25 Feb Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border
The Milky Way – or Via Lattea as it’s known in Italy – hugs the French-Italian alpine border, taking in the resorts of Montgenevre, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx in one easily navigable ski area. Not only is it perfect for more experienced skiers and boarders looking for a huge number and diversity of pistes, some of the prettier villages that dot the Milky Way offer beginner and family friendly slopes set in a stunning landscape.
Confession: I’ve fallen a bit in love with the Milky Way.
I’ve just returned from my second trip within a year, and keep finding reasons to recommend it. The pistes are diverse, challenging and picture-perfect. The food is fantastic (raclette anyone?). The landscape just breathtaking.
It’s also a relatively quiet ski area compared some of the French behemoths nearby.
I’ve explored the vast majority of the Via Lattea on two consecutive trips with some of my best friends, and we’ve based ourselves at opposite ends of the ski area on each visit. But I’m still looking for excuses to return to this surprisingly budget-friendly area.
So, if you’re a lover of mountains, snowsports, perfect pistes and plenty of cheese, read on for my guide to making the most of the Milky Way.
The resorts of the Milky Way
The Via Lattea comprises seven resorts: six in Italy and one in France. But don’t let the border worry you, it’s easy to ski and board back and forth between the two countries to your heart’s content.
Starting on the French border – Montgenevre
This purpose-built French resort delivers everything you’d expect and more. It’s situated high up, so good snow conditions are almost guaranteed for most of the winter. The large ESF-run ski school is great for beginners and improvers, there’s a good selection of restaurants and cafes (it is France after all) as well as a smattering of useful shops. Plus it’s easy to access the piste from anywhere in town.
Montgenevre is a fabulous location for mixed ability groups. You’ve got a huge range of pistes on your doorstep, from pretty tree-lined green runs that everyone can enjoy, to challenging reds and blacks that’ll get the blood pumping and help you explore every inch of the mountain. And at the end of the day, you can warm up on the way home with a vin chaud at one of the many bars along the main street.
The best bits: The pistes up at Les Gondrans are a dream. They’re varied and easy to access from four lifts, making it perfect for those who want to spend some time finding their ski legs, practising their technique or having some fun. We loved Cafe Les Anges at the bottom of the lifts for hot chocolates with a fantastic view.
Be aware: If you’re hoping to explore the whole Milky Way, it can take a long time to get across from Montgenevre. You’re best off taking a bus, or heading to nearby Serre Chevalier (separate lift pass required) if you’re after some variety.
This traditional little village sits on the Italian border just 3km from Montgenevre, with easy ski links between the two. Smaller than its French neighbour, it’s a great spot for families and those who want the pistes to themselves. We based ourselves here at the Grande Albergo Hotel Claviere in 2017, a budget-friendly hotel that was great for groups.
Claviere is quiet, but well-served with a small Italian supermarket, bakery, the recommendable Gallo’s bar and a couple of delightful pizzerias and restaurants both in town and on the piste at La Coche.
The best bits: Claviere is well located for exploring the whole of the Via Lattea. We could get across to Sansicario, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx from here if we moved fast enough (by which I mean not stopping for coffee several times before lunch!). This makes it a good strategic base for more experienced skiers.
Be aware: It’s not a party town, so if you’re hoping to hit the après or aperitivos you’re better off considering Sauze d’Oulx or Montgenevre.
Sansicario and Cesana
A venue for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, Sansicario is largely purpose-built and one of the smaller towns on the Milky Way. It’s close to the valley town of Cesana, a functional hub in the centre of the ski area that’s home to more locals than tourists.
What Sansicario lacks in size it more than makes up for in enjoyable piste, with sweeping reds and blacks that are the perfect playground for boarders and experienced skiers. Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere are only a few lifts and pistes away if you want cover as much snow as possible.
The best bits: Sansicario is a sun trap on a clear day, so slap on some suncream and head over to make the most of the open upper pistes and cafe terraces (because when in Italy, have your fill of Italian hot chocolate. It’d be rude not to).
Be aware: The lower slopes were in relatively poor condition this winter (2017), so I wouldn’t recommend as a ski-in/ski-out location. You’ll be spending a lot of time carrying boards and skis if you base yourself here.
Sestriere and Pragelato
Synonymous with world-class skiing, Sestriere – and nearby Pragelato – sit in a bowl towards the southern edge of the Via Lattea. This upmarket resort might not be the prettiest you’ve ever visited but it’s heritage as a host of world cup skiing tells you everything you need to know. You’ll find spectacular, challenging pistes right on your doorstep as well as mountain restaurants galore. A gondola offers a speedy link to Sauze and Sansicario, giving you the opportunity to ski a massive area each day.
The best bits: The central location and wide variety of accommodation and eating options. As with Montgenevre, you’ll also find the elevation here (2,000m) means that Sestriere is pretty snowsure throughout the season.
Be aware: Sestriere isn’t a great recommendation for budget travellers. As an alternative, base yourself in Sauze d’Oulx instead and head across early in the morning.
Sauze has a bit of a split personality – part traditional Italian alpine village, part party town. Whichever side you’re most interested in, it’ll be outshone by the meandering tree-lined pistes that make Sauze a joy to visit in its own right.
It’s one of the larger resorts on the Milky Way, meaning you’ll find a good variety of accommodation and eating options on and off the slopes. It also offers the best value for money I’ve come across in this area for both, especially when it comes to enjoying food up on the mountain.
The best bits: Find time to stroll around the old town without your boots on. The narrow cobbled streets, overhanging eaves of hundred year old chalets and arched stone doorways make you feel more like a visitor to an Italian village on the plains than a ski resort. There are some great budget eats too. Try the fantastic Famelica Pizzeria in the old town for the best takeaway you’ve ever eaten (bonus points for enjoying it out in the snow), and the cafe at the top of Col Basset offers fantastic paninis made fresh in front of you for a little over €5.
Be aware: As with Sansicario, the lower pistes can struggle with snow cover if conditions are warm. Unseasonable weather in 2016, when we based ourselves in Sauze, required some serious efforts from the piste-bashers and snow cannons to keep the returns into town open.
Milky Way lift passes
Depending on where you base yourself, and how much of the Milky Way you intend to explore, there are several options when it comes to lift passes.
The international pass covers you for all resorts on both the Italian and French sides of the border. Given the size of the ski area and the amount of time taken to get from one end of the Milky Way, this is good value for money only if you’re a very experienced (and ambitious) snowsports enthusiast, or if you’ve got your own transport to move from one resort to the other.
For most skiers or boarders, the Via Lattea or Montiluna Montgenevre passes are a better fit.
The Via Lattea pass gives you full access to all Italian resorts, and one day in Montgenevre (if you go for the 6 day pass).
Alternatively, if your base is in Montgenevre or Claviere, you can opt for the Montiluna Montgenevre pass that allows you to explore these two resorts to your heart’s content, and spend one day in six in the other Italian resorts.
The Via Lattea and Montiluna Montgenevre passes offer great value for money as they cover substantial areas. Take the opportunity to make the most of a day’s skiing elsewhere in the area by taking a coach transfer (we found it easy to arrange through our reps in resort) to Montgenevre, Sauze or Sestriere. This should get you there for lift opening, and take you home once the pistes have closed. It is possible to take lifts all the way across, but you’ll need a bit of patience and ability to shuffle across a car park in ski boots at one point.
You can find out more about lift passes on the Via Lattea website.
The practical bit
The Milky Way is just over an hours drive from Turin airport, making coach transfers and fly-drive options a breeze. Sauze d’Oulx is closest to the fast motorway links, with Montgenevre and Sestriere taking a little longer to reach.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation with hotels, catered chalets and apartments in abundance, although pick your resort carefully if you plan to self-cater and shop in town. Some of the Italian resorts including Sauze d’Oulx have a lack of any good food shopping, but we found Montgenevre and Claviere had much greater choice.
We opted for the Neilson Hotel Edelweiss in Sauze d’Oulx in 2016, which gave us easy access to the Jouvenceaux lift to get onto the mountain, generous food and stylish rooms. For contrast, we headed to the opposite end of the resort in 2017, staying at the Grande Hotel Albergo Claviere in the centre of the village. This hotel pitches itself as family-friendly, but it’s a good choice for all budget travellers. It’s got fantastic ski links, a friendly bar and a plentiful – if a little eccentric – menu.
Is it worth it?
Absolutely. There’s something for everyone here, and with another eight weeks left of this ski season there’s still time to book a quick getaway. The Milky Way has been blessed with great snow conditions so far in 2017, and coupled with it’s sunny slopes it should be perfect this coming Easter.
An if you’re looking for some more alpine inspiration, try Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season for my favourite underrated European resorts.