by Roderick Conway Morris

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Dolomiti Alto Adige
Upland meadow in Val Gardena with the Sassolungo (Langkofel) range

Alpine Valley Votes against Hosting Ski Championships

By Roderick Conway Morris
VAL GARDENA, Italy 25 September 1992


Descending a steep winding forest path on the edge of a tumbling torrent, I come upon a solitary farmstead where a woman is on the balcony tending her geraniums. After chatting for a few minutes, I ask how she voted in the referendum. 'We voted no,' she says. 'More cars, more people, more skilifts. No thanks!'

'I mean,' she says, indicating with a sweep of her arm a tiny nearby hamlet of neat houses and barns scattered in the fields around an almost absurdly picturesque church, against a limitless backdrop of meadows, woods and mountains, 'there just isn't enough space!'

The referendum, held last year, was on whether Val Gardena should host the 1997 Alpine Ski World Championships. Despite the fact that the valley stood to gain a great deal of money, the proposal was soundly defeated.

Val Gardena is in the South Tyrol, which was obtained from Austria by Italy at the end of World War I as a payoff for joining the Allied side (but which has recently won a considerable degree of self-determination as an autonomous province). The province remains nearly 70 percent German-speaking, with minorities of Italians and Ladins (the indigenous population that still speaks Ladin, an ancient Romance tongue).

The valley is known as Val Gardena in Italian, Gröden in German and Gherdeina in Ladin. The western end is German-speaking, and the central and eastern part is a stronghold of Ladin language and culture, with only a handful of Italians in either part.

For long splendidly isolated - there was no road into the valley until the second half of the last century - Val Gardena did, however, from the 17th century on, export its wares to the outside world:centered in Ortisei, its main village, the valley's hundreds of wood-carvers produced religious sculptures (mostly for the Tyrol), and diminutive wooden horses, soldiers, dolls and ingenious working toys, which were carried forth on backpacks by local peddlers, and reached nurseries as far-flung as London, Lisbon, Philadelphia and St. Petersburg.

Several hundred sculptors and toy makers are still at work today. These artists and craftsmen were at the forefront of the anti-championships campaign. Leander Moroder, a Ladin speaker who teaches the history of art at the valley's two art schools, was one of the founding members of 'SOS Gherdeina,' an ad-hoc organization founded to coordinate the opposition.

'There is nothing in the Italian constitution providing for referendums on local issues,' said Moroder. 'At first we were turned down flat. But then we fielded our own candidates in the local elections. We won 28 percent of the vote, and the authorities finally agreed to hold one.'

Val Gardena was the venue for the 1970 Ski Championships.This previous taste of a mass influx of outsiders was important in swinging the vote, Moroder believes, especially since the 1997 version promised to be a much bigger and jazzier event. 'If you've had no experience of such things, it's difficult to imagine what they're like,' he said. 'Not that everything's perfect here, but there is still so much that is unspoiled and worth preserving. It's a quality and a way of life worth defending.'

Even then, Moroder said he and his fellow campaigners were surprised that villagers at the high eastern end of the valley, who, unlike the peasant farmers and artisans in the rest of Val Gardena, rely almost entirely on tourism to make a living, should have also voted in such large numbers against.

But it is the farmers who are the ultimate guardians of this spectacular countryside, whose charms owe as much to nurture as nature. Around 16 percent of the working population of the South Tyrol still lives on the land - a very high figure for Western Europe - and these hardy, hard-working peasant proprietors are showing remarkable tenacity in maintaining traditional ways. Their reluctance to part with land for development and their untiring cultivation of this precipitous landscape not only keeps it alive and productive but conserves it for all of us.

With so many alpine valleys besieged by traffic and disfigured by excessive building and a plethora of ski facilities (that render the summer landscape especially hideous), it is heartening to find such places as Val Gardena determined not to join the club.

If you do go to Val Gardena, be sure not to miss the Alpe di Suissi, a stiff hike or more leisurely ascent in a small cable car from Ortisei. This vast rolling flower-covered plateau, at an altitude of 1,800 meters (6,000 feet) and watched over by majestic Dolomite peaks, is the largest upland meadow in Europe.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023