Once Upon a Christmas

I was enjoying the beautiful scenery as we wound our way up the mountain. The sun was shining and the feathery branches of the deciduous larch trees that marched up the slopes glowed against the blue of the sky and the grey of the peaks. Then it struck me. No snow. Anxiously I turned to the driver and asked if there was any snow in Madonna di Campiglio, the resort I was heading to. He reassured me – yes there was snow, artificial snow and all the main lifts and runs were open.
Piste made from artificial snow on the Pradalago ski area in Madonna di Campiglio
I relaxed again and my thoughts turned to the last time I was in the Dolomites for Christmas and there had been no natural snow. I was the tour leader for a group of twenty skiers on a trip that had been advertised for intermediate and advanced skiers only. I was not sure how Jake, the complete beginner, had slipped through the net but he had and I had to deal with it. It was too early in the season for ski school to be running lessons for groups of beginners and the nursery slopes were closed. So somehow I had to incorporate Jake into a group of experienced skiers.
Making snow on the Pradalago ski area in Madonna di Campiglio
When I met Jake he immediately volunteered the information that not only had he taken lessons on a dry ski slope but his instructor had pronounced him a natural skier and the best pupil he had ever taught. No doubt he said that to all him pupils but Jake said it with a passion that suggested he believed it. That first morning we were going up a chair lift to the top of an easy blue run. I asked one of the men in the group to come on the same chair as Jake and I and we organised ourselves so we were on either side of him. When he dismounted Jake pulled us both down on top of him as he collapsed in a heap when his skis set off without him. His boots had not been fastened properly and both of them, complete with skis, had come off. It seems the ski instructor had not taught his star pupil this basic skill. As I rescued boots, skis and poles from the path of dismounting skiers the lift attendant dealt with the collapsed Jake and I wondered what else the instructor had neglected to teach his gifted pupil.
Fortini chair lift to the Pradalago ski area in Madonna di Campiglio
Stopping that was something else he had not covered. Once we had put Jake back together I told him to follow me and we would snow plough slowly down an easy run. Soon after we set off Jake hurtled past me screaming at the top of his voice. The slope flattened out soon afterwards and Jake slowed down before toppling out of his boots once again. I re-fastened his boots as he sat disconsolately on the snow. He had refused any help after the fiasco at the top of the chair lift. We walked the remaining distance to the ski school meeting point. I had insisted that Jake had at least one private lesson and another, self-confessed beginner, in the group and had decided to join him. May was waiting with their ski instructor. From the look on her face I suspected that she was already regretting her decision to join the lesson but at dinner the previous evening Jake had been very convincing regarding his prowess on skis.
A ski lesson
I was now free to join the group and we skied together until it was time to join the others for lunch in Ristorante Viviani on the Pradalago ski area. I was surprised to learn from May that Jake had already gone back to the hotel. I had intended to ski with Jake that afternoon but was quite relieved that this was not possible now. Snow ploughing down easy runs for hours at a time was hard work. Instead I skied with May who was not a beginner but a competent intermediate so I was not surprised to hear that the lesson had not worked out. It was not unusual for someone to underestimate their skiing ability and very common for others to over-estimate their prowess on skis. May had been surprised to discover she fitted in well with the group and abandoned the idea of taking lessons. That left Jake on his own and I would probably be skiing with him for the rest of the week.
Lone skier in Madonna di Campiglio
I forgot all about Jake when we descended into the town centre and walked the short distance to the Suisse Bar in the main square Piazza Righi for some après ski. White lights twinkled on the large Christmas tree dominated the small square. These pin pricks of lights mingled with the golden glow from the shop windows that spilled onto the paving stones. It was magical. My spirits lifted. I was looking forward to a festive week and as I had already met several people in the group from previous ski trips I felt as though I was among friends. When we got back to the hotel we were delighted to discover a beautiful nativity scene set out on an old wooden cart outside the entrance. The cradle was empty but we were told that the Baby Jesus would arrive on Christmas Eve. Who could fail to be captured by the joy of Christmas in this special place?
Christmas decorations in Madonna di Campiglio
Jake was not captivated by anything and was very grumpy when I approached him that evening. His lesson had not gone well. As he was not able to master the button lift on the beginners’ slope on Pradalago the only option was to ski all the way down the blue run which took two hours – the whole lesson. Rather than stay on the slopes and practice what he had learnt Jake had spent the afternoon indulging on some beauty treatments in the Well-Being Centre in our hotel. However, he was willing to try another lesson so, at his request I called the ski school and booked a two-hour lesson from nine to eleven the following morning. The ski school bus would come to the hotel to collect him.
Beginners' slope on Groste in Madonna di Campiglio
I did a good impression of a fish gasping the following morning when Jake informed me, as we waited for the ski school bus, that nine was far too early for a ski lesson. He had requested this time yet he could have had a lesson any time during the day. I moved on and suggested we meet up after the lesson so we could ski together but that did not fit in with his plans – he had booked the sauna and would be returning to the hotel as soon as his lesson finished. The bus arrived and off he went. We would not meet again until dinner that night and I could spend time with the other eighteen people in the group. During our evening meal Jake complained that his lesson had not lasted the full two hours and his ski pass was proving to be a waster of money. Nevertheless, a pattern was established he continued with his lessons in the morning and wallowed in the spa in the afternoons giving me the impression he was enjoying his holiday. He refused all invitations to join the group for lunch – including our special lunch on Christmas day at Ristorante Viviani.
Ristorante Viviani on Pradalago ski area in Madonna di Campiglio
Christmas Day was our last day and after skiing I walked into town enjoying the crisp air and bright lights on the street lamps that lined my way. When I called into the ski school office I discovered that neither May nor Jake had paid for their lessons despite their promise to do so that morning. Not wanting to endanger the good relationship I had developed with the ski school over the years I settled May’s bill and promised to pay for Jake the next morning. I felt in a very celebratory mood when I got back to the hotel. I changed into a red shirt (red is the customary colour for Christmas celebrations in this area) and bundled my long hair into a silver tinsel band and then made my way downstairs to to join the group for an aperitivo. The Hotel Lorenzetti was particularly good at providing these small touches that make a special occasion even more memorable.
Hotel Lorenzetti in Madonna di Campiglio
As I stretched a hand out to receive a cocktail my other arm was pulled from behind and I was dragged away and pushed against a wall. The fury in Jake’s face was frightening – even more so as his beauty treatments had turned his eyebrows and hair to a menacing shade of black. I wondered what was coming next. Was he going to hit me? It certainly seemed likely. But no, he spouted a torrent of words at me. Pent up anger and disappointment had finally welled over and I had to listen to the full catalogue of his complaints regarding the holiday – all of them predicted by our Reservations team except the non-functioning ski pass. I offered to try and get a refund on the pass as there would be time the next morning before we departed for the airport. He declined my offer stating he wanted to keep it, just in case. In case of what? This question remained in my head because when I looked up I could see several members of my group lined up along the opposite wall all grinning from ear to ear. I struggled to control the laughter bubbling up inside me. Turning to Jake I said that I was sorry that he had not enjoyed the holiday but today was Christmas Day and it would be a shame to spoil the celebrations that evening. I gave him a cocktail and steered him towards the group. I had other problems to deal with. May owed me the money for ski school and I made one final plea before leading the group into dinner – a sumptuous feast of smoked salmon, risotto with champagne and apples, perfectly cooked fillet steak on a bed of rocket and finally warm raspberry sauce on vanilla ice cream. All my favourites were on the menu. The evening ended with my group singing carols in the bar accompanied by Stefano on his keyboard. It was a lovely evening and it was even better when, on returning to my room, I found two envelopes had been pushed under my door containing the missing ski school money. It was a happy ending as tomorrow I could clear all my debts.
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Getting there
British Airways and EasyJet regular flights to Verona and from 05 December 2015 to 03 April 2016 the Fly-ski shuttle will operate a network of transfers from the airports of Verona, Venice, Treviso and Bergamo to the mountain resorts of Trentino. An alternative for those going to the resorts in the Val di Sole is the Dolomiti Express from Trento.

Published by: Valery Collins
Categories: Tour Manager Tales

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Author, Valery Collins

About the Author - Valery Collins
London, England

I have been addicted to travel since I was three years old and escaped from the confines of the family home and set off for Windsor – on foot. After qualifying as a solicitor I took a gap year and worked as a tour leader on a freelance basis. That was 20 years ago and I am still working as a tour leader. Over the years I have ridden camels, horses and an ostrich, walked and skied in mountains and followed the Inca trail and climbed towers and temples. I write honest reviews of my travels in the hope it will inspire others to follow in my footsteps.

Valery on the Zugspitzplatt above Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria

While travelling I have always kept a diary and that was the basis of my first book about my experiences. Then I discovered blogging which is a great outlet for both my writing and my photography.

Recently I became a regular contributor to GPSMyCity and my city guides have been converted to Guided Travel Articles

Valery Collins