In some saner bygone day Cortina d'Ampezzo was merely one of 37 villages floating in the milk-white bowl of the Ampezzo Valley, surrounded like the others by the bicuspid peaks of the Dolomites, a strange range of chalk and magnesium mountains stretching south out of the Alps.
This January 26 the seventh Winter Olympics will open in Cortina, and the village in the valley will become a marshmallow sundae overrun by a horde of ants. Down from the Urals and up from Australia, crossing the Equator and the international dateline, the athletes will funnel through the Alpine passes to Italy's best-known winter resort. It will be a long trip; to paraphrase—and reverse—a well-known travel slogan, getting there not only isn't half the fun but actually is something of a struggle.
For those Americans who come to watch, Swissair's DC-6s, flying from the States to Geneva and Zurich, will connect with special air service into Innsbruck, which will operate on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It takes six hours and two changes by rail from Innsbruck, via the Brenner Pass, down to Cortina (4 to 5 hours by bus). A handier arrangement might be to rent a car in Innsbruck. For ski enthusiasts working out of Innsbruck—and the colorful Tyrolean city will be humming at Olympic time—trips can be arranged to St. Anton on the western side of the Arlberg Pass. Autos can be placed on railway flatcars for the crossing. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, scene of other Olympic days, is just north of Innsbruck, snug in the Bavarian Alps.
It will be no season for a gondola ride, but Olympic visitors can work north by way of Venice. Bus service takes four hours. Trains that leave Venice at 4:50 p.m. are in Cortina at 9:12 that night, with one change (for the mountain railway) at Calalzo. In honor of the anticipated invasion the Italians have entirely rebuilt the Calalzo Station.
Finally, those who can find their way as far as Milan will be able to arrange bus service across the temperate zones of the Italian lake district, ambling along the pleasant shores before the hairpin turns begin. There is a stop in the 104-mile trip at the city of Bolzano, nee Bozen (under the Austrians), for a light, pleasant lunch.
Almost every hotel owner in Cortina has mortgaged himself into the middle of the 21st century, building whole new wings, new nightclubs and restaurants. I counted sheep at the Hotel De la Poste this fall to the steady if slow beat of the sledge hammer as it thumped away at ancient masonry. Before the week was out a whole corner of the hotel had been cleared by bulldozers and foundations were being poured by floodlight. By Olympic time the Hotel De la Poste will serve its guests in a new dining room. Up at the town's most elegant retreat, the Hotel Miramonti-Majestic, workmen were taking apart a lovely tree-shaded garden to make room for a practice rink for skaters. Carpenters had been laboring for six months to redecorate a salon where the opening ceremonies will take place. They will last half an hour. With almost the entire hotel requisitioned by Olympic officials. Owner Romeo Manaigo was pondering what to tell four members of European royalty whom he has had to relegate to simple single rooms. In Olympic protocol only one personage, Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, will rate a suite at the town's best hotel.
Encamping in the Grand Hotel Bellevue, an establishment that first opened for business in 1890, the American contingent will occupy 125 of that venerable inn's beds. Twenty-two beds are left for old and faithful customers of the house. The same problem exists in the Soviet digs, even though they are three and a half tortuous miles from town, for the Russians have chosen to live in the Hotel Tre Croci, an inn tucked away on a mountain pass where stagecoaches once rested overnight before making the final plunge into the valley.
Entering the first Winter Olympics in their history, the Russians have cased Cortina like bank heisters planning a caper. Their curiosity is greatest at Misurina, a lake nine miles from Cortina where the speed-skating events will be held. Misurina is a fairylike enclave cloaked in a melancholy legend. The legend revolves around a girl who lived at San Maro, a hamlet about an hour's walk away. Her father took her from the mountains to Venice where she became a great lady. Although she was wealthy and famous she was deluded in love, and eventually returned to the mountains to spend her last sad days. The villagers were so touched they adopted her name for the lake and the village that surrounds it.
The only story the Russians ever heard about Lake Misurina was about the incredible times that had been made in speed-skating competitions there. Figuring the Italians had mismeasured the track, the Russians sent a posse last winter to measure it for themselves. When they found the length was correct they unveiled a small gadget equipped with a spring motor and mounted on skates. They wound it up and set it loose. The mechanized skater traveled farther on the Misurina ice than it had on the same power on the Russian home lake in Alma-Ata. Some underwater chemical property, the Russians figured, probably renders the Italian ice slipperier than theirs, but what slides for the capitalist blades slides for the proletarian as well.
The Italian hosts have not only sown grandstands for hundreds of yards along the lakeside Misurina banks, but they have straightened the shoreline as well. In the dim blue light of a recent fall afternoon the hotels, built so close to the shore, seemed almost to float on the lake. One of the largest, the Hotel Misurina, is owned by an Italian with the improbable name of Willy Scheibmeier. A famous bobsledder known as "Buby" to his friends, the innkeeper is the father of a young daughter who will perpetuate the fame of the lake all her life. Buby named her Anna Misurina Scheibmeier.
Flat on the valley floor in a clear space amid the barns and small pensions, huddled by the bulking Dolomites, the hosts have built a snow stadium for the start and finish of cross-country ski events. Grandstands are spread on the meadow, portable restaurants cover the real estate where cows and tourists graze in summer, and just over the neighboring dale is a temporary military village. It is the bivouac for a battalion of 800 Alpini, Italy's celebrated mountain troops. The skiing Alpini will be charged with patrolling the vast cross-country ski course, maintaining route markers, watching for drifts, ice and straying competitors.
ROOM FOR WAX
Elaborate arrangements have been completed to see that leading contenders in the cross country are not placed near each other either in buses coming up from town or in dressing rooms at the snow stadium. The choice and application of wax according to the day's snow condition is so important that strong ski nations—Norway, for instance—will be paired with, say, the Japanese; the Finns perhaps with the Turks, the Swedes with the Argentines.
With all the sporting world turned to the little Italian valley this winter, American fashion arbiters predict a rash of Italian-inspired sportswear. Vanotti's in Cortina is showing pelican coats of heavy blanket wool with leather buttons, green and brown, at $65; leather-edged whipcord trousers at $32, and leather-piped corduroy trousers at $20.50 in two-tone combinations somewhat more daring than similar corduroy-and-leather jackets and suits being shown here. Frostbite insurance against the blue hours in the Olympic grandstands are huge ribbed cardigan sweaters ($40) with patch pockets and gold buttons the size of U.S. quarters. Shoes with fat, notched crepe soles and waterproof suede uppers cost $23, or $28 if you want wool linings.
What with the world about to do itself up in Cortina-styled clothes, workmen straightening the kinks in the road all the way from Rome, with bright petrol stations sprouting on the pastoral corners, telephone lines piling up thick as a tangle of spaghettini in a Neapolitan trattoria, with mammoth stadiums rising in the meadows and trucks forced to bring in provisions at night to avoid the snarl of traffic, this 13th century village feels like the unsuspecting specialist who has just come up with the $64,000 answer.
Labor is at a premium. An American who has a villa here was complaining the other day that he had $400 worth of coal piled up in his yard, but he couldn't hire a man to shovel it into the bin. Although 40 to 50 villas are going up in Cortina every year, the Olympics have set the village ahead by 10 years. Longtime visitors worry lest the valley be spoiled. The Ampezzani watch the tar, the trucks and the travail and are paralyzed at the thought of the money being spent. A square block on a hilltop here once worth 1,400,000 lire now goes for 3 million. And neither lire nor love will buy a square room come January 26. It's just a month until they light the Olympic torch for the first time in the ancient valley of Ampezzo. Meanwhile Cortina is merely burning with a high fever.
IF YOU'RE GOING TO CORTINA
You will need to travel light (66 pounds if you fly first class) but warm. Every event of the Winter Olympics takes place out of doors, some at night, and you will be standing or sitting, not exercising. Here are the minimum requirements for comfort for both men and women: a warm, lined, traveling coat (you don't weigh it) such as a camel's hair or Loden cloth duffer; alpaca-lined boots—you can buy them there; lined leather gloves; long woolen underwear; sunglasses, muffler, ear-covering cap.
If you have the space also take a stadium blanket kit with Thermos jugs included, handwarmers, electric socks. In the evenings dress during the Olympics will be casual: sport jackets, sweaters and skirts. Cortina has excellent shops that can supply anything else you need.