Friday, January 28, 2011

A Ski Adventure in Abetone

“Skiing in Tuscany? Are you kidding???” For the past year that was my standard response when any of my friends would suggest we check out the local slopes for a day. Having lived in Aspen for a decade during some of the best ski seasons on record, I had visions of bunny hills covered in icy, man-made snow with a few Poma lifts, a rickety old chair lift, and maybe even a towrope.

Nonetheless, I was mildly curious about a small ski resort in the Apennine Mountains just an hour and a half north of Florence called Abetone. I mentioned it several times to my friend Marco, who brought me to the Dolomites for my first Italian skiing experience last year, but he always grimaced whenever I brought it up, so I assumed it wasn’t worth the time or the effort. Then in December, while my ski boots were collecting dust on a shelf in my closet and my friends back in Aspen were posting photos of epic powder days on Facebook, I decided to write an article about Abetone for The Florentine, a newspaper for English speakers in Tuscany, leaving me no choice but to check it out.

A friend of mine graciously gave me the keys to her condo so I could spend a full two days exploring the resort. Fortunately, my dear friend Chloe, who grew up in Florence and spent her winters with her family skiing in Abetone, skied the first day with me. She knew exactly where to park, rent ski equipment, which trails to ski, the best place for lunch and where to have a coffee before heading home. After a day of hard, fast skiing on soft terrain under a cloudless, periwinkle sky with my friend, simply put, I fell in love with the place.

Abetone means “large fir “ and as Chloe and I drove up a windy, well-maintained road from Pistoia through the foothills of the Apennines, there were forests of fir trees as far as the eye can see. Along the way Chloe told me stories of learning to ski in these mountains when she was a small child, her family often staying for a week at a time. Now she is teaching her own children how to ski on the very same slopes. Not much has changed in the past thirty years, which is one of Abetone’s most appealing features.

When we arrived in Abetone that Thursday morning, we literally drove right into the resort. Ski shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and markets line both sides of the road. I was delighted to discover that the parking is free, and since it was a weekday, we had no problem finding a space in the lot next to the Total gas station on the right. In fact, the lot was almost empty.
We were immediately welcomed by a cheerful man who carried my boots across the street and into Bibi Sports (who said chivalry is dead?) which is owned by the affable, engaging Senor Bibi. It took only a few minutes to rent a nice pair of Rossignol skis, and Bibi even gave us a little discount.  When he asked where I was from and I told him Aspen, he became quite animated, pulling out a tattered old ski-racing book and pointing to page with a black and white photo of Zeno, who it turns out was one of the greatest Italian skiers ever and was born in Abetone in 1920. At the 1950 World Championships in Aspen, Zeno won the gold medal in both the downhill and giant slalom. Two years later, he won the gold in the downhill at the Olympics in Oslo, Three trails at Abetone are named in his honor- Zeno 1,2 and 3,  #1 being the only black diamond run on the mountain.

Just a short walk down the street and up a steep little hill is the ticket office where we paid a mere €34 euro for a day pass with a €5 refund at the day’s end for returning the electronic pass. Admittedly, I was a little nervous when I sat down on the weathered, red plastic seat on the first chairlift, 
and even more so when the second lift was a Poma...
...but when we arrived at the top and took in the expansive, snowcapped mountain range all around us, I finally understood what all the fuss was about.
Abetone is a real, honest to goodness ski resort, and though the skiers and snowboarders are fashionably dressed as one would expect in Italy, there is not an ounce of pretention. With more than forty trails, twenty-two chairlifts and a gondola with bright blue cable cars, there is quite a bit of terrain to cover. Both the length and quality of the trails, comprised of mostly beginner (blue) and intermediate (red) runs that are slightly steeper than their counterparts in the Alps, far exceeded my expectations. Plus you can ski all over the mountain without worrying about ending up in another country.

Chloe’s plan of attack was to spend the morning in the Val di Luce area where the light is best (hence the name, Valley of Light) and then follow the sun back towards Abetone in the afternoon. Far above the tree line with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and little villages below, Val di Luce quickly became my favorite spot on the mountain. We carved turns down the wide open, gentle slopes all morning then stopped for lunch at the chalet where the three lifts converge at the base. The spacious terrace was the perfect place to catch rays and people watch.

Within minutes we were chatting it up with two tall, attractive Florentine men, both avid skiers who know the mountain well.

We ended up skiing a few fast runs with them after lunch. At one point, when we got off the chairlift at the summit, we all dropped our skis and hiked up a short, steep hill. When we arrived at the top Chloe and I both gasped. Below us, smoky blue mountaintops basking in golden rays of sunlight rose above a sea of white, bubbly clouds that stretched all the way to the Mediterranean. It was of one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

As we skied our way back to Abetone, we explored other parts of the mountain where the runs are lower and lined with trees. The trails were all enjoyable and there was enough variety to keep us wanting more when the last lift closed at 4:45.

After returning our skis to Bibo, we met the guys and another American friend of mine, Beth, for a coffee down the street at La Casina, famous for its torta di ricotta and handmade chocolates. The red and white Tyrolean-style chalet, which opened in 1948, is adorable, and we had a nice conversation over tea and pastries by a wood-burning fire.

Chloe and I happened to visit Abetone on a warm, sunny weekday when the snow was delightfully soft and, at times, not another soul was in sight. The following day skiing with Beth was a completely different story. The temperature had dropped considerably overnight and the slopes were hard-packed and icy. Overlooking the fact that Beth had not been on skis in two years and taking her word for it that she was an experienced, intermediate skier, I made the mistake of taking her down what I was later to find out was the only black diamond run on the mountain right off the bat. Beth was petrified and rightly so. The trail was a solid sheet of ice. She sidestepped her way down the slope and the next thing I knew she was careening headfirst, skis flailing behind her, gathering speed while I stood below watching helplessly. Thank god a ski patroller arrived just in time and stopped her hurtling body by sliding right into her. She got up laughing but it was a nerve-wracking experience for all of us. 

 We tried to find slopes that the sun had softened but each one had it shady, icy patches that Beth had to inch her way down. We skied four runs in four hours and we were exhausted when we finally made it back to Abetone. It was an important lesson learned for both of us. At least we had a killer sunset to cap off that harrowing experience...
Having spent two dramatically different days in Abetone, here are a few tips for first-timers:
1) Go on a weekday if at all possible. Parking is easy and you will have the mountain to yourselves. Weekends are mob scenes.
2) If you go on a weekend, arrive early and be ready for an interesting experience at the gondola and chairlifts. This is Italy, not Switzerland.
3) Watch the weather and ski conditions. There is not much natural snowfall and though there are 100 canons blowing tons of artificial snow each night, the slopes can be icy, even treacherous.
4) Grab a map from the ticket office. The trails are not well marked and the signage, where it exists at all, is small.

Abetone offers private and group ski and snowboard lessons for adults and children. Group lessons require a minimum of three days, weekdays only, and start at €95. See For hotels and apartment rentals, weather and other details, is great resource. Call the tourist office for ski conditions at +39 1573 60231.