‘Skiing in Tuscany? Are you kidding?' For the past year, that was my standard response when friends would suggest we check out the local slopes for a day. Having lived in Aspen, Colorado, for a decade during some of the best ski seasons on record, I had visions of bunny hills covered in icy, manmade snow, with a few Poma lifts, rickety old chair lifts and maybe even a towrope. With world-class skiing in the Italian Alps just five hours away, looking for something local never seemed worth the time or effort. When a friend invited me to Abetone, a ski resort in the Apennine mountains, just 90 minutes from Florence, I went somewhat reluctantly.
Fortunately, my friend grew up in Florence and spent her winters skiing there. She knew exactly where to park, rent equipment, the best trails and lunch spots, and where to have a coffee before heading home. After a day of hard, fast skiing on soft terrain under a cloudless, periwinkle sky, simply put, I fell in love with the place.
Abetone means ‘large fir,' and as we wound up a windy, well-maintained road from Pistoia through the foothills of the Apennines, we saw little except forests of fir trees. During the surprisingly easy drive, my friend told me about 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 children how to ski the same slopes. Not much has changed in the past 30 years, which is one of Abetone's most appealing features.
Arriving in Abetone means literally driving right into the resort. Ski shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and markets line both sides of the road. Parking is free, and those who arrive early enough can slide into one of the lots flanking the Total gas station on the right.
Directly across the street is Bibi Sport where the affable, engaging Signor Bibi has been outfitting skiers since 1954. Renting ski gear from Bibi is easy and fast and the ski selection is impressive. It's cash only (and be sure to tell him Jennifer the journalist from Florence sent you!). When Bibi found out that I was from Aspen, he became quite animated, pulling out a tattered old ski-racing book and pointing to a black and white photo of Zeno Colò, one of Italy's greatest skiers, 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 Oslo Olympics. Three trails at Abetone are named in his honor: Zeno 1, 2 and 3; Zeno 1 is the only black-diamond run on the mountain.
Before heading up the mountain, we stopped for a coffee at La Casina, famous for its torta di ricotta and handmade chocolates. The red and white Tyrolean-style chalet, which opened in 1948, is a lovely place to sip a cappuccino by a wood-burning fire. Just steps from the bar and up a short hill is the ticket office. That particular Thursday my pass was 34 euro, with a 5-euro rebate for returning the electronic card at the end of the day. (All lifts at Abetone are electronic, which is a big time-saver on crowded weekends).
Admittedly, I was a little nervous settling into the weathered, red plastic seat of the first chairlift, and even more so getting on the second lift, a Poma, but when we arrived at the top and took in the expansive, snowcapped mountain range surrounding 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 pretension. With more than 40 trails, 22 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 far exceeded my expectations. With mostly beginner (blue) and intermediate (red) trails slightly steeper than their counterparts in the Alps, Abetone is a perfect place for families, as skiers can break off from each other mid-run and meet up again a few minutes later. Moreover, you can ski all over the mountain without worrying about ending up in another country!
To get the most out of the resort in a single day, spend the morning skiing in the Val di Luce area, where the light is best (hence the name), and follow the sun back to Abetone in the afternoon. Far above the tree line, with wide, open slopes and panoramic views, Val di Luce is my favorite spot on the mountain. In fact, the view from the summit, where you can see all the way to Elba island on a clear day, is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. At the top of the quad lift, drop your skis, hike up the little hill straight ahead and prepare to gasp.
After carving turns for a few hours in Val di Luce, stop for lunch at the chalet at the base where the three lifts converge. Its spacious terrace is the perfect place to catch rays and people watch. Expect homey cuisine: the hearty, flavorful polenta with mushrooms is delicious, and the simple pasta dishes, panini and grilled meats provide sufficient fuel. Steer clear of the soups, which are a bit watery, and insalata, just a few leaves of iceberg lettuce.
After lunch, use the afternoon to explore the rest of the mountain, where the runs are lower and lined with trees. The trails are all enjoyable and there is enough variety to keep you wanting more when the last lift closes at 4:45.
Tips for skiing Abetone
1. Weekends are mob scenes, so go on a weekday if possible. Parking is easy and you will have the mountain to yourself.
2. If you go on a weekend, get there early and get ready for an interesting experience at the gondola and chairlifts. This is 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. Call the local tourist office for ski conditions at 0573/60231.
4. Get a map from the ticket office. The trails are not well marked and the signage, where it exists, is small.
5. Want to learn to ski? For information about lessons, seewww.scuolascimontegomito.it.
6. For lodging, weather conditions and other details, seewww.abetone.com.
Bus: Copit operates bus service to and from Abetone, with three or four direct runs daily. By bus, the trip takes about three hours each way. The departure point and ticket office are located in Largo Alinari in Florence. Call 055/21463 or see www.copitspa.it.Car: From Florence, take the A11 (Firenze-Mare) motorway to Pistoia. From there, follow S.S. 66 to La Lima and then continue along S.S. 12 to Abetone.