Local Food (and Bologna)

(Bologna, Italy)

Midway through our stay in Madonna di Campiglio, our hotel put on a special Cena Rustica (“Rustic Dinner”) for its guests.  It featured hearty local winter food from this part of northern Italy.

Potato flan with Russian cabbage and local ham

Italian is a wonderful language for describing food.  Even the simplest traditional foods sound spectacular when written (or spoken) in Italian.  Our first course was Sformatino di patate su crema di verza con cavolo russo e steak di speck (a potato flan on cream with Russian cabbage and ham steak).  The next course was Orzetto mantecato ai funghi Porcini (risotto-style barley with Porcini mushrooms), while the main course was the regal Cervo in umido con polenta di Storo e crauti (stewed deer with Storo polenta and sauerkraut).  No pizza or spaghetti here!

Risotto-style barley with Porcini mushrooms

While this was not my favourite meal at the hotel, it was still fun to try food that I would never encounter anywhere else.  The stewed deer was somewhat similar to goulash or beef bourguignon.  After all of that weighty food, the light Torta Mimosa was quite welcome for dessert.

The main course for the “Cena Rustica”: stewed deer with polenta and sauerkraut

Our last stop before returning home was the city of Bologna.  Although typically associated in North America with inexpensive luncheon meat, Bologna may well be the culinary capital of a country that has one of the most satisfying cuisines in the world.  As we were there for only one night, we wanted to make sure that our meal was one to remember.

Some troublemakers I met on the egg-like Patascoss Express chairlift above Madonna di Campiglio

That was the theory.  The reality was that we had been in transit for most of the day and we were famished upon our late afternoon arrival in Bologna.  We checked into the “Hotel Il Guercino” in the Bolognina neighbourhood, just north of the train station, and immediately turned our minds to finding a nearby restaurant.  We didn’t want to return to the historic downtown core, as it would have meant going back through the train station area…and that area felt a little seedy even in the late afternoon.

Waiting for the bus to begin the journey from Madonna di Campiglio to Bologna

This turned out to be a challenge.  There were lots of highly regarded restaurants in “up and coming” (e.g. “still a little rough around the edges”)  Bolognina…but they all opened at 7:30 p.m. or later.  We tried to wait but hunger prevailed and we eventually decided to go with a restaurant that opened at 7:00 p.m.  Although I had reservations about it, the best choice appeared to be “Well Done”, one of a small chain of Italian restaurants specializing in hamburgers and other locally sourced food.

Entrance of Hotel il Guercino, in the Bolognina district of Bologna, Italy

I can hear the gasps of anguish even as I write this.  Hamburgers in Italy’s premier culinary city?  But with their insistence on fresh and local ingredients, it actually turned out to be an inspired idea for our last Italian meal.  I had the Lambrusco burger: the beef was braised in Lambrusco wine, topped with pecorino cheese and radicchio (itself braised in Lambrusco wine).  To tie it all together?  It was served with a glass of Lambrusco wine.

The Lambrusco Burger (and a glass of Lambrusco wine) at “Well Done” in Bologna, Italy

I had never heard of Lambrusco, nor had sparkling red wine ever really been on my radar.  But that’s essentially what Lambrusco wine is…and I have to admit that it worked.  Somehow, a burger goes well with a bubbly beverage.  In the end, this modern Italian take on an American mainstay was quite enjoyable.  We didn’t feel like we had squandered a dining opportunity on our last night in Italy, even if it was nothing like the dinner we had anticipated.

Stay tuned for more travel!

Skiing in Madonna di Campiglio – The Final Part

(Madonna di Campiglio, Italy)

Our final two days of skiing were a roller-coaster of skiing emotions.  The second-last day started with soft snow under a brilliant sun: while the powder wasn’t flying, there were  lots of stops for photographs and sunscreen.

Ricardo enjoys the sun at Cinque Laghi

And yet, something wasn’t quite right.  After skiing the Pancugolo piste, we felt unusually warm.   We looked up at the chairlift thermometer and it said…24.5’C!   I didn’t think it ever would be too hot to ski, but we were definitely approaching that point.  We actually moved over to the Pinzolo area shortly afterwards, where some north-facing slopes would keep the temperatures at a more manageable level.

An incredible 24.5’C at the Pancugolo chairlift!

But, for every brilliant day in the sun, there are consequences.  While we awoke to more sunshine on our final day of skiing, there was a sense of unease.  We found our way to the bottom of the Miramonti chairlift…only to be shooed away by the staff.  We tried the nearby Cinque Laghi chairlift…rejected again.   What was going on?

Oh no! Every lift is closed!

Mass confusion reigned in the lift line.  There was the occasional shouted message in Italian, but nothing in the way of official communications.  Eventually, a kind gentleman translated the sad news for us:  even though the weather was perfect in the valley, the surrounding mountains were all being pummeled by ferocious winds.  It was too dangerous to ride the lifts.  And nobody knew when (or if) the lifts would reopen.

La dolce vita in downtown Madonna di Campiglio – waiting for the lifts to re-open

It was hard to believe the ski area was closed.  We eventually decided to do something that skiers rarely have the chance to do:  enjoy a beverage at a downtown outdoor cafe.  It was difficult at first, but we finally started to get the hang of it.   Three hours (!) later, we noticed that the lifts were starting to move.  Nobody was on them, but there had to be a reason.  Just in case, we ran back to the bottom of the Cinque Laghi chairlift.   And finally, at 12:30 p.m., they started letting skiers board the lift.  Game on!

Pancugolo from a distance – sheer ice not quite evident

After all that, the conditions were…abysmal.  While there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all afternoon, yesterday’s soft snow had turned into hard ice.  And the high winds had blown any loose snow cover far away from the pistes.  There was absolutely nothing for our skis to grip.  Our excitement at being allowed on the lifts began to dissipate.  It wasn’t time to ski:  it was time to skate!

It’s 5:00 p.m. at Patascoss but nobody wants the week of skiing to end

And yet, despite the horrid conditions, we stayed on the slopes as long as we could.  The lifts stopped at 4:30 p.m. but we all knew that this was the end of another week of skiing.  Even with the treacherous ice, it was still great to be up in the mountains.  We must have waited for 15 minutes at the mid-mountain Patascoss junction before finally starting our descent to Madonna di Campiglio.  Sometime after 5:00 p.m., we made our final turns and another week of skiing in the Dolomites was history.

While this is the last skiing post from Madonna di Campiglio, there’s still more Italian food coming up!

Skiing in Madonna di Campiglio – Part 3

(Madonna di Campiglio, Italy)

For our fourth day of skiing in Madonna di Campiglio, we set our sights on the only directly connected resort we had not yet visited:  Folgarida.

An appealing lunch at Rifugio Solander, at the top of the Val Mastellina

The trek to Folgarida was not very challenging from a skiing perspective but it was still a pleasure because of the brilliant sunshine along the way.  There were a few lift lines at Malghet Aut and the pistes were rather busy there, possibly because one of the main pistes was closed for a slalom race.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed some easy cruising in the sun and were looking forward to a lunch to match the conditions on the slopes.

A less sophisticated (but still warm) lunch from Rifugio Solander

Some inspired map-reading led to the discovery of Rifugio Solander, at the top of the fun intermediate piste running down Val Mastellina.  The rifugio was on top of a sunny crest but hidden enough behind a generic-looking cafeteria that most people weren’t even aware of it.  It looked promising, and there was a table open at the edge of the balcony.  Would this lunch live up to the expectations that had been set so high in Cortina d’Ampezzo and Val Gardena?

Ricardo enjoys the view at Rifugio Solander

Indeed it did!  The warm dishes were delicious and, just as importantly after the past couple of days, still warm by the time we got to our table.  There was also an assortment of appealing fresh plates of local meats and cheeses:  we had the luxury of too many desirable choices.    We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves here and vowed to return on our sixth and final day of skiing.

The posse prepares to take on “Little Grizzly”, above Marilleva

After lunch, we did some more high-speed laps in the Val Mastellina and decided to take on another piste with a warning sign.  It was called “Little Grizzly” and the reason for the black rating was immediately apparent:  about 50 meters from the top, it dropped off quickly with a 67% incline!  Even so, there was enough snow on it to make it a much more enjoyable experience than our ill-fated journey down Spinale Direttissima a couple of days before.   We felt a sense of vindication, as we could actually link nice parallel turns here despite the steepness.

Not very busy on the “Dos Della Pesa” lift

After that, we hung around the Marilleva region for a while and checked out some of the pistes that we had missed on our first day of skiing.  The crowds were much sparser than at Folgarida and we slowly made our way back to our base camp at Madonna di Campiglio.

This is where we ended each day of skiing: just above our hotel, at the bottom of the Amazzonia/5 Laghi pistes

As always, we ended with the challenging Amazzonia piste and finished our day with a  hearty appetite.  Coming up:  details on our final two days of skiing, as well as the special dinner of local specialties put on by our hotel.

Skiing in Madonna di Campiglio – Part 2

(Madonna di Campiglio, Italy)

For our second and third days of skiing at Madonna di Campiglio, we visited the Monte Spinale/Passo Grostè and Pinzolo ski areas.

We had a bit of an adventure on Monte Spinale.  Most of the pistes were quite easy:  wide open and relatively flat.  One “black rated” piste was noticeably steeper but nothing we couldn’t handle.  However, there was eventually a fork in the road where a sign read “Expert Skiers Only”.  I believe it also mentioned that the piste was not groomed.  While two from our posse elected to bail out at that point, the remaining four of us decided to proceed.  How difficult could it be?   Ungroomed pistes are usually more fun to ski on.

The fearsome 70% gradient of “Spinale Direttissima” in the Monte Spinale area right above Madonna di Campiglio

We proceeded down the immaculate Spinale Direttissima piste for about 400 meters, wondering what all the fuss was about.  Then, after a sharp turn, we saw it:  the final portion of the piste had a stunning 70% gradient.  This is seriously steep.  While it may have been ungroomed (which in itself was not a problem), it was also heavily mogulled and consisted mostly of huge bumps of sheer ice.  All of the loose snow cover had been scraped away by petrified skiers snowplowing down the slope.  We abandoned all pretense of style and skidded our way down one of the scariest pistes I’ve ever been on.  Above, I’ve included a photo looking up at the piste from the relatively flat bottom section:  keep in mind that slope steepness NEVER shows up very well to photographs…and neither does ice.  It was much worse in person.

The bleakness of a blizzard at Passo Grostè, the highest part of the Madonna di Campiglio ski area

That afternoon, we ventured higher up to the Passo Grostè area.  With increased altitude generally comes increased weather volatility…so we emerged from the gondola into a spontaneous blizzard.   The photo above shows the tail end of the blizzard, once some visibility had been restored. 

About to ski down “Rododendro” in the Pinzolo area

While the second day of skiing had its challenges, the third day in Pinzolo was spectacular with beautiful scenery (see photo at the top of this post) and excellent skiing.  We were really close to the Brenta range of the Dolomites and people were constantly stopping to take pictures or just admire the view.  Once again, however, the lower part of a black-rated piste (Tulot) had turned to ice and was barely navigable.   I vowed to return later, once the sun had softened things up on this otherwise long, steep and enticing piste.

Skiers frequently stop to admire the view! This is the “Brenta” piste in the Pinzolo ski area

Each day, we finished by skiing down to the base of the Pradalago lift. From there, it was only a short walk to our hotel.  We quickly developed a liking for the black-rated Amazzonia [sic] piste as the final run of the day, as it featured relatively steep slopes that were generally uncrowded and retained abundant snow cover.

The innocuous top of Amazzonia, our favourite black-rated piste so far (Pradalago area)

The food at our hotel continued to be excellent, although the on-slope restaurants we visited for lunch generated a  lukewarm response (partly because the food was often not even lukewarm by the time we sat down to eat).  However, the weather still allowed us to eat outside every day – no complaints there!

Downtown Madonna di Campiglio in the late afternoon

Stay tuned for more skiing…and find out whether we eventually found a lunch that measured up to the scenery!