Our ski trip to Switzerland and Italy
by Rob Tiller
Skiing in Switzerland and Italy last week was really fun, though I had one tough fall (described below), and getting back to Raleigh was pretty brutal. We underestimated the time it would take the train to get us to the airport, and when we got there the gate was closed (though the plane was still there). The flight was jointly branded by United and Lufthansa, and each claimed that only the other could help us. Surely one or both of them were wrong, but I eventually figured out that arguing was getting me nowhere.
The online outfit that sold us tickets, Justairtickets, also initially declined to assist us, but after I made clear that we needed reasonable customer service or we would never be doing business with them again, they stepped up to the plate. Just kidding! They shamelessly disclaimed all responsibility. In the end, we had to buy new tickets from an agent in Milan (a big ouch), and it took 30 hours (including last row inside seats and a night trying to sleep on the hard floor of JFK) to get home.
But otherwise, we had a great trip. We skied for five days in Zermatt/Cervinia, where they’ve had epic snow this winter, and had plenty when we got there. The views of the Alps were just spectacular. The iconic Matterhorn was really and truly there, and there were jagged snowy peaks in every direction.
There’s a lot to ski around Zermatt. The highest point of the resort is 12,791 feet. There are 7,477 feet of vertical — which is big! There are 224 miles of trails, and the longest run is 16 miles. There are lots of restaurants on the mountain, in a range of formats. There are lifts of every description, including a funicular, various types of high-speed chairs, and enormous gondolas that hold more than 100 people. For the most part the slopes were uncrowded while we were there, and we never had to wait in a significant lift line.
Zermatt is mainly about marked, groomed runs. Most of the skiers we saw were quite good, but very few ventured off piste. This could be a function of the Swiss love of orderliness: if a piste is marked for skiing, then that’s where you’re supposed to ski. This is a different mind-set from the American west, where good skiers view the groomed runs as passages to the main event — the ungroomed, untracked, adventure stuff.
Early in the week, we found the groomed runs had good snow and lots of variety, while the off-piste snow was crusty. We found the steeper groomers lots of fun, and worked on refining our cruising skills. We skied on the Italian side (Cervinia) on day three, where the scenery was just as beautiful, though the lifts were not as modern and the slopes were mellower. On day four, it snowed, and visibility at times was close to nil. That day was also cold (in the low teens) and windy. At times we started runs in the clear above the snow clouds, then descended into the dense fog. It cleared up for our last day, and there was some super fun off piste skiing on the soft fresh snow.
My rented skis were Dynastar Cham 97s, 178 cm. It was a true all mountain ski, very versatile — easy to turn, stable at speed, good in the light powder. A little shorter might have suited me better, but still, I really liked them.
We stayed at the Phoenix, a small, pleasant hotel with good breakfasts and a convenient ski gear room, which was within walking distance of both lifts and restaurants. I’d heard that Zermatt was the model for Vail, and saw similarities in the architecture. The village had a lot of charm, and a lot of life. Private vehicles are not allowed, though there were many taxis, which were electric vehicles shaped like tiny UPS trucks. The main restaurant street had many dining options, along with a lot of luxury shops: watches, clothing, perfume, chocolate. We had no trouble getting tables for dinner, and ate well.
My one bad fall came on the last run of our last day. It was late in the day, and more crowded than we’d seen for most of the week, with skiers of varying abilities winding things up. We were coming down a steep, narrow, icy passage, with a lot of people waiting at the top. I was making my way downward, not prettily, but under control.
Then, near the bottom a young skier suddenly stopped, leaving me no room to get through and effectively running me into the dense snow bank on the side of the piste. I make it a rule to give a lot of leeway to inexperienced skiers, who sometimes veer unexpectedly, but unfortunately I broke my rule. I fell backwards and felt a snap and sharp pain in my right calf.
As I regained my footing, my back started to spasm. It took an act of will to get to the bottom of the mountain, and to get to the hotel I had to take baby steps. My leg was hurting! Sally initially diagnosed a calf muscle tear, and predicted it would take some weeks to heal. But it turned out to be less severe — probably a sprain. I was significantly better by the next day, and continued to improve as we continued our trip.
On Saturday, we had a pleasant train trip through the Alps and along Lake Maggiore to Milan, where we made our way to our Airbnb apartment. The place was extremely small, but very convenient to the Duomo and other points of interest. We had dinner in the Canal District (Naviglio Grande), where there were a lot of people promenading and a lot of moderately priced restaurants. We enjoyed risotto Milanese and local pasta specialities.
Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, is magnificent — an enormous white marble structure with flourishes everywhere. The surrounding area has lots of stores and museums. We were particularly interested in looking at Renaissance and early Baroque art, and there was lots of it to see. We particularly enjoyed the Pinocoteca Ambrosiana (which had a gorgeous Caravaggio still life), the Brera (had to wait an hour to get in, but it was worth it), and the paintings at the Sforza Castle. We couldn’t get tickets to see the Last Supper, so we’ll need to come back for that.
Our last full day we took the train for an hour up to Lake Como, where we started by walking around Varenna and then took ferry rides to visit Menaggio and Bellagio. There was mist and fog, but it was still very beautiful, with the enormous calm lake, charming villages and the Alps rising above.
On the trip back, I made substantial progress in Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel, The Story of a New Name. I’m liking it even more than the first one. Things that initially seemed uncomplicated turn out to be quite complicated, but in a believable, human way. I haven’t gotten pleasantly immersed in a novel this much for a very long time.