Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Cortina on a budget

Daily Mail
Italy, December 2016

Fancy a cheap skiing holiday with incredible food and spectacular views from your bedroom? It’s not impossible. Book a room at an Italian rifugio.

These mountainside refuges — originally built by shepherds and later commandeered by hikers — can be found throughout the mountain ranges of Europe. In the Alps, they tend to offer basic bunk-bed accommodation with bog-standard food. But Italians don’t do basic nor bog standard.

This is why if you head for the Dolomites, you can enjoy a five-star experience at a reasonable price. And wonderfully, when you wake, you’re already halfway up the mountain.

I arrive one evening at the newly refurbished Col Gallina rifugio on the slopes above the glitzy Italian resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo. In the town, the beautiful people rush from club to club in their exhausting pursuit of pleasure.

Meanwhile, I savour the Col Gallina’s delicious ­casunziei, a local speciality of ravioli dusted with parmesan and poppy seeds. Later, I kick back with the owner Ranieri Campigotto (known as ‘Campi’) over a glass of Aperol, before taking in the star-spangled sky.

Thoroughly satisfied, I retire to my extremely comfortable bed. In many rifugios, the accommodation consists of dormitory rooms. So, if you don’t want to be woken by a stranger’s snoring, book well in advance to snaffle one of the (slightly more expensive) private double rooms.

If the Col Gallina is full, try nearby Averau, a rifugio said to boast one of the best mountain restaurants in Europe. You can stay for as little as £65 a night, with breakfast and dinner included. I tried the lunchtime menu and it didn’t disappoint. 

One always leaves the UK determined to leap out of bed every morning and be the first on the slopes. Invariably, of course, it doesn’t happen. But if you’re staying in a rifugio, it does: you’re already there.

And you can also join those smug people who come back from their holidays droning on about how special it was to ski ‘right back to the chalet’. It is worth spending a night in town (the Hotel Cristallino d’Ampezzo has helpful staff and is centrally situated) to experience Cortina’s apres ski.

Highlights include a glass of wine in the ever-popular Enoteca near the church, followed by succulent home-made hams at Ariston pizzeria.

Round things off with a Bellini at the Hotel de la Poste, where, back in the day, novelist Ernest Hemingway used to hang out.

Cortina has been so popular with glamorous stars — from Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn to Naomi Campbell and George Clooney — that it has earned the nickname salotto­ dei­ famosi. This roughly translates as ‘the sitting room of celebrities’. Sounds ghastly, doesn’t it? Stick to the rifugio.