A snowstorm over Frankfurt delays flights into Venice – but no matter, we eventually arrive and are greeted with a friendly non-English speaking driver for our onward journey to San Cassiano.
He spends some time on the phone – what is he speaking? German? Nein. Italian? Non. It’s a crazy kind of dialect spoken only in this tiny pocket of the Dolomites. Known as Ladin, it is actually a form of pig-Latin, but sounds like a mix of various languages. Fortunately I have a smattering of both high-school German (did you know the German word for nipple is “Brustwarze”? Literally, “breast-wart”. Can’t get more romantic than that. Fortunately I don’t need to pop this into conversation at any stage during my holiday) and traveller’s Italian, so by simply mixing it up I can pretend I speak fluent Ladin – if I ignore the confused and fearful stares this generates.
We are headed to Alta Badia for a spot of skiing, and the language is not the only indicator of uniqueness. The landscape is frankly stunning as we head out of the environs of Venice, and upwards through ever sparser villages, each more picturesque than the last.
We arrive in tiny San Cassiano a couple of hours later, its lights twinkling in the snowy landscape, and a warm glow emanating from the windows of Rosa Alpina, our mountain home for the next week.
The inn has been owned by the Pizzinini family since 1850, and over time has spread from a mountain hostel to a five star Hotel and Spa. Fortunately its soul remains intact – its interior, a cocoon of wood, is burnished to a warm glow. Rugs and kilims provide softness underfoot. Bowls of crisp red apples are placed strategically on antique side tables along the winding corridors. And on one evening, Nonna Pizzinini herself came to inspect the hotel, greeting the staff by name, and treated with a reverence akin to that reserved for the Queen by fervent monarchists.
One of the Pizzinini married an Austrian beauty queen, Daniela Steiner, who has created one of Europe’s top spas here. She has her own product range, made from such things as crushed pearls and local wildflowers. I couldn’t wait to try it out – and it was fabulous. My last treatment was a pedicure, and my therapist arrived in a lab coat and safety goggles. I thought this was a bit over the top until she wheeled in something which looked like an angle grinder and got to work on my feet. I swear sparks were flying (and not in a good way). It was all worth it though as I glided out of there with feet softer than a baby’s bottom.
The rooms were not huge but were cosy and well decorated in neutral and natural colours and fibres. Our suite had a large hand painted mural on the wall, and other Tyrolean accents such as wooden alpine chairs added charm. An in-room steam room was also a great treat, especially after a day on the slopes.
The famous Sella Ronda runs around the massif of the Sella Mountain range and skiers love to take this round-robin of lifts and downhill runs in a day, clockwise or counter clockwise. In good weather, the scenery is beautiful, with the peculiarly jagged peaks of the Dolomiti dominating the skyline, and tiny mountain rifugios punctuating the landscape where you can stop for some of the most delicious food in Italy. In fact, there is an Annual Chef’s Cup run amongst the rifugios.
One memorable evening, we were dropped off at the base of mountains in Corvara, a nearby town, and a snowcat came crashing and rumbling down the mountain to collect us, all blizzard lights and the smell of rubber. We climbed aboard, our 4 year old’s eyes big as saucers, and caterpillared up the mountain. When we arrived at the rifugio, our apple-cheeked driver took off his beanie and parka to reveal chef’s whites beneath and proceeded to cook us an amazing meal.
At the end of the evening, chefs, waiters, us and those who had skied in during the afternoon but who were now too drunk to ski home all piled into the snowcat for the precipitous trip home.
The hotel itself has a two Michelin starred restaurant, St Hubertus, which was very formal and very expensive. Whilst the food was good, it was very rich and a little too fussy for my tastes. We had a fondue one evening in the Stubli (also part of the hotel) which was simple and charming.
San Cassiano is not for everyone. Rosa Alpina is really the heart of the town, and there is no shopping or nightlife to speak of. The villages of the Sella Ronda are all workaday towns and the tourism seems to be mainly local. But the warmth of the inn, the beauty of the surroundings and the excellent food and skiing make Alta Badia a very worthwhile alternative to some of the more traditional European ski destinations.