayeur was singular in its own offerings. What other mountain in the Alps advertises 22 miles of pistes plus 40 miles of off-piste runs, actually inviting you to explore some of the world’s most outrageous skiing’? It didn’t much matter which you were on: the two lift-served sectors south-facing Plan Chc’crouit and the north-facing forests of Val Veny· both offered breathtaking views of Monte Bianco, whose blue-toothed glaciers felt within reach of your fingertips. And there was more to consider like the obstreperous neighbors.

Few things differentiate France and Italy as starkly as comparing the working-man’s extreme-ski destination of Chamonix, in the Haute-Savoie, to ritzy, food-focused Courmayeur Italy. Separated by only a 7.5-mile tunnel passing beneath the shared bulk of Eu rope’s highest mountain, these towns embody not only two cultural solitudes, but a geographic divide as well-stormy Mont Blanc to the north, sunny Monte Bianco to the south.

While Chamonix floods annually with mountaineers and powder-hungry expert skiers from around the world, there is never a fight for untracked snow above historic and laid-back Courmayeur. And yet like thcAguille du Midi in Chamonix, Courmayeur’s Punta Helbronncr is a similarly classic steep-ski venue. Replacing a series of creaky old cable cars that took 40 minutes to go up, the two rotating trams of the recently opened Skyway : Monte Bianco-a de facto engineering eighth wonder of the world-now deliver you to the 11,358 foot summit in just l5 minutes, with access to the Toula Glacier, Couloir Marbrccs, and other off-piste gems. While confused expressions like ”posh soul” arc invoked to describe it today, Courmayeur has always been a place of colliding sensibilities. Famed mountaineer Auguste Argcnticr thought as much when he tried to sum it in 1864: “A sweet, expressive, mighty, capricious, savage, fascinating natural environment which seems to say: stay here!”

Which is to say that while Chamonix will continue to get all the alpine press, the complex obverse of the Mont Blanc coin is well worth a look.

Giacomo Calosi was smiling. He was always smiling. And he was always smiling because his clients were always smiling. Of course, he and possibly the garlic flatbread he’d deposited with a welcoming flourish while they were doffing wet gear and before menus or a server had appeared-were the reason. This closed a tidy little loop, one of many such human circles loudly crowding tables in the steamy, kitsch-addled establishment. Amidst curtains of clothing hung from crisscrossing lines, skiers stood to make toasts, sing, and kiss coiled fingertips in approval of the latest arrivals to their table: hot focaccia; wood-­ oven fired pizza with fresh tomatoes, basil, and prosciutto; homemade pastas; blueberry cake; and fruit flambe. Poking a naive head in from outside, it might resemble a New Year’s celebration. But it was lunchtime at the charismatic Calosi’s infamous Maison Vieille.

Though it didn’t feel quite right for my companions and me to settle in here one February clay last winter after just two insipid runs in a whiteout storm, it remained axiomatic that when in Rome you do what the Romans do. And what everyone was doing here was drying off in a place where the food and fun was guaranteed.

Courmayeur Italy Local Skyway Tram
Courmayeur Italy Local Skyway Tram Operator

Few ski resorts boast more on-mountain restaurants than lifts, but Courmayeur docs. And Maison Vieille is one of the best. It’s hard to imagine how the tiny kitchen of the ancient, stone-walled hut keeps up, but it does so with consummate brio. In Maison Vieille, skiers celebrate their discoveries on-piste and off; with Calosi usually in the thick of it ordering, delivering, bussing, and flinging wine and liquor at everyone. As things quiet down after lunch he has a chance to sit with some of his clients and the real fun or trouble begins.Out come the stories, out comes dessert, and out comes his homemade limoncella.

Whatever ski plans you may have for the afternoon, a new challenge has been thrown down, and there is no way to refuse.

Skiing the next day is excellent, the snow cold and fast, especially up higher. Here, the wind has sifted snow into steep, pillowy lines in the larch and pine forest above Val Vcny, creating de facto powder stashes that we cycle repeatedly.

Of course, there’s the usual pedestrian piste skiing here (Italians, even more so than other Euros, avoid anything without a green circle on it), but also some of the gnarlicst. The surrounding peaks are a big reason why Courmayeur is on the itinerary of adventure-ski cognoscenti that frequent such high-mountain cradles. In addition to enjoying some of the best tree-skiing in the Alps, We’re joined guides taking groups up Punta Hellbronner for a run down the Toula Glacier. From there we returned aloft to have lunch, and then descended the Vallee Blanche on the French side, circling back to Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel by dinnertime.

We haven’t done anything quite so demanding today, but at least this time it feels we’ve earned our lunch. With the sun out, we’re happy to find an outdoor table at the mountain’s latest hot spot, La Chaumiere. Congenial host Alessandra Dcmoz arrives fast enough to literally pull our seats out for us.

Originally from the Montcrosa/ Champoluc area of Vallc d’Aosta, Dcmoz was a Mi la no banker for years. But then she had an epiphany: banking was killing her. Nine years ago, she started La Chaumiere as a ski-in bistro; more recently, she renovated the lower building into an upscale eatery that operates for both lunch and dinner. “Our menu is different at night,” she says, “and the view down to the lights of town is very special.”

ownerMany of Courmayeur’s on-mountain restaurants open for dinner, and the well-worn lifts from the village run until midnight. For Alessandra-who also found time in her new life to become a certified sommelier-it can mean working from 7 a.m. to closing. It’s a longer but more pleasurable clay than her banking past, and, like Calosi, she’s always upbeat and smiling.

The meal I order here is the classic dish I was introduced to only a few feel away back in 1992-polenta with fontina cheese and beef sausage in tomato sauce. It’s both nostalgic and delicious. Latcr, we retire inside to chat over an espresso, which Demoz renders perfectly, claiming yct another recently acquired skill. She caps our meeting the way many proprietors in The Alps seem to-by reaching beneath the counter for a bottle of homemade genipi. With a bottoms-­up grin, Demoz claims the digestif comprised of high-alpine herbs “is good for everything!” Perhaps it’s the sugar in the genipi thal keeps me both alert enough to make it to the bottom and girds me for an afternoon walk.

I deposit my gear at the Hotel Cresta et Due, a four-star contemporary alpine hotel, and head out. The hotel is close to the central roundabout, bus depot, and tram stations, with a typically cheery and welcoming staff. An echo of that long-ago trip to Courmayeur, the small bar/lounge is cozy, a great place to kick back after a day on the slopes, especially if, like me, you eschew a crowded a pres. But an apres scene thcre is, far from the slopes in the town’s numerous wine bars and cafes, many of them sited along Via Roma, and on my last day here I feel a duty to commune.

To walk off lunch, I start in the lower town, working my way past the places I’ve dined the past few days: the excellent Ristorante Mont Frcty;
La Clochette, with its woodcut doors depicting elaborate scenes of grape harvests and wine production, where a carafe of “house” red is superior to anything of that designation in North America; and La Sapinicrc, a brasserie in the boutique Gran Bai ta hotel, where we ate homemade goat’s milk ice cream in a small, wood-clad room. Turning uphill, a walkway through a small park commemorates everyone who has guided in these mountains going back to the Guides Bureau’s founding in 1850, their names embossed in alphabetical order on the path’s granite stones. Some of the streets in the old town arc so narrow you can barely sec past the balconies and caves to the sky above. But strolling out of the shadows and onto the open plaza that first welcomed me to Courmayeur Italy is always a pleasurable memory and I make it my starting point for the Via Roma tour.

Courmayeur Italy
Courmayeur Italy Ski Resort Flags flying

Walking this lane during afternoon siesta is more to my liking, when the shops are shuttered and you might not see another person for minutes at a time: bars and cafes are quiet; lone postcard racks mark book shops; butchers, fromageries, bakeries, and clothing stores look like movie sets; and in a grocery store whose windows are hung with salamis and prosciuttos, the fruit and vegetables are so perfect in color, size, and arrangement that they look fake. Suddenly, as if an alarm has sounded, the street comes to life. Many people are headed to one place and I follow. It’s the popular Cafe Roma, oozing apres buzz. Stepping inside, I see a huge spread of food on a long table, and a sign announcing a free buffet from 4 p.m. onward.

I’ve been eating all clay-all week, actually. And yet the first thought in my head is that it’s hard to imagine so much food on offer for free.

I fall on it like a wolf.