As a lover of off piste snowboarding, when the tourist board of Piedmont region in Italy invited me to review the ‘Freeride Paradise’ of Alagna, I was as excited as a kid at Christmas. Would Alagna live up to its bill as a freeride snowboarding paradise?
For my review of Alagna snowboarding holidays I will talk about the town, accommodation, eating out but first I will talk about the snowboarding. For me the most important part of any snowboarding holiday is what the boarding is like, so I will break this down into sections on the pisted ski area and then assess whether it is a freeride snowboarding paradise by talking about the off piste.
Alagna is located in the in the Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) region of Italy, which sits in north west corner of the country, bordering both France and Switzerland. It is a 2.5 hour drive from the regions capital Turin (Torino in Italian). Turin was Italy’s first capital and has a fascinating history, it is well worth a visit. The nearest airports to Alagna are Turin and Milan Malpensa both of which are about 2 hours by car.
Alagna, or to give it it’s full name Alagna Valsesia, is part of the Monterosa ski area. It includes the lift connected ski areas of Gressoney La Trinite – Stafal, Champoluc – Frachey and the unconnected areas of Gressoney – St Jean, Brusson and Antagnod. In total there are 180km of ski runs reaching up to 3275m. Most of the runs in the connected area are red runs with a few blacks and a few blues. We lucked out with a beautiful sunny first day and enjoyed a guided tour of the Monterosa area by Emanuel, a local ski guide and instructor.
Alagna sits in a valley at 1212m. There is one gondola out of town which connects to the large Funivia (Cableway) to reach a height of 2971m. Both lifts are fairly quick and the 1700m uplift takes about 20 minutes. Coming back into Alagna there is a one route but its a goody, you start with long black run followed by a long red run, at the bottom your legs will know they have been working hard. Although there are a couple of blue runs at the top this is not a resort for beginners or nervous intermediates.
From the top of the Funivia you can head down into Gressoney or it is possible to rise another 300m to Indren, which at 3275m is Monterosa’s highest point and provides access to much of the off piste. From the Funivia there is a great red sweeping run down towards Gressoney. There are a number of other red runs in the area, plus the snow park is located near the top with a typical collection of kickers, boxes and rails to play on. According to Emanuel is open until 9pm although I am unsure if this is all winter.
If you wish to head to Champoluc about half way down to Gressoney there is a black run off to the right. It is not a particularly difficult black but ends with a long narrow, slightly steep, track which my wife would hate. This run takes you into Stafal, from here you can can take a chairlift up to Colle Bettaforca which gives access to Champoluc.
The run from Colle Bettaforca into the Frachey area of Champoluc is a beauty, taking you from 2727m down to 1992m on a wide sweeping red. The Champoluc area has a couple of blue runs but mostly more red runs. Although Champoluc is the end of the Monterosa ski area there are talks of extending it by linking to Cervinia, so you could snowboard from Alagna all the way to Zermatt in Switzerland.
The on mountain food options are plentiful, with an eatery at the top of almost every lift. On the first day we ate at Mont Rosa in Champoluc which had fantastic views and typical but good mountain food. On the second day we ate at Rifugio Grande Halte which is on the right hand side just below the midstation on the red run back into Alagna. The food was more regional and exceptionally good, the owners were also very friendly.
Alagna is also called ‘Freeride Paradise‘, in fact it was only in the last decade that they pisted any of it, until then it was all off piste. We were lucky enough to have a mountain guide on our second day, called Christian, whose job it is to safely guide people off piste. He kitted us out with avalanche gear and gave us a quick briefing on how to use it.
Prior to our arrival in Alagna it had been snowing a lot in the last few weeks, with a great deal falling the few days before our arrival. On the first day I played in the powder off the side of the pistes which was over knee deep and relatively untouched. It then snowed overnight and all of the next day adding nearly half a meter of snow.
Unfortunately for our guided off piste day the visibility was very poor and the avalanche risk very high so our freeride experience would be limited.Christian took us to two safe off piste areas.
The first was on the Gressoney side of the mountain. We took the Funvia up to the top and then followed the red down until the black run branched off towards Stafal. Just after this we dropped off the piste and into a steep valley it was tree lined which helped considerably with the visibility. The Valley narrowed towards the bottom and we headed through thicker trees on a very narrow, but great fun off piste track beside a stream. Christian pointed out that we could have entered this off piste area from the Funvia but it was not safe today.
The second was on the Alagna side of the mountain, just off the main black run back towards town. We went through a little valley which had waist deep powder. Unfortunately the visibility was so poor I struggled to see which way was down, and for the first half I failed to put more then 2 turns together. I couldn’t see enough to get my speed up and keep the board out of the powder, which meant this particular bit of the freeride snowboarding paradise was very hard work. After I had dug myself out for what seemed like the 100th time, visibility improved enough that I could as least tell which way was down and I managed to enjoy the end of the run.
When we stopped for a late lunch, at the aforementioned Rifugio Grande Halte, I was a broken man. I had reached the level of exhaustion where I needed food and in particular sugar to perk me up. I had snow wedged into every nook and cranny but I was very pleased to have got a taste of the off piste available in this freeride snowboarding paradise, despite the conditions being against us.
Over lunch, and on most lift journeys, Christian talked enthusiastically about the various off piste available in the Alagna area. It sounds amazing. Many of the routes were whole day expeditions stopping in remote villages for lunch. There is a great deal of off piste accessible from the lifts, but with a short walk on skis with skins, a split board or snow shoes you can reach the kind of off piste experience that makes Alagna a freeride snowboarding paradise.
Of course it is not just snowboarders that will appreciate Alagna for its freeride snowboarding holidays. If you ski we recommend you read this review of Alagna skiing.
Alagna is located in the Valsesian valley, it is a small traditional town that has not sold its soul to the concrete devil. Walking though it looks pretty, quaint and lived in – by lived in I mean a town people ‘live in’ rather than one people ‘stay in’ on holidays. The main town is only one part of Alagna as there are a number of small hamlets dotted around the valley that form a close knit community.
Alagna has an interesting history as it was colonised by the Germanic Walser people in the 12th-13th century. The existing land owners only used the high pastures of the area in the summer and were happy for year round self sufficient colonies to be established there. There is a Walser museum in the hamlet of Pedemonte, about a 10-15 minute walk from the centre of Alagna. It is well worth a visit to better understand these hardy people whose descendants still make up a large portion of the population.
If taking in the local culture is not really your kind of thing, then you could try driving on ice at the Rosa Ring. They have a small circuit for ice karting and a larger circuit for cars, offering both lessons in driving on ice and racing experiences. The track is also used for international ice driving competitions and the owners son is the Italian champion!
Although the town is small there are enough bars if you fancy a few drinks, although its not the kind of place you will be clubbing until the wee hours. We enjoyed the Bar Lo Chalet near the cross country ski track and the Vineria An Bacher Wi, a busy Après bar, in the centre of town.
Our ski guide Emanuel said a popular option is to drink at the bar at the base of the snow park on the Gressoney side of the mountain. The lift stays open until 9pm meaning you can practice your tricks (or drink) until late and board back into Alagna when you have finished. Although I am not sure I would fancy the black run down in the dark after a drink or two.
We stayed in the gorgeous 4 star Hotel Cristallo, located in the centre of Alagna about a 5 minute walk from the ski lifts. It is probably the nicest place I have stayed on a snowboarding break, but then I am used to either self catered apartments or family chalets, which although generally nice are not in the same league as 4 star hotels.
The Hotel Cristallo rooms are huge, the bed could have fitted 4 people and the bathroom is decorated in a style I would love to emulate in my own house. The staff were not just friendly but welcoming, and were happy to help whatever the question. The hotel also includes a pool and sauna in its onsite spa and wellness centre, in which I spent a while relaxing and nursing away some of my aches and pains.
Breakfasts included a cooked option of eggs and bacon and a typical continental affair including bread, meat, cheese, fruit, cereal and pastries. You could easily eat enough to avoid having anything more than a snack for lunch, which is great if you are spending a day freeride snowboarding in the backcountry.
While in Alagna we also visited the Montagna di Luce hotel which is more typical of the upper level of ski accommodation I have stayed in. It is a renovated building of Walser origins done in the style of a mountain refuge but with all the comforts of a hotel. It would be a good place to stay for large groups, although it is in Pedemonte, about 10 minutes walk from the main town.
In Alagna, and typical of much of Italy, there are restaurants and cafes on every corner. However the food I ate in Alagna was not the typical Italian pizza and pasta. It was an interesting blend of Italian, hearty mountain food and dishes of Walser origin. Which led to menus rich in flavour and diversity.
On the first night we ate in Unione Molliese, which is in Mollia a town a few minutes from Alagna. The owner was incredibly friendly and spent about 15 minutes translating the entire menu from Italian to English. He also introduced us to the Gattinara a local wine that is full of flavour and became a staple of our trip. The food was very good, in particular I would recommend trying the savoury profiteroles filled with cheese and bacon.
The following night we dined at Locanda La Stuba, which on Trip Advisor is ranked as the number one restaurant in Alagna, although I only found this out while trying to find their website. Although they had a menu in English, and were busy, the owner personally talked us through the food and wine options. The food was hearty and exceptionally good, I would recommend everything! I ate so much that my belt had to be loosened.
On the last night we ate at Montagna Di Luce which is located in the hotel of the same name in Pedemonte. It was packed with locals and tourists savouring food produced from local ingredients. I would recommend the deer ragu, it came with thick pasta which reminded me of Japanese udon noodles.
All of the restaurants were similar in that they served hearty, rich, very well made food. However the menus differed greatly from each other and there was not a lasagne or pizza to be had in any of them. The prices on the whole were reasonable, but in comparison to eating out in French ski resorts they are cheap.
When I think of Alagna my first thought is I need to head back there with my boarding buddies, a week of guided off piste in this freeride snowboarding paradise would be my idea of heaven. My second thought is I must not take my wife there, as the ski area is too advanced for her. Although there are learner areas it isn’t a resort for beginners or even intermediates, this is obvious in the lifts as almost everyone has an avalanche pack.
Harking back to the question I asked at the start of this review of Alagna snowboarding holidays, yes, Alagna does live up to its reputation as a freeride snowboarding paradise. But if you like your off piste snowboarding please go somewhere else and leave Alagna to me.
I would like to thanks our hosts Marta and Marina from the Alagna tourist office for the warmth of their hospitality. I would also like to thank Piemonte Tourism for inviting me to Alagna in the first place.