First published: 12 March 2009
Barely a month ago everything was white and I was sitting on the A14, the traffic and my day brought to a grinding halt by a jacknifedlorry.
Schools closed their gates, trains stopped running, flights stacked back at icebound airports and great swathes of industry and commerce, already under the cosh of the credit crunch, shut up shop. Councils across the country ran short of and then reluctantly, lest their jurisdiction should be next on nature’s hit list, began swapping salt.
Yesterday, the snow came again. Bucket loads of it. As the night time temperature dropped towards minus 11, hundreds of revellers from all walks of life and from many countries cavorted unhindered by heavy coats, woolly hats and weighty, multi-buckled boots, danced on tables and drank half price beer from bottles. This cosmopolitan crowd ate with white plastic forks free helpings of spicy pasta served up piping hot on white paper plates by Elvis in a white one-piece, celebrating like there was to be no tomorrow.
This is happy hour – four until six – an everyday celebration that stretches from December into April. This season everybody’s especially happy because it snowed longer and harder than for many a year.
The people here have good cause for celebration, for while the annual snows, and the isolation they endured as a result, once brought great hardship, they eventually brought a rare combination of wealth and happiness.
Just one and a half hours flight time and a (longish) coach ride from a place where snow brings chaos and misery lays a place where it brings riches and joy.
The lady on the weekly Inghams bus that winds its way up from Brescia’s little airport via Lake Como into the Italian Alps and to the fairytale town of Livigno passed the time by enthusiastically explaining why, even though there are no legal, logical or obvious geographical reasons, it enjoys tax free status.
Evidently, the reason why the litre and a half bottle of good Chianti that we will crack open with supper tonight and the litre of brandy that will round things off and keep the chill of the mountain out tomorrow each cost south of five Euros, is snow.
In times long gone by, related the lady on the bus who’s been looking after parties like us for more than a decade, the inhabitants of this idyllic valley were so isolated and the winters so harsh that they were unable to leave their homes. With the snow blown and piled up against their walls and doors they lived much of the winter, with their animals, indoors, sustained by what they had been able to grow, harvest and forage from the poor rocky ground in the warmer months.
As legend has it, tax collectors were frequently sent out from the city but invariably either went missing or returned empty handed, unable to penetrate a virtually roadless, often snow-bound mini state whose three now enjoined communities cover a linear valley measure of little more than half a dozen kilometres. So rich has this duty free zone become from winter ski-ing, summer mountain biking and shopping, explained the lady on the bus, that a man who owned a mountain has become a multi-millionaire. And so the story goes, he still rides unpretentiously around town in a battered Fiat Panda, apparently little affected by his fortune. If his ancestors did for a tax man, there is neither record of it nor story about it – at least not one told to strangers.
Still snowy, modern day Livigno boasts among the ancient, iron-hard wooden buildings that remain dotted along its winding streets, any number of cheap bars, cafes, restaurants and pizzerias.
Nothing, of course, is as cheap as it was before the pound’s value nose-dived against the euro – and just about every other currency except the Zimbabwean dollar. Nevertheless, credit crunch or no, the number of shops per capita remains one of the highest in Europe – more than 200 of them among a population of 5000 people, a total much swelled by the temporary residents of its 100 hotels. And credit crunch or no, the hotels and apartment blocks appear full, mainly with Italians and their families. These are the citizens of a fellow EUnation whose economy, some would have you believe, is either the permanent poor man of Europe (next to Spain – ironically anotherholiday destination with opposite attributes) or about to implode.
Strange then, there appears to be no talk of banking or sub prime mortgage crisis here. Maybe, because almost everyone’s on holiday, they’re burying their heads in the snow. I don’t know, but these seem like ordinary folk having a good time, not the diamond encrustedCartier glitterati of nearby St Moritz.
Livigno is a lesson in making the most of its virtues. The snow on the roof of the building across the alley is more than a metre deep but the roads are entirely ice free. The buses run every few minutes throughout the day, the kids go to school\and ski-school. The cogs, motors and cables of the chair lifts, drag lifts and gondolas whisking thousands of winter sports enthusiasts high into the mountains operate faultlessly from 8.30 in the morning to 5 in the evening, day in, day out. Soon after, the engines of the piste bashing caterpillars spark into life with barely a cough and head off to the hills to work, theirlights twinkling like faraway stars that have fallen to the high slopes, well into the sub-zero night.
It’s snowing again and all anyone’s thinking about is how good it will be ski-ing on the powder on top of the dutifully bashed piste tomorrow.
Given the UK’s topography and temperature, the revenue raised from a million ski-lift passes happily paid over to the authorities who clear snow and bash pistes, is not, of course, available to your averageBritish council. But we do pay our taxes.
This material is protected by copyright Ken Hurst 2012.