ROGER COX Gallery images

FOUR SEASONS: ITALY’S FORGOTTEN CORNER

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 20 March 2010

SHOULD skiers or snowboarders care about the history of the hills they’re skiing or riding in? Until recently I didn’t think so, but a few days in Italy’s Julian Alps have changed my mind. When I first started looking into the possibility of visiting the resort of Sella Nevea, all I really knew about it was that it was one of the snowiest places in Europe last winter and that it was about to be linked by cable car to the neighbouring resort of Bovec in Slovenia, on the other side of 2,587m Monte Canin, thereby opening up endless possibilities for easy access backcountry terrain. What struck me about the place when I got there, though, was that the much-hyped new link was only the tip of a much more complicated historical iceberg.

Standing at the intersection of Italian, Germanic and Slavic cultures, this little patch of land has been washed by so many different tides of human civilisation that it can’t truly be said to belong to anyone any more. If Europe has a crossroads, this could well be it.

In Roman times, whenever the legions marched north to defend or extend the frontiers of the Empire, they used these mountain passes to penetrate the Alps. Reminders are everywhere. At Camporosso, a few miles north of Sella Nevea, there’s a Roman monument dating from 35AD sitting casually in somebody’s front garden.

Tarvisio, the nearest large town to Sella Nevea, was made part of the Chapter of Bamberg in the 11th century, sacked by the Turks in 1478 and 1492 and brought under Austrian rule in 1759. Later, during the Napoleonic Wars, it was the scene of fierce fighting as the Emperor and his men marched from Italy into Austria in 1797. To the west, at the village of Saletto di Dogna, locals still remember a rock called Le Sente di Napoleon (Napoleon’s Bench) where the little chap is said to have had a quick snooze while his troops advanced, although recent floods seem to have either obscured it or washed it away.

During the First World War Tarvisio was on the Austrian side of the front line, so the Italian Air Force bombed it. For a while, the front line also ran through the middle of what is now the Sella Nevea ski resort. The Rifugio Celso Gililberti, named after the climber of the same name and home to some seriously good home cooking, used to be situated on a saddle a couple of hundred metres above its current location, but it was reduced to rubble by the fighting. The current building is a 1930s replacement. In the summer, though, when the snow melts, it’s still possible to see the remains of its predecessor silhouetted on the skyline.

Skiing or snowboarding here, then, you’re constantly up to your goggles in history. Ride the shiny new cable car from Italy to Slovenia and you can ski back across what used to be the Iron Curtain; gaze out of the window of the Rifugio Giliberti and you realise the tranquil scene you’re looking at was once a deadly no-man’s land. Does knowing all this make you appreciate your day a little more? Absolutely.

Even now they’ve been joined together to effectively form one resort, Sella Nevea and Bovec don’t have many marked pistes. That hardly matters though, because the potential for freeriding here is off the scale.

As if to prove the point, for the last few years the area has played host to the annual Quicksilver-sponsored Freeride Battle (www.freeridebattle.com), a qualifying event for the Freeride World Tour in which hellmen and women throw themselves off cliffs and down gullies for points and prizes. Some of the more challenging descents are definitely for experts only but if they’re too hairy for you, don’t worry: sooner or later somebody else will give them a go and you’ll get to watch.

Just before lunchtime on my first day on the hill, our little party – which included three Italian ski journalists and two former members of the national ski team – was stopped in its tracks by two mini-dramas unfolding simultaneously on the slopes above.

To our right, high on Cima Pecorelle (The Peak of the Lamb) three skiers were negotiating a ludicrously steep couloir which funnelled into a wide powder bowl which, in turn, emptied on to the edge of a gnarly-looking cliff. Meanwhile, just behind us, two snowboarders were preparing to drop about 25ft off a freshly-sculpted wind lip. I didn’t know which way to point my camera, but in the end I concentrated on the boarders.

The picture on the right shows Wille from Austria, about to spin a beautiful, slow 180 from one side of Europe to the other. I’m not sure whether he fully appreciated the geopolitical significance of his manoeuvre or not. Hard to ask a total stranger something like that without sounding a bit mad.

www.sellanevea.net; www.bovec.si

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