Friday, January 20, 2012

One Part Italy, Two Parts Austria, Three Parts Heaven

Deep in the Dolomites, the craggy, limestone Italian Alps, is the mountain wonderland of Val Gardena. The broad-brush plan for our Gap Year always included several days of skiing with the kids in this beautiful part of the world at Christmastime – our family Christmas gift to each other -- and a gorgeous corner of the world it was. How incredibly fortunate I felt to have the joys of my life -- Joe, Chris and Caroline -- along with skiing, a passion of my youth, convening in a snowy Alpine hamlet.

We headed north from La Spezia on the A22 Autostrada and as we scooted around Verona, the white peaks of the Dolomites rose high in the distance. There’s something about snow-capped mountains, much like the ocean, that lifts one’s spirit. They promise possibilities, hidden wonders and surprises and I never tire of gazing at them. The temperature steadily dropped as we sped towards Bolzano and it was down to freezing when we exited the Autostrada and headed east to the village of Ortisei, the first of the three villages in the valley. It was a long 35 kilometers to our destination, the Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof, on corkscrewed, snowy roads that wound deeper into the Dolomites and eventually down into lovely Val Gardena. But were we really still in Italy? The architecture had quickly changed once we left the highway from buildings in warm shades of stucco with orange tile roofs to brown and white A-framed chalets adorned with carved flower boxes and rustic log lodges with little balconies. We’d entered a frosty slice of Austria even though the map maintained we were in Italy. We later learned that the three valley villages of Ortisei, Santa Christina and Selva, are in the Italian province of the South Tyrol, originally part of Austro-Hungary until 1918 when it was annexed by Italy from the defeated after World War I. Although all speak Italian, German is the mother tongue (and dominant culture) of most of the residents and the area is officially bilingual.

Our five days at the Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof were like being in paradise. As Joe so aptly put it, “We’ve never, ever stayed in a hotel where we’ve been treated better or the staff were nicer.” And they were genuinely kind, not the fake I-have-to-be-nice-to-you-because-it’s-my-job kind of nice. Within hours of check-in, the Gardena Grodnerhof quickly became our favorite hotel of our trip so far. The incredibly pleasant, polite and helpful Mathias (should I also mention that he had beautiful blue eyes?) checked us in and the four of us then settled into our bright, cozy suite: a main bedroom for me and Joe, an adjoining sitting room with a pullout couch for the kids and a bathroom to share. The beds were covered with thick, fluffy, down duvets, the walls were a fragrant natural wood, there were huge closets all along one wall for our ski clothes that the kids had hauled over with them and an outside terrace that looked over the town, just a hundred yards away, and the snow-topped mountains towering behind. It was a perfect space for our winter getaway. Some think we’re crazy to stay in such close quarters with our two adult children when we travel but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We just love being in close confines with our kids and it just doesn’t get better than hearing their chitchat, whispers and laughter from the next room.
Soon after we’d settled in, one of the hotel staff knocked on the door with a tray of champagne flutes for a welcome toast to the beginning of our stay. We took a chilly walk at dusk through the quintessential ski town of Ortisei and although darkness was falling quickly, we could still see the dark outline of the mountains rising behind the village. The combination of the rocky peaks and the underlying energy of the town, now glittering with shop lights and peppered with skiers returning from the slopes, brought back a flood of memories from trips gone by. My dormant skiing juices started flowing freely and my excitement about the days ahead, schussing downhill, began to rise. I wondered how we could have let all of eight years slip by without a family ski trip. Sometimes everyday life gets in the way of our passions and I reminded myself that that is exactly what this Gap Year trip is about – putting our passions front and center while we temporarily set aside the daily grind. We had hit the jackpot with our visit to Val Gardena; it was a dramatic skiing valley that was technically in Italy, felt a lot like the Tyrol and was surely in heaven.

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