The word from Cervinia this year is snow. Snow the likes of which this famous resort, tucked high up in the mountains of the Aosta Valley, has not seen in such wholesale quantities since the mid-'50s. The snow started falling last October and it hasn't stopped since on the Italian side of the Matterhorn. But as good as the sport has been this winter for those skiing Cervinia, the summer promises to be even better.
That's right, summer. Because Cervinia sits in the lap of the tallest mountains in Italy, there has always been year-round skiing at the resort, with a June-to-September season that drew ski freaks from all over Europe. You had to be a bit of a hotdog, as the skiing was generally restricted to the topmost pistes , the molto dificile runs. But this year, thanks to all that cover, the gentler, more congenial runs on the middle of the mountain will also be open, enabling the normal folks as well as the fanatics to schuss in their shirtsleeves.
The town experts something like 2,000 or 3,000 skiers to hit the mountain this July. Chances are, once they partake of the special pleasures of summer skiing, they may never ski Cervinia in winter again.
It's not that Cervinia is hardship duty in the cold months; on the contrary. My ski holiday there last Christmas was as good as any I've had on the continent. The skiing was fine, we broke bread with friends and had some merry apres-ski adventures together. And yet, if I had my druthers, I'd opt next time for Cervinia in the off-season.
Consider the differences. Cervinia in late December was cold and crowded. High winds and snowstorms shut down the cable-car up to Plateau Rosa several times. And with the town's 50 hotels and innumerable condominiums and flats stuffed with skiers and vacationers, waiting time on the first main-lift line was often over an hour. To be sure, we could have skied elsewhere in the valley. Places like Valtournanche and Chamois offered less crowded lift-lines and restaurants. But they required a car and another ski ticket - and offered much less exciting sport.
No, the real action, the superb skiing (like the famous 150 km. run down under the Matterhorn to Zermatt, Switzerland), is to be found in Breiul-Cervinia. But you've got to pay a high price to enjoy it, especially during the peak winter months. Even those down from Great Britain on package tours found the financial bite a big one, despite the fact that Italian prices were supposed to be the lowest on the continent.
"It's the extras that pile up," said one Englishman, an advertising executive down on a two-week holiday. "It's the school, the eating and drinking out, the discos and so on, that cost you dear as the days go by."
Cervinia is a big-time tourist spot, of course. It's a chic, popular, and super-sophisticated resort, with high-rise hotels and prices to fit. A local mechanic, for example, gouged $150 out of me for some minor repairs. On New Year's Eve, the discos tacked on a $30 cover charge. Obviously, the tourist is fair game in season.
It's all different in summer, though. The prices drop by as much as 50 per cent on the mountain and in town. Best of all, there are no crowds, no waiting, anywhere. Ski classes no longer resemble conga lines. The cable cars do not suggest the Lexington Avenue subway in rush hour. The pubs are pleasant and homey, the natives, civil and sane.
And then there is the sun. The unbelievably strong, lambent sunshine pouring down on everything and everyone like melting gold. The sun is so glorious on the mountain, up there under the rim of the Gobba di Rollin (3906 m.) that by mid-morning the clothes begin to come off. The country being Italy, many women not only go bikini but topless.
What a difference from the winter - bundled up, begoggled, shivery winter. Hendonism instead of masochism, bodies turning brown-beautiful instead of frost-bitten and red. Good food and drink everywhere, at normal prices. Tennis and golf (a nine-hole course). A once-in-a-lifetime chance to scale the Matterhorn.
That's right, anyone can climb the Matterhorn, even children of 8. Cervinia has a special program in summer. Fifty of some of the most famous mountain guides, men who have subdued Everest and Annapurna, hold learning sessions for the whole family.
The whole Aostan Valley abounds with things to do. Things you couldn't - or wouldn't want to - do in winter, like visiting famous 14th-century castles, or the city of Aosta itself, with its Roman and Praetorian ruins and its old town, which offers some of the most beautiful and well-preserved medieval architecture in all of Europe.
There is also a gambling casino in the valley. And swimming pools, horseback riding, and shops offering the same shopping as nearly Milan does. Italian high-fashion at its most luxurious and tasteful. No wonder Aosta calls itself the "Riviera of the Alps."
All that and snow, too. Snow deep and rich enough to keep eight lifts going atop the mountain (5 lifts in Italy, 3 in Switzerland) from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week.
This is definitely the year to do Breiul-Cervinia. Who knows when it will ever have a ski summer like this one again.
A novelist, Manus free-lances from Athens .