Finding a ski area where you can cross borders is, for me, a desirable option. You don’t need to bring a passport to travel through three countries in one day and there’s something curiously exciting about skiing from one country to the next…
It’s a bit like tunnelling into a parallel universe on skis. And it keeps happening. It’s not that I’m not enjoying skiing in any particular country, but it’s almost as though some unknown force keeps whisking me across borders before I’ve had a chance to whip my skis round and get back to where I’m supposed to be! And yet I never bother to carry a passport when I’m skiing. Maybe I should!
First cross-border experience
My first cross experience was skiing the Vallee Blanche from Courmayeur. Getting out of Punta Helbronner cable car, I saw the word “frontiera” displayed with both the French and Italian flags. But no-one there to control passports.
It was the strangest feeling, having just left Italy, to finish skiing and walking with ski boots into a French town with cars which had French number plates, French speaking people, a champagne and oyster bar and paying for a terrible coffee with French francs.
Skiing into Switzerland
A year later, I was guiding a group of guests around Cervinia and I was excited to see the Matterhorn for the first time – although its shape was a bit of a disappointment, having seen so many chocolate boxes with the famous peak on them.
I was so excited to go past the Swiss flag sign and ski down to Zermatt, eat rösti, washing it down with wonderful Valais wines in a typically rustic ski hut, smelling old wood and cows whilst enjoying the much more famous iconic view of the Matterhorn from the Swiss side.
Next thing I knew, it was 3.30, the weather was closing in and we only just made it back to Cervinia or it would have been a very expensive night staying in Switzerland!
This sort of thing happens to me quite a lot. Earlier in the season I was enjoying the slopes at Ischgl, Austria (during one of their legendary music festivals) when I suddenly found myself in Switzerland (almost the reverse of the Cervinia-Zermatt episode). I always wondered whether any of these mountain passes were used to escape the baddies during WWII. I think I would have made a good resistance ski guide!
Heli-skiing through to France
My most exotic cross-border experience was my first-ever heli-ski descent from the Italian resort of La Thuile after being dropped off on the Ruitor glacier, skiing down to France, and ending up in this little village of Miroir where I saw a French-plated 2cv go by whilst waiting for a local taxi to pick us up and take us to a bistro called Chez Merie.
I still remember the boeuf bourguignon and the bottle of Mondeuse before heading to La Rosière, zig-zagging the easy, sunny slopes to the Italian border before skiing down the Petit St Bernard pass – which famously featured in the opening scene of the classic movie, ‘The Italian Job’.
This route became a favourite of mine as my baptism to heliskiing for my guests as it provided an all-day excursion. On one occasion the patronne of Chez Merie asked me if we were still heading for La Rosière and back to la Thuile, to which I replied: ‘Bien sur – pourquoi?” She then told me the lift linking the two resorts was buried in snow and therefore closed.
I had two options – either take a very expensive three-hour taxi transfer back to Courmayeur – or follow our ingenious guide Luigi’s suggestion that we introduce our guests to ski touring! We called Intersport in La Rosière, rented a whole bunch of binding adaptors which were called Secura-Fix, picked up some ski skins, and from the highest ski lift did a one-hour hike to Italy. From here we enjoyed an incredible run down to La Thuile, dropped off the rental gear at the local ski hire shop, Berthod, to be collected later by Intersport, and finished the adventure of a lifetime.
The benefits of aiming for two countries on the same trip include heliskiing. It’s banned, of course, in France, but there’s nothing to stop you being based on the French side of the border, say, in Val d’Isère, and then slipping across into Italy for some epic heli-skiing.
If anyone in Val d’Isère boasts about going heli-skiing tomorrow, remember it’s likely to be on the Ruitor glacier, where you get picked up just across the Italian border after the French resort of la Rosière and get whisked to what is basically one of the easiest descents ever – with a modest gradient and a lot of poling at the end!
You can do the proper stuff, however, in Val Grisenche, Courmayeur or – for the most amazing adventure go to Champoluc or Gressoney (Italy), do the highest heli-drop in Europe on Monterosa, ski down the north side to Zermatt, back up the Klein Matterhorn, and skim Cervinia and Valtournenche before slipping back down to Italy below the Cime Bianche back down to Champoluc. There are rumours that they will link Cervinia and the Monterosa area soon.
The Portes du Soleil and a Hidden German Gem
As for skiing in the Portes du Soleil…that can get really confusing – but fun. One minute you’re in France, next minute you’re sliding down the slippery slope of the Swiss Wall into Switzerland.
In fact almost anywhere in the French resorts of the Portes du Soleil you’re in striking distance of one of the Swiss resorts that combine with their French neighbours to former this huge region.
In the surprisingly little-known and unfashionable German resort of Oberstdorf (trust me, it has some great skiing) you can also have fun skiing into Austria’s Kleinwalsertal, an enclave cut off from the rest of the rest of Austria.
Crossing to Try Different Cuisines
The great attraction – for me at least – about skiing across frontiers is the fascinating change of scene and culinary delights.
Although Zermatt is famous for its mountain restaurants, how nice to have the opportunity to ski down to Cervinia for some Italian nosh. Same thing in La Rosière. French food, as we all know, can be excellent but how nice to have a choice simply by popping into Italy.
In Ischgl, one of the joys of nipping into Switzerland is sampling the duty-free in Switzerland’s Samnaun.
Centuries ago, when Ischgl’s Swiss neighbour was cut off from the rest of Switzerland, the villagers struck a deal allowing them huge tax concessions. This inevitably created a smugglers’ paradise, and the story goes that one villager from the Austrian side of the border, using the traditional excuse of crossing into Switzerland for “a day’s hunting” bought a consignment of cigarettes, went straight to Innsbruck without even stopping to sleep, sold the cigarettes for five times what he had paid for them, and, after further trade-offs, returned to Ischgl with a live ox. Difficult to accomplish on skis, I know, but you get the idea!!
And in the gorgeous Dolomites, particularly when you’re skiing the classic Sella Ronda, you can dine out – literally – on the hugely varied cuisine inspired by the unique combination of culinary influences: Italian, German and Ladin.
Transcending Language Barriers
In Switzerland, of course, you can cross language borders without even leaving the country. Four languages are spoken there: Swiss German (the main language) plus French (the country’s second most spoken language) followed by Italian and a much smaller pocket of Romansch speakers. (Personally, the standard of my Romansch isn’t quite up to my Italian!)
Most Swiss inhabitants speak at least one other Swiss language apart from their own, and many also speak English. This diverse cultural background influences Swiss cuisine – there is even a joke that when you travel from French-speaking Switzerland to the German-speaking part, you will cross an imaginary “rösti” (hash browns) border! This can certainly be applied to Gstaad, which has close links with a number of French-speaking resorts.
In the Dolomites you’ll find a rare regional language which combines Latin with a local dialect.
Ready to Ski?
There are quite a few other examples of skiing sans frontières, but you get my drift. So where does this leave us? Just that it’s huge fun to go to a ski area where this kind of adventure is possible. Just think of the bragging rights, for a start. And the food. Oh, and the skiing is usually excellent too. After all they all have to keep up with their neighbours, illustrious or otherwise!
Please share any of your experiences with us.
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