Cortina: past and present

Many things happened in 1905. Las Vegas was founded, the Transiberian Express opened, and Albert Einstein published the first fruits of his Theory of Relativity. And in its small way, something epic also happened in Cortina: four young men launched some strange, sled-like vehicles down the road towards Pocol, thus writing the first known page in the history of winter sports in Cortina d’Ampezza, and possibly in all Italy.

Thanks to the torturous history of the place, and the not-infrequent tinkering with administrative boundaries, Cortina at the time was somehow Ladin, Tyrolean and Austro-Hungarian all at the same time: of those three, only the first remains today in the local character. It quickly established itself as a high-end tourist capital in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but it never forgot its roots, as shown when the populace voted to return to the Autonomous Province of Bolzano. The referendum holds good to this day.*

That sea-change, perhaps more unconscious than courageous, really stands as the first act in Cortina d’Ampezzo’s recent history. Battered by the First World War, Cortina managed to get back on its feet through tourism, specifically tourism centred around winter sports. Long before the famous Olympics of 1956, it was bursting with state-of-the-art sports equipment, like ski jumps and bobsleigh runs. This is what best sums up Cortina today; this represents the extraordinary economic and social significance of the area, and represents the picture of Cortina that lives in the collective imagination, thanks largely to a cinematic narrative that occasionally shades into caricature. Nothing more need be said about this aspect of the place.

What strikes the curious visitor – apart from the hordes of sports cars and thousand-star hotels – is the breathtaking beauty of the Ampezzo valley. It hits you right at the moment that you leave the town and start climbing a hill, and look over your shoulder. There’s nothing looming or threatening about the colossal amphitheatre of the Dolomites: rather, it embraces the sweet curves of the valley with its colours, sometimes soft and pastel-like, sometimes more urgent. On a sunny day, the cobalt blue of the sky meets the emerald green of the slopes, where you might meet some grazing animals, and entertain a vision of how the local cheese is produced.

And take note, anyone who wants to dine in one of the most interesting restaurants not just in Cortina, but in the entire mountain chain. In SanBrite, Chef Riccardo Gaspari removes the distance from the kitchen to the table by serving ricotta not on a plate but in a casserole dish. With this simple gesture, everything comes full circle in a mouthful of fresh, warm ricotta. Plunge your spoon into the pan and watch the cheese melt off it, and flavour it to your own palate with the homemade preserves.

*for those who don’t know, Cortina d'Ampezzo falls within the administrative boundaries of Belluno, in the Veneto region.

Images: by author