Saturday, 8 February 2014

The French guide to skiing

Today marks the end of my three-week skiing odyssey in France.

This has been my first time skiing in Europe and I'm more than happy to report that, apart from having all my bones intact, it's been one of my best ski escapes.

I've shivered on the ski lifts, ploughed through powder, scrapped down icy slopes, fallen over a few times, almost got lost in whiteouts, and watched my nose peel.

Yes, it's been fantastic.

Hopefully, I've even improved my skiing a little bit.

The skiing at Val d'Isere, Les Arcs and Val Thorens has been sublime and some of the best I've ever encountered thanks to enormous interconnected ski areas, good snowfall, and a diverse choice of runs.

Here you get a real sense that you are in one of the global heartlands of alpine skiing.

Most of all, it's been incredible to stand on the snowy summits of the expansive French Alps.  On a sunny day and under clear blue skies, white mountain peaks stretch out as far as the eye can see.

In amongst all of this, I've also discovered seven curiosities about skiing in France, compared to Japan, Canada and the US.

1.  Haute cuisine high in the hills
I've never been to a ski resort that has had a single, let alone multiple, dedicated fromageries (cheese shops), patisseries or charcuteries (specialists in prepared meats).  For the French it seems being 2,000 metres above sea level is no excuse to scrimp on the finer things in life.  The standard of slope-slide food is also substantially higher than in many other countries.  Forget just burgers and chips for lunch, here it's freshly-baked quiches, tartiflettes, pastries, baguettes and other delicacies from the Savoie region.

Cured meats from the Savoie region

2. Dogs share the slopes 
As I flagged in my previous blog, the French Alps, like the rest of Europe, is more dog friendly than any other ski destination I've been to.   While they're not strapping on skis and taking to the slopes just yet, these dogs do command the villages in the evening when they come out to run and roll in the snow.

Dog eyes off its territory

3. Not all the air is fresh
How do you celebrate an invigorating ski down a long slope in the French Alps?  Apparently, it's by lighting up a cigarette or even a pipe if the mood takes you.  Sadly, Europe still loves a good smoke and liberal laws means it's everywhere - on the lifts, in the lift lines, on the slopes and in the outdoor eating areas.

4.  It's never too cold to sit outdoors
In Australia, we avoid alfresco dining when the mercury dips below 20 degrees Celsius (unless there's a heater).   If it's a sunny day in the the French Alps, skiers love nothing more than sitting outside, even if it is well below freezing.   Armed with a chocolat chaud or vin chaud, they look as though they're on the pool deck of a Pacific island cruise ship.  Where was I?  Sitting inside by the heater.

Sun lounges lined up on the summit

5.  The outdoor fun has just begun when the lifts close for the day
The French Alps knows how to do "apres ski".  Whether it's a sugar crepe, nutella waffle or vin chaud from an outdoor kiosk or cafe, or the more energetic outdoor dance parties in your ski boots, there's an option for everyone.  Elaborating on the last point, it seems only blizzard conditions warrant taking the apres-ski celebrations indoors.

Vin chaud - purely medicinal after a day of skiing

6.  Cold?  What cold?  
When I ski, I wear a helmet, thick neck warmer and five layers of clothing, making sure not a fraction of skin is left exposed to the icy winds.  Meanwhile, my French Alps counterparts rock up for skiing in a headband and sunnies (and even the occasional tshirt and jeans) like it's a day at the beach.   I can only imagine all the nerve endings in their skin have been frozen.

7.  Watch your head!
Skiers here seem to lower the ski lift bar without warning within milliseconds of sitting down, usually while I'm still getting myself in order.  Just as well I wear a helmet as I've been whacked on the back of the head by the descending bar on an hourly basis.

Warning: bar coming down!

However, it's not all foreign in the French Alps.  It seems no matter where you are in the world, these three slope-side staples remain:

1. Snowboarders still behave... well... like snowboarders
They still love collapsing in a group in the middle of the slope, usually just below the crest of a hill so the downstream traffic can't see them until the last minute. The threat of having their spine severed by a wayward ski doesn't seem to phase them.

2. Skiers still behave... well... like skiers
Groups of skiers still love congregating at the crest of hills (maybe to check if there any snowboarders below?) effectively cutting of the slope to anyone else.  Be ready to break!

3. The smell of pot still lingers in the air around ski lifts
It's not just tobacco you're smelling here.  You would think I was skiing in Colorado (which has just legalised marijuana) given the amount of pot that's being smoked.

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