Lift off! A new, panoramic border-crossing link between Cervinia and Zermatt

The high-altitude Italian resort of Cervinia, in the lee of the magnificent Matterhorn, is set to be linked to the Swiss resort of Zermatt by a new cable car — opening up a mammoth year-round ski area that’s suitable for all abilities.Friday, 8 November 2019

The Matterhorn is synonymous with the Swiss resort of Zermatt, but in Cervinia, in Italy’s Aosta Valley, you can barely ski a slope without catching sight of that iconic peak.
The Matterhorn is synonymous with the Swiss resort of Zermatt, but in Cervinia, in Italy’s Aosta Valley, you can barely ski a slope without catching sight of that iconic peak.
photo by AWL

It’s dark and furiously windy when we reach the Italian resort of Cervinia — but banks of fresh snow suggest we’ll need an early start to make the most of our time here.

The next day, I tear open the curtains at the first sliver of sunlight and am stunned by the view. Never has the Matterhorn — or Monte Cervino, as it’s called here — looked so imposing. Its cliff faces and gullies beckon; it looks like no other mountain in the world.

The Matterhorn is synonymous with the Swiss resort of Zermatt, but in Cervinia, in Italy’s Aosta Valley you can barely ski a slope without catching sight of that iconic towering peak. Back in 1856, when Edward Whymper became the first person to conquer the Matterhorn, it was from Zermatt that he began his ascent; Cervinia has been in the slipstream of Zermatt ever since. It is also, however, a top international resort in its own right. Originally known as Breuil when it opened in 1936, it was renamed Cervinia by Mussolini to reflect the glory of its signature mountain.

More recently, there have been extensive upgrades to the lifts and snow-making capabilities, creating what’s touted as Italy’s most snow-sure resort, with miles of scenic, well-groomed runs. And its facilities are set to go up yet another notch, with a state-of-the art cable-car that’s due to be completed in the summer of 2021. The cable-car will link Zermatt and Cervinia, making travel between the two resorts even easier and accelerating the latter’s growth as a year-round ski destination, where even beginners will be able to reach the Swiss glacier that’s a popular summer skiing spot.

According to Warren Smith, a performance coach and instructor who trained competitors on Channel 4’s celebrity winter sports show The Jump, the new cable-car will transform Cervinia’s summer ski courses. “At the moment, to get to the glacier you have to travel on a T-bar, but the new cable-car will give beginners direct access, ” he explains.

I haven’t been to Cervinia for a few years and I am amazed by its transformation — both on and off the slopes. The town itself still can’t compare to Zermatt for chocolate-box charm but the car-free centre, strung with fairy lights, looked far prettier than I remembered. Thanks to the wind, the snow-covered streets were deserted, so after a brief exploration of new bars and renovated hotels, we took cover in Le Samovar Guest House — a sophisticated spot with a crackling log fire, comfy armchairs and a bar offering cocktails that stray far beyond the obligatory Aperol spritz.

We arrived at Hotel Excelsior Planet, not far from the slopes, to find smartly-designed guestrooms, a spa complete with heated pool, sauna and Turkish bath, and an old-style communal lounge area, detailed with artefacts of the Matterhorn’s climbing history. The hotel’s exceptional cuisine under chef Fabrizio Reffo was another treat — and, judging by the restaurant’s popularity, was quite the find.

This morning, with no time to kill, we make our way to the slopes and are whisked around the resort by Luca Caruso, our enthusiastic guide. One of Europe’s loftiest ski resorts, Cervinia tops out at 11,400ft and its pistes are some of Italy’s longest; as we take the fast chairlifts to Plan Maison and Laghi Cime Bianche, the slopes beneath us are uncrowded and in fabulous condition. Luca monitors the lifts on his phone, so as soon as new areas open for the day, we’re there, ready to go.

The Monte Rosa massif offers one of the longest heli-ski drops in the Alps, involving a helicopter ride from Colle Bettaforca, a drop onto Colle del Lys and a journey down the Grenz Glacier.
The Monte Rosa massif offers one of the longest heli-ski drops in the Alps, involving a helicopter ride from Colle Bettaforca, a drop onto Colle del Lys and a journey down the Grenz Glacier.
photo by AWL

Cervinia has multiple long, cruising, top-to-bottom routes, among them one of the world’s longest pisted runs: 12 miles from the heights of Plateau Rosa to Valtournenche, a small linked resort with just one chairlift. From various points, we catch glimpses of the jagged peaks of Lyskamm and Breithorn piercing the sky.

For years, there have been rumours about links being built between Cervinia and the three resorts of Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna, although nothing has yet come to fruition. There is, however, the option of skiing off piste from Cervinia to Champoluc via Valtournenche.

This area of the Monte Rosa massif offers one of the longest heli-ski drops in the Alps, involving a helicopter ride from Colle Bettaforca, a drop onto Colle del Lys (13,900 ft) and an epic journey down the Grenz Glacier between the Monte Rosa and Lyskamm peaks. Weaving through seracs (glacial ice ridges) and skyscraping scenery you’ll eventually skirt the Gorner Glacier and end up on the piste at Furi in Zermatt. To return, you can take the cable-car from Klein Matterhorn to the slopes of Cervinia. 

Later that morning, with more than half the piste map under our belts, Luca presents us with a surprise of the gastronomic variety. A blue run — number six, above Plan Maison —  takes us to a classic mountain lodge bursting with activity. 

Chalet Etoile is in full swing. Its clientele is varied: some guests appear to be lingering for a while; other skiiers seem to be in more of a hurry to get back on the slopes. As we enter, the wait staff buzz into action. Cold beer and a deliciously strong bombardino (a warming Italian cocktail made with coffee, eggnog, brandy and cream) arrives pronto. Luca tells us that skiers based in Zermatt habitually cross the border for a cup of good Italian coffee.

Chalet Etoile has a reputation for excellent seafood and, as I discover, their signature lobster dish easily rivals some of the best mountain restaurants in Zermatt — while coming in at a third of the price. 

Fortified by the drinks and inspired by the mountain scenery, we head for Plateau Rosa, on the border of Italy and Switzerland. Our six-day ‘international’ pass allows us access to lifts on both sides of the border, but we don’t have time to explore the Zermatt ski area today. 

We set off down the long run to Cieloalto, then make our way back up to Theodulpass and eventually head to the slopes above Plan Torrette, exploring the multiple red runs and some lovely off-piste areas. And, as ever, we are constantly in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn.

Glacier Link

The planned cable-car link between Italy’s Testa Grigia (11,345ft) and Switzerland’s Klein Matterhorn (12,536ft) is set to open in 2021. 

The panoramic border-crossing journey will take an hour and will be included in the price of international (Swiss-Italian) lift passes. The luxurious tri-cable gondolas will feature leather seats and be accessible for wheelchair users. 

Opening up access to Zermatt’s glacier, the new lift will extend Cervinia’s already long ski season (traditionally November-May) to year-round.

ESSENTIALS

Ski Solutions offers a seven-night stay at Hotel Excelsior Planet, including scheduled flights and transfers (from Turin, a 90-minute drive away), on a half-board basis from £1,460 per person.

For further information, including lift ticket prices, visit: aosta-valley.co.uk  zermatt.ch  skilife.ski  warrensmith-skiacademy.com  matterhornparadise.ch

Published in the National Geographic Traveller (UK) Winter Sports guide 2019

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