The 2006 Winter Olympic Games will be held in the mountains near Torino, Italy. Long the home of Italian skiing champions and the site of Sestriere, Europe’s first purpose-built resort, this northwest corner of Italy has remained relatively undiscovered by American skiers and snowboarders.
Here, along the rugged border between Italy and France, the Alps rise majestically, the Italian dolcevita mixes with French laissez faire, and the regional cuisine draws from the best of Italy and France. This region, the Piemonte, owes its Franco-Italian cultural blend to the continual shifts of international borders through the centuries as nobles pledged their allegiance alternately to French and Italian kings.
The hilltops and valleys bear witness to the warfare that marked relations along this mountain border. Massive castles and fortifications lie along mountain ridges and protect narrow valley entrances. But for all this defensive posturing, valleys and towns tended to change sides more for political and religious reasons than because of military might.
The mountains that once formed a natural boundary are traversed today by hundreds of kilometers of ski and snowboard trails and by a web of gondolas, chairlifts and cable cars.
The Olympic Games will take place throughout this region. Sestriere will host most of the men's downhill events. Cesana-San Sicario will be the site of women’s downhill, biathlon, bobsled, skeleton and luge events. Sauze d'Oulx will showcase the freestyle events. Bardonecchia claims the snowboard venues. Olympic villages will be located in Bardonecchia and Sestriere.
For American and British tourists, the best towns to use as a base for discovering this Piemonte area are Sestriere and Sauze d'Oulx. They the most central and have the largest collection of hotels and amenities. Though these resorts are linked by snow-covered trails, there is a big difference in village flavor.
Slideshow: Italian dreams Sestriere is a modern, bustling and fashionable resort on the main road, and is surrounded by lifts. Sauze d'Oulx, which is tucked at the end of a winding mountain road, is a traditional village laced with a warren of narrow cobbled streets; there is only limited lift access to the far-reaching trails. Sestriere is very Italian with a rhythm that reflects traditions of coffee, après-ski at the hotels, and some late-night disco action. Sauze d'Oulx is packed with British, Dutch, Irish and other European tourists and its pubs positively rock when the lifts close.
Skiing and snowboarding
There is plenty of skiing and riding for those searching for long cruising runs. Most of the area trails have been cut for beginners and intermediates. There are a few black trails here and there, but for the most part, Italians come to ski for enjoyment rather than challenge, and these resorts reflect that state of mind. That said, real expert skiers and riders can keep themselves busy off - piste. With an area this large, any real expert skier will find plenty of challenge.
Sestriere has the best access to the slopes by far, and it has the most challenging skiing in terms of marked terrain. A dozen lifts -- six of them quads -- take skiers from the town to the upper reaches of the mountain.
Sauze d'Oulx has beautiful winding trails through forests. The best skiing and lift service is higher on the mountain. Access to the town, whether skiing down or trying to get a lift up, is torturous. New lifts being installed for the Olympics will help, but this is a town where getting to the lifts is a chore, but finding a wild bar is child's play. Almost all the trails are intermediate, and beginners don't really have an easy time of it.
Anyone planning to visit during the Olympic Games, will have to make reservations through a tour operator. Almost every hotel room in the region has been reserved by these groups, Olympic organizers and the media. If planning a ski or snowboard vacation any other time of the winter, here are some excellent suggestions and more can be found at skisnowboardeurope.com.
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Sestriere is packed with slick hotels that have easy access to the slopes. If you are traveling without a group, try to stay at the Hotel Savoy Edelweiss (0122.77040), a small and intimate hotel in the middle of the oldest section of Sestriere and across the street from the lifts. Hotel Cristallo (0122.750707) is an upscale place with all the amenities right next to the main base area. Grand Hotel Sestriere (0122.76476) sits imposingly above the town, only a short walk to the center. Hotel Biancaneve (0122.755176) is about five football fields from the center and the lifts. It is a chalet-style new hotel with good basic rooms, food and service.
Sauze d'Oulx has some excellent hotels, but many have been developed for the big group business that streams down from the United Kingdom and Ireland. The best hotel in town, actually a bit above the town, is the tiny Il Capricorno (0122.850273). It sits right on the slopes and is reached either by a single chairlift or by snowmobile. It is an atmospheric place with simple luxury, no fancy amenities, spectacular views, Michelin-rated food and plenty of peace and quiet.
Down in the village the top spot is Grand Hotel Besson (0122.859785). This impressive building has beautiful views, a swimming pool and an attached spa. From here, it is only a three-minute walk through narrow streets to the middle of town. Chalet Faure (0122.859760) is a small, 11-room haven in the midst of Sauze d'Oulx's Old-World center. Great restaurants and rollicking nightlife are to be had only a few steps outside the door. Biancaneve (0122.850160) is a gem and a bargain. Two sisters run the place and keep it clean as a whistle; they also whip up some fine food.
The Piemonte is an exceptional area for dining. Some of Italy's finest wines are grown in the valleys surrounding Torino, and the orchards are famous in Italy for their fruits and nuts.
Slideshow: A European tour This abundance, combined with the mountain farmers’ flair for cheeses, sausages, dried meats and grappa, makes the Piemonte a perfect vacation spot for a serious gourmand. The region is also home to the “Slow Food” movement, which preserves age-old cooking techniques.
Perhaps the best restaurant for traditional local meals in the region is Du Grand Père (0122.755970), which is isolated on the side of the mountain just off the road between Cesana and Sestriere. The restaurant is set in a 17th-century house in a tiny village, and the rustic dining room, with its wooden floors and fireplace, is perfect.
Sestriere has dozens of restaurants. The saying that it is hard to find a bad Italian restaurant is almost true in the town. La Baita (0122.77496), run by Cavaliere Giancarlo and his wife, Marisa, looks modest but the dishes are extraordinary: think penne with a venison and pork sausage sauce, deer scaloppini sautéed in rosemary, and beef bourguignon made with local Barolo wine. The father and his son Luciano hunt for the game that is served in the restaurant.
The best restaurant in Sauze d'Oulx is Il Capricorno (01212.850273), which sits directly on the slopes. Try to reserve a table here for lunch. Or, get there in the evening by chairlift or snowmobile. Next on the fine dining list is Il Cantun del Barbabuc (0122.858593) and the Old Inn (0122.858541). The Godfather Restaurant (0122.850291) serves wonderful southern Italian cooking and also opens from 2–7 in the morning to serve the hard-core partiers before they crawl back to their hotels.
Sestriere isn't much of a party town. But for immediate après-ski head to the Pinky, the Sestriere and Baraba. Al Kovo is the spot for late-night action.
Slideshow: U.S. Olympic hopefuls Sauze d'Oulx is one of Europe's top party towns. For a bite before après-ski or dinner, head to Bar Miravallino where crepes, sandwiches, pasta and cold dishes are served up much like tapas in Spain. The list of party-hearty pubs is lengthy and each draws its own crowd. Start at the Cotton Club, then later in the night wander over to Vagabondi, where a live band starts the dancing.
To reach this area, fly into Torino if possible. From there, the drive is less than two hours. From Milan, the trip is about an hour longer. Trains run from Milan and Torino to Oulx. From there, frequent buses head toward Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx.
I suggest getting a car to move around the area. It gives you far more flexibility. Contact AutoEurope (800-223-5555; autoeurope.com) for the guaranteed best rental rates.
For more resort details click through to skisnowboardeurope.com.
Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.