The snow this year seems to have lost its way. After last week in the Italian Alps and this week in the Austrian ones, I see everywhere ground covered in threadbare carpets of old snow that fell weeks ago. On the ski slopes, it's a different story. Up here, it’s churned out nightly by the snow cannons and the skiers and boarders are still happy. Elsewhere, though, that winter wonderland look is missing from the ski resorts.
It’s not that there isn’t any snow. It’s just that it’s all gone to the wrong places. So, in the delightful Adler Balance Hotel (alder-balance.com), the head waiter shows me a picture from his mother back home in Sicily. There, they have snow on the beach. What? We both gaze out of the windows at the pretty South Tyrolean town of Ortesei where the ice carvers are creating sculptures though around them there's not a snowflake in sight.
Ortesei is in the Val Gardena in Italy but used to be in Austria – and it looks like a typically Tyrolean town. In German, it’s called St Ulrich and German is spoken as much, if not more than, Italian. The setting is the Dolomites, a quite staggeringly beautiful mountain landscape with championship runs and the Sella Ronda – a route around the bare rocks that soar jaggedly up into the sky. And everyone is up there every day – all thanks to those snow cannons.
A week later and I’m in Austria – in the region of Carinthia, always indisputably Austrian. Just as in the Dolomites, the sun is glorious and there’s not a cloud in the wide blue sky. The light on the snow is dazzling – the crystals sparkling, icy testament to the unusually low night temperatures. On the other side of the valley, where there is no skiing, the mountainside is bare – just a sad brown and green without so much as a flake of snow. It has been the driest and also the coldest of winters in much of Europe’s traditional skiing areas. As a result, though, the lakes of Carinthia are frozen solid and make the perfect surface for skating, ice hockey and even curling. At night, the ghostly presence of skaters wearing a lamp on their helmets flash by.
The morning I leave Austria it begins to snow. It’s light and drifting but there’s enough to settle on the bare branches of the trees in the valley, turning them frosty white. Higher up the mountainside, the dark green outlines of the pines begin to soften, snow clinging to the needles and blurring their edges.
It isn’t enough for the slopes, though and the snow cannons will be hard at work again tonight. In four days, however, a proper fall is promised. The snow has found its way home at last and the alpine resorts can breathe a collective sigh of relief.