Italian is an amazing country for every delight from food and fashion to architecture, design and art. And of course, the nature. Italy has incredible geography within easy drives from the city – epic beaches, rolling countryside, historic hilltops and magnificent mountains. Approximately 40% of the country is mountainous whether its the peaks of the Alps, the smooth crests of the Appennines or the crazy slopes of an active volcano Mount Etna. There is nothing quite like a settimana bianca, a weekender ski escape.
Skiing is more than just a pastime, it’s an integral part of Italian culture. Each year, school kids set off for a settimana bianca (white week), and almost annually Italians queue the cinemas to catch the latest Vacanze di Natale film, a groan-inducing comedy series that usually takes place at an Italian ski resort. The ski weekend is all about good friends, fun skiing and great, territorial food in the mountain chalets. It’s time for a weekender in Courmayeur.
Italy’s best kept ski secret
Picturesque to perfection, Courmayeur is considered to one of the best kept winter secrets, even though the town has been a travel destination for over a century but it’s story goes back millennia. The quaint Alpine hamlet, located in Italy’s most northwestern Valle d’Aosta, was the thorough fare for one history’s most epic events – Hannibal’s 3rd century BC overland march where he paraded through elephants the San Bernardo pass on elephants.
Today’s Courmaeyeur is a labyrinth of cobblestone-laden streets, vintage architecture, historic coffee shops, busy ski shops, centuries-old churches and gorgeous contemporary boutiques and chalets. It is where Italy’s very mountain guide society (and the second in Europe) was founded but most importantly, Courmayeur has the honor of being overshadowed, literally, by Europe’s highest peak Monte Bianco.
My Way or the SkyWay
At 15,777 feet above sea level, Monte Bianco is incredible. And incredibly cold. Sharp white, snow-capped peaks cut the cerulean blue sky like an early 20th century Russian avant-garde painting, which quickly turns into a futuristic installation thanks to the SkyWay, that futuristic globular funivie that links the Italian lowland to Punta Helbronner, an overlord look out at 11,371 feet.
Outward bound skiers love to hike up Monte Bianc and then ski across the glacier to Chamonix, France, whereas the rest of us are happy just to enjoy the view. I’d save the skiing for Courmayeur’s slopes, a network of what seems like a million pistes but what is in actuality 31 with lifts. Beginners please note that I am the definition of basic and spent a few days dedicated to Courmayeur’s smooth beginner trails. I organized private lessons, graduated from the bunny slopes, scared myself to death on the chair lifts, and got a great work out.
The best reason to ski in Italy are for the rifugi, the cosy mountain-ski chalets where eating is an art form. In the case of Courmayeur, the rifiugi are incredible and the food scene is even better. According to Courmayeur Mont Blanc’s official tourism site, there are twenty chalet-restaurants on piste- each with a different, very personal vibe, whether its gourmet cuisine or specialized, local Valdostan delicacies.
On the Mountain
Ski in to Chateau Branlat, a wooden chalet with beamed ceilings and funky decor, or snow mobile to La Chaumiere, a traditional Valdostan home built into the mountain. I discovered the tiny igloo-like Maison Veille when I was lost skiing and need a restroom. The cozy hut is a daytime caffe and night time party.
Head back into the town for gorgeous gamut of tiny osterie and Michelin stars. Personal favourites are Al Camin, a traditional trattoria and Petit Royal, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Hotel Royal and its captivating La Tour, a private medieval tower with show cooking for couples. Next on my list to check out is Pierre Alexis 1877.
Pro tip: Everywhere I went accepted credit cards, but it can’t hurt to have a little cash for some of the mountain top rifiugi.
Cook the Mountain with Michelin stars
Superstar chef Heston Blumenthal OBE fell in love with Courmayeur and combined his passion for food and skiing to create The Mountain Gourmet Ski Experience– an annual three-day food fest with incredible Michelin-starred chefs, skiing and local cuisine. On the slopes, Heston and Momentum Ski organise incredible Alpine outings while off piste Heston imports a selection of the best Michelin starred chefs head to cook up incredible meals in Courmayeur’s stunning restaurants. Past chefs include Heston himself, Tom Kerridge, Clare Smyth MBE, Claude Bosi, Jason Atherton, Marcus Wareing & Sat Bains.
What to do (if you are tired of skiing)
Courmayeur is the kind of place where everyone skis hard, eats late, goes out late and then gets up incredibly early for another of skiing. The best tip is I can give you is get a non-consecutive days ski pass and explore. Of all the amazing things you can do in Courmayeur, most of them revolve around snow- skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, snow biking, snow kiting, et cetera, but Courmayeur also has a social life a few hundred meters below.
Après Ski the Via Roma, Courmayeur’s thoroughfare and a windy street where all of the posh and quirky shops are located, as well as several caffe and cocktail spots like Le Dahu at No. 20, Cafè Relais de l’Ange and its Oysters and Wine at No. 88, Caffe Roma at No. 101, and La Bouche just off the main drag at Via Regionale 12. BOLO for Guichardaz at No. 20, this is a gorgeous bazaar of fabulous clothing and more.
Less party, more culture? Head to the Museo Alpino Duca deli Abruzzi, a two-level chalet home that houses the Alpine Museum that tells the history of mountaineering, its heroes, and the region, along with a small exhibition space showcasing photos of Valle d’Aosta’s traditional communities and events. And then get explore Valle d’Aosta. The region is network of castles, and almost every weekend there is a traditional festival in the small towns. And then there are wonderful museums from archaeological and ancient remedies to planetariums and prisons.
Where to stay
So far, my experience has been at the Grand Hotel Royal e Golf, a beautiful yesteryear ski lodge looking out on the mountains, with a lovely outdoor pool. The vibe is a bit Grand Budapest Hotel with its fabulous decor, doormen and bellhops. Location is in smack in the middle of town which means it is not at all ski in/ski out but once I realized I didn’t need to a ride pistes, it was a short and charming walk through town to the lifts and eventually it felt like everyone knew me.
Other options are the tiny Bouton d’Or, a family-run property a few minutes walk from Courmayeur’s main square. For a ski in/ski out vacation, I have my eye on the very new Le Massif, member of Leading Hotels of the World. It had me at hello due to its chic contemporary design, its location on top of the mountain and that damn terrace view (scroll up).
Getting to Courmayeur is quite easy. Airplane, rail, car, I’ve done it all and my experience, the easiest arrival is by car, once you’ve decided where you are coming from. Flying options include Milan Malpensa MXP (the best especially if you want to add on a few extra days for shopping) and Torino-Casselle TRN for the foodies. Shuttle service is offered but the least hassle is driving. Car rental services are always available or you can hire a driver service if you aren’t interested in exploring Italy’s smallest region.
Traveling by rail is a bit of a pain, especially with gear. From MXP and TRN, you’ll shuttle to railway stations Milano Centrale or Torino Porta Nuova, then catch a regional train to Pré-Saint-Didier , and finally take a bus to Courmayeur ( SAVDA buses run from airport and train stations to Aosta and Courmayeur). Do the math: you’ll save more time and energy renting a car/hiring driver – approximately 1.5 hours from Torino and just under 2.5 hours from Milan.