Fact of the Matter; NICK COLES finds a mighty mountain dominates an italian snowboarding trip.
There was a strange presence. Out of the corner of my eye I could see something looming in the background. It seemed to follow me as I carved wide turns down the lower slopes of Cervinia on my first snowboard run of the day.
I stopped, looked back, and there it was. The mighty alpine behemoth that is the Matterhorn, standing proud above the jagged peaks, demanding attention and seemingly ever present in your view wherever you are in Cervinia.
Straddling the Swiss-Italian border, it looks down on the Swiss resort of Zermatt to the north and the Italian resort of Cervinia to the south, where it's known as Monte Cervino.
The ski areas of the two resorts are linked to create 300km of skiing, so if you fancy tackling the world-class slopes of Zermatt but don't want to shell out for the eye-watering prices of a Swiss resort, Cervinia is a good option.
My first sight of the Matterhorn had been earlier that morning as I groggily threw open the curtains of my hotel room and was smacked in the face with a stunning picture-postcard view.
Perched high in the Aosta Valley at 2,050m, Cervinia has a great snow record and a long season. The south-facing slopes get all-day sun, keeping the pistes soft and in good condition.
My trip was in late March and spring had well and truly arrived.
I headed up the Plan Maison cable car with my guide Andrea Tassini, head of the Breuil Cervinia Ski School. As with most ski instructors he feigned distaste for snowboarders, but it was all in good humour and we traded the usual banter.
He led me through some warm-up laps of the wide, lightly undulating pistes that run from the Theodul Pass at 3,301m.
Intermediates will love the red runs here, while lower down the beginner skiers have plenty of quiet blues and some undemanding reds.
Snowboarders may struggle with the flat sections on this part of the glacier. I got caught out a couple of times not carrying enough speed, coming to a halt and scrabbling the snow with my hands to try to get some momentum.
"Look at the silly snowboarder!" shouted Andrea before helping me with a tow.
He suggested we take the long number seven run from Plateau Rosa at 3,480m to the village of Valtournenche in the next valley, which he estimated as a 20km journey.
Probably the longest run I've done, it was a real thigh burner to reach the village at 1,524m. There were few tasty off-piste sections that I could pop on and off while still following the direction of Andrea.
Heading back up the mountain we stopped for lunch at the excellent Bontadini, a top quality restaurant with superb views down the valley where I devoured a delicious swordfish tagliatelle. Later that evening I got to sample some traditional Aosta Valley cuisine at the beautiful chalet-style Hotel Hermitage, where I was staying.
There's a strong French influence in this region and the local cheese features in most dishes, such as the hearty Valpellinentze soup, a beef broth with cabbage, cheese, bread and more cheese. It was followed by suckling pig and polenta and, well, no room for dessert.
No Aosta meal is complete without the superb local wine. Not much of it ever leaves the region so wine lovers should take advantage of a tasting session from the well stocked cellar at the Hermitage.
Apres-ski and nightlife in Cervinia is just a few small bars and a couple of clubs that liven up at weekends. The Welsh-themed Dragon pub and the Irish Pub with happyhour and live sports are popular with Brits. Alternatively, mingle with chilledout locals at the tiny La Copa Pan bar. If apres isn't your cup of tea then Le Samovar Tea Room might be a better option, even the Chinese Special Gunpowder isn't as explosive as it sounds.
The next day we headed over the peak at the Theodul Pass and into Zermatt. There was no border control, only the foreign signs gave the game away, and the slopes are more challenging on this side.
After blasting down the reds from Klein Matterhorn at 3,883m I opted to take the long switchback through the trees rather than the icy black run Andrea had taken.
Somehow I managed to beat him and stopped to flop on a sofa on the sun terrace at Hotel Silvana.
As I lounged in the spring sunshine I found my eyes drawn, once again, towards the Matterhorn. The peak is steeper on this side, like everything in Zermatt, and perhaps even more impressive.
Cervinia certainly has plenty going for it - first class skiing on quiet pistes, no queues and some stylish restaurants. Oh, and a mountain that I just couldn't take my eyes off.
get there 1 wk on h/b from February 23 in a Classic Room at the Hotel Hermitage in Cervinia costs from PS2,110pp, including return flights with British Airways from Gatwick to Turin and private transfers.
www.elegantresorts.co.uk, call 01244 897515.
time zone: GMT +1hr currency: Euro PS1 = 1.20
My guide Andrea suggests a 20km journey, a real thigh burner in I
HEAVENLY: Hotel Hermitage
CINEMATIC: Cervinia's backdrop
MAJESTIC: The 'horn towers over Nick as he hits the slopes