There’s a joyous, healthy air among a group of skiers, with their ruddy faces and colorful outfits that I find intoxicating. I love being part of the skiing community that exudes an outdoor energy and provides a sense of belonging for those with a shared fixation. Thus were my thoughts as we found ourselves among the crowd of spectators in Santa Cristina, the next village over from our hotel, watching the Men’s FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) Super-G (giant slalom) World Cup race. How lucky we were that chance put us in Val Gardena on just the right day to watch this exhilarating once-a-year event.
We took the local ski bus from Ortisei to Santa Cristina and arrived at the base of the Saslong course just in time for the 12:15 PM start of the race. In contrast to the sparkling days we spent on the slopes ourselves, the day was overcast and windy with a sense of snow in the air. We’d watched many an FIS event on television, but witnessing one in person was a very different affair. It was cold standing around waiting for each of the 60-plus skiers to rocket towards the finish line and the international sports fans, an illustrious group of which we were members, coped by eating warm wursts and hot chili and downing copious amounts of beer and mulled wine. All manner of cowbell, from the tiniest to the colossal, were the noisemaker of choice and the crowds were in the mood to celebrate. It became quite the party – a loud, boozy affair dominated by the Swiss, their red-and-white flags and clanking, flower-bedecked cowbells heralding their enthusiasm.
The competition was particularly exciting because American Bode Miller (or “Boe-Day Mee-Lahr” as the German-accented announcer pronounced his name), an early starter, was on top of the JumboTron leader board for most of the race. As far as we could tell, we were the only Americans at the event but we were far from the only Bode fans. Many of the spectators waved “Bode Miller” signs and echoed the announcer’s pronunciation as they called out his name: Boe-Day Mee-Lahr! Boe-Day Mee-Lahr! The 6 foot 2 inch, 34 year-old alpine ski racer from Franconia, New Hampshire is an Olympic and World Cup champion who won a total of five Winter Olympics medals, the most for any American skier. A favorite in Val Gardena having won the FIS race in 2006 and finishing second in 2007, Bode was watching the competition that followed him from the winner’s circle just across the finish line from us for most of the race and we (or perhaps I should specify, Caroline and I) were able to appreciate his all-American, boyish good looks. The crowd’s excitement mounted as one by one the skiers completing the course exceeded Bode’s breakneck time. But in the end, it turned out that the Swiss cheering section got it right; Beat Feuz, a young gun from Switzerland and one of the last down the hill, came in .30 seconds faster than Bode. The tiny, tinny cowbells and the oversized gongs went wild. It was an exciting afternoon, which ended with a simple medal ceremony at the course base, Bode on the runner-up platform.
A more elaborate Super G awards celebration took place on the Ortisei town square that evening after sundown. The four of us wriggled our way to the front of the crowd, right up close to the winners’ runway. While the yellow and blue smoke, flashing purple lights and booming music were both strange and rousing, best of all were the additional “Boe-Day” sightings, and once again, we were cheering along with all his other fans. The Master of Ceremonies did a great job of revving up the crowd in Italian, French, German and English – quite an impressive linguist! As the lights pulsed, the music pounded and the champions strode up the runway to the stage, the snow began to fall. It was a fairytale finale to an enchanting day in the mountains.
The awards presented and our extremities frozen, we made our way back through the snow across town to our hotel. After some necessary thawing and attending to tired muscles in the Jacuzzi and steam bath, we headed for one of the Gardena Grödenhof’s delicious meals (the package we booked included breakfast and dinner) served in a warm, welcoming atmosphere by an incredibly charming staff. We had the same table for every meal, much like on a cruise ship, and it was so pleasant to be treated as special guests each and every morning and evening. One of our favorite waiters was Domenico, a handsome man in his early 30s with dark hair and eyes whose first response to anything we asked was, “Thank you, thanks,” and his first words on presenting us with something we ordered was the same. His smile was infectious, he was a joy to be around and we were so lucky to have him assigned to our table.
We started dinner that night with a crisp local Tyrolean Pinot Blanco, ordered our meals and settled in for a lovely dinner over which we reviewed our day. Joe and I basked in the soft glow of the cozy dining room, watched as Chris and Caroline enjoyed their meals and exchanged some long, conspiratorial glances whose meaning was clear: this place and these experiences are just too good to be true. After ordering a second bottle of wine, I conjured up our trip calendar and mentally made a few adjustments to our itinerary. It would be such a shame to have found this invigorating corner of the world and not return. Soon. So we’ve now marked our datebooks for March 11. We’ll be back in Val Gardena as the capstone to our three months in Italy, but this time it will be just the two of us (sigh) – no Chris, no Caroline and no “Boe-Day Mee-Lahr.”
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com