The warm scents of the Mediterranean followed us as we turned inland from Italy’s Mediterranean coast and headed toward the mountains. We could see through the early spring haze that there was snow up there; an unlikely rumor from under the palms that dotted the promenades of the coastal fishing villages.
With daylight fading, we arrived at the walled city of Lucca, where tourists stared at our skis as we unloaded the gear. Tomorrow we’d leave the foothills surrounding the town and head deeper into the heights, but tonight we’d savor Tuscan classics: homemade pastas and panzanellas washed down with a local vintage, the bottles dusty and labeled merely with a sticker denoting the address of the restaurant and the date the red was bottled.
Tuscany. The word evokes a land of dry hills dotted with vineyards and historic cities: Lucca, Siena, Pisa and San Gimignano: former citystates and rivals that battled for influence and wealth. Food, wine, the good life. But for skiers, the good life in Tuscany also includes snow and mountains. And for skiers who want all Tuscany offers plus a bit of skiing, there’s only one choice. And that choice is Abetone.
When we heard that you could ski in Tuscany, it seemed like a joke. But that was before we learned a bit more. The eastern border of Italy’s most renowned province is marked by the jagged vertical relief of the Apennines, a mountain range that — if it weren’t for the Alps — would be famous.
As it is, it sits off the beaten path, a local’s secret that’s frequented by budget-conscious Italians with families. And Abetone? Think Colorado favorite Snowmass transported to a land of white birch trees and red wine, a perfect combination.
It’s really no surprise that the Apennines delineate the boundary of Tuscany with its eastern neighbor, Emilia Romagna. Rivers, mountains, oceans, they’re all natural borders and these peaks rise above complex foothills pierced by deep gorges, a challenging and beautiful topography to navigate. Created out the tectonic demise of Gondwanaland millenniums ago, it is an impressive range, full of buttresses, cliffs and crenellated ridges. Abetone sits at the top of a high pass, one of the few weaknesses in the range. A low point in a high place that was a difficult yet navigable crossing. For years it remained a customs outpost, a border town that thrived from the trade and travelers crossing the heights between Tuscany and Emilia Romagna.
With the unification of Italy in 1871, the political border was finished and the town drifted into a slow, sleepy decline. Skiing, and summer tourism such as hiking and climbing, has brought back a certain level of activity. But you’re never going to mistake a weekend in Abetone for a weekend in Vail. Lift lines are nonexistent and it’s easy to score a deal on a last-minute hotel room, outside of the Christmas holidays.
Skiers come here from nearby Lucca or travel up the eastern escarpment of the Apennines from Modena and Bologna. There’s a small but growing contingent from the United Kingdom as well, families drawn by budget prices, empty slopes and intimate atmosphere.
Skiing has a rich history in Abetone. Zeno Colo, one of Italy’s greatest ski racers, was born there in 1920. It’s also possible to run into Celina Seghi in the lobby of the Hotel Regina. A living legend, she won her first national title in 1937. With a slew of top-tier results including fourthplace finishes in downhill and combined at the 1948 Winter Olympics and a bronze medal in slalom at the 1950, Seghi finally hung up her skis three years ago.
We meet her for espressos during our week here, and when she learns we are from Colorado, her face lights up. Seghi made the long trip to Aspen from Abetone as part of a stacked Italian team that included Colo and that dominated the 1950 world championships. Spry and energetic at 94 and with a memory as sharp as a tack, she regales us with stories of Aspen and other adventures.
Seghi is one of many surprises we’ll have that week. After another day of skiing, we are in the rustic base lodge and hear English — American English — and discover University of Colorado alum and renowned ski mountaineer Chris Davenport at the next table. He’s in town to watch members of the Aspen Ski Club, including his son Stian, compete in one of the largest junior ski races in the world, the Pinocchio Cup.
Ski racing provides a big link between Abetone’s past and its present. The Aspen contingent has traveled here for several years and the skiers and coaches are spearheading a move to develop a sister city relationship with Abetone. But while each town’s political leadership works through the details of that arrangement, there are races to be raced.
That’s why the Aspen speedsters are here. The Pinocchio cup attracts more than 1,000 young athletes from countries ranging from Japan and Russia to Spain and Argentina. The 10-day event is a massive undertaking and provides a punctuation mark to the end of Abetone’s season: a last blast of noise, activity and action before things wind down in anticipation of the snowmelt.
We check out the races off and on during the week, but the softening snow and open bowls of Abetone’s backside keep us from turning into hardcore spectators. The ski area’s empty terrain off the back is like Vail, only steeper. We time our days to follow the sun, with late starts to let things warm up and then target our favorite decks for lingering après ski sessions after chalking up big vertical on the uncrowded slopes.
Our last day ends with yet another surprise. Rolando Galli, the general manager of the ski area, leads our group on a short hike to the edge of the resort. Below us in the valley, low clouds are swirling in: moisture from the Mediterranean.
“You can see the ocean from here on a clear day,” Galli tells us.
It seems insane, yet it’s true; such is the proximity of these mountains to the sea.
We ponder the juxtaposition while we take in the view. Behind us sits the ski area, and just beyond that the Tuscan border, with more snow-covered peaks stretching into Emilia Romagna. If you let your mind drift, the terrain looks almost like Colorado: peaks intersected by bowls with couloirs dropping off of cliffy ridges. But then we look down the backside. Down there, the birch forests glow whiter than the snow and looks nothing like Colorado.
The run takes us through an open bowl, then into steep trees and finally onto a forest track, where spring melt rushes and the snow turns goopy. As track turns to dirt we suddenly pull up to a van. With typical Italian hospitality, Galli has arranged for a ride and we all pile in, laughing, the slush from our skis pooling on the floor and our faces red from the sun. Fifteen minutes later we’re back at the lifts. Davenport leads the Aspen kids out for one more run, but for us, our day is over. The sun on the deck is warm, the wine is — of course — red, the pasta is fresh and the mountains? The mountains are Tuscan.
Get your Abetone on:
True to its off the beaten path location, Abetone’s website is only in Italian. But with the help of Google and some common sense you can figure out current promotions and discounts, check out webcams and trail maps and find other information: www.abetone.it.
Nearby Lucca is an ideal compliment to a visit to the area and offers skiers the chance to experience a well preserved walled city full of amazing bars and restaurants: www.luccatourist. it.
General information on visiting Italy and other parts of Tuscany can be found at the official Italian tourism website: www.enit.it/en/.