Those of you who follow me on Instagram and Facebook will know we spent last week skiing; we had a little escape to the mountains and the snow during the children’s winter holidays, which was in fact the last full week of winter if you follow the meteorological calendar rather than the astronomical calendar when the March equinox is taken to mark the first day of spring. Either way, it has little to do with my story which most definitely took place during the winter, except we did have very spring-like conditions!
For those who do not know, winter school-holidays in France are staggered over the course of four weeks so as to try and spread the load at ski resorts; there are three ‘school’ zones and each zone has two weeks holiday within that four week stretch. Furthermore, each year these zones are rotated so if your zone is scheduled for the middle of the holidays one year (when you will undoubtedly have the two most crowded weeks), it will not be the same for the next two years.
As we headed off warnings on the radio told of heavy traffic and congestion, and it was advisable for people to try and avoid the roads around the Alps. Not a problem for us, we were heading south down to the Pyrenees. Driving in France is for the most part an absolute pleasure, and so it was for our little jaunt as the minutes turned into hours on near empty roads and then somewhere around Pau we saw our first glimpse of the mountains; there were screams from excited little faces pressed against the windows and a heightened sense of anticipation filled the car as we left the motorway and started to wind our way up the foothills, dark summits laden with white looming overhead.
We had spent weeks comparing ski-resorts; looking at snow-reports, weighing up the pros and cons of each area and in the end we settled on Barèges, the second oldest ski-resort in France which now links via lifts and ski runs with the modern purpose-built resort of La Mongie. This union forms the largest skiable area in the French Pyrenees – Le Grand Tourmalet. Driving through the village and taking the most impossibly small road up an incredibly narrow winding hill we found our chalet and were greeted with a wonderfully warm welcome from our chalet-hosts, Gary and Helen.
Afternoon tea and homemade cakes were waiting for us in this lovely old house from the 1600’s which has been delightfully and sympathetically restored to create a most authentic ski-chalet. A skiing holiday is not about sitting and doing nothing though, and although we quickly felt cosy, warm and snug, we were keen to get outside and fill our lungs with the crisp mountain air and throw some snowballs. First stop however was the ski-hire shop where we were kitted out with skis, boots and helmets, ready for the morning. Then, with an hour of daylight remaining, we picked up some toboggans from the chalet and headed to the nearest hill, peals of laughter puncturing the vast echoing emptiness as we tumbled down and fell in the snow. Our faces quickly went red from the cold and our appetites for dinner grew by the second even though we had only just finished eating cake!
Our days started early, no lie-ins allowed on this holiday! Breakfast has always been my favourite meal of the day and this didn’t disappoint; fresh fruit, yoghurts, juices, coffee, croissants, cereal, baguettes and cheese. This was a hearty spread for outdoor enthusiasts about to exert vast amounts of energy in the frozen winter landscape, and I urged the children not to be shy and to eat lots!
Clanking out of the chalet each morning and onto the ancient narrow streets we caught the courtesy ski-bus to take us a mile up the road to Tournaboup, the main ski station which nestles at the feet of the surrounding mountains. Four-man and six-man chair-lifts, Le Telesiege, whisks skiers away and upwards. Mornings passed quickly and lunch was taken at one of the piste-side restaurants. The weather was a mixed bag all week; some days we had spring-like conditions and warm sun and temperatures at an unbelievable 11˚C on the slopes, while other days it was colder; one day we awoke to squeals of delight from Hetty and Gigi as they came running into our room, it had been snowing overnight, everything was white and it was still coming down as we left the house, giving us some very welcome fresh powder conditions and the chance to spend some time tobogganing before meeting the children’s instructor.
Except for when the low clouds rolled in and we could scarcely see in front of our noses, the surrounding scenery was breathtaking regardless of the weather, with the magnificent Pic du Midi taking centre stage most of the time. Barèges lies at an altitude of 1250 metres and its houses are built on either side of the Bastan river which cuts a deep wide swathe through the village. This convivial stream of pretty water can turn dark and ugly though, and has caused floods and deaths many times over the centuries. Barèges is the home of the highest thermal baths in France, and its warm sulphurous waters first became known in 1675 when they were visited by Madame de Maintenon and Louis Auguste, Duke of Maine, who was the son of Louis XIV. The village has quite a history, with origins dating back to the 7th Century, but it did not became a popular tourist destination until the funicular railway was opened in 1936 to take people up the mountain. This is now closed for safety reasons and since 2002 the ascent has been via car or the shuttle bus.
Fascinated by the area in general and always keen to try something new, we had pre-arranged one day to take a five hour (I’m not sure if this makes us adventurous or mad) snow-shoe trek after a morning on the slopes. Our wonderful chalet hosts had prepared a packed lunch for us and we were met by our guide, Dan, an ex-French Legionnaire who knew absolutely everything there is to know about the area, its wildlife and the surrounding terrain. He drove us to nearby Lienz where we set off on our hike; none of us had ever put on snow-shoes before but it was remarkably easy to pick up the technique and we were soon climbing steep hills in thick snow. We stopped for lunch at an ancient chapel built in 1877 and sat eating our baguettes on an old stone wall, gulping in the breathtaking surroundings, chatting, kicking the snow around our boots, revelling in the peace of this vast landscape. Back on our feet we soon settled into our walking order; the three competitive girls and Jack always took the lead behind Dan, while Roddy and I brought up the rear as we took far too many photos; no one was going to admit it was hard work (especially the children), but I can tell you my thighs were burning at the end of the day even though I thought I was pretty fit! Dan commented how much stamina Hetty and Gigi had and onwards and upwards we went! We climbed from 1200 metres to around 2000 metres and walked along the ridge of the mountain. The return route was much easier on the legs as Dan showed us how to use the shoes as skis and glide down small sections of the slopes.
Our evening ritual remained much the same throughout the week. We returned for tea late each afternoon, which was always laid out and waiting for us whatever time we happened to come back. Helen’s baking was exceptional and I think the lemon drizzle cake won the ‘favourite award’ for the week! The girls and I would then enjoy the chalet’s sauna, soothing away aches and pains each evening before joining Roddy in the sitting-room which had a fully stocked “honesty” bar; not being a sauna fan Roddy was much happier easing his muscles with a large scotch on the rocks! We played a lot of cards, trying to keep the noise levels at an acceptable level for ours is always a very competitive family! Dinner was cooked by Gary, an excellent chef with many years experience; I don’t know about you but for me it is an absolute treat to be fed and watered by someone else, especially when it is for a whole week; no cooking, no washing up; in fact the only thing that required any thought at all was which wine to drink.
We ate hungrily with appetites fueled by all the fresh air and physical sport. Everyone had a story to tell from the day. These ranged from epic tumbles in the snow to Gigi’s accidental wrong turn which led her halfway down a steep red run and Millie’s war wound which resulted in butterfly stitches after a flying encounter with a sharp ski-edge. By the end of the week we had all told tales of heroics, bumps and bruises, and as each meal progressed the stories became more and more embellished!
We made the most of our final day and left the mountains at dusk; we knew we wouldn’t be home until nearing 11pm but we would miss the traffic and rush hour and it gave us more time on the slopes. As darkness fell the car became gradually silent, with everyone deep in thought and reflection. At some stage we pulled into a service-station for diesel. Not unusually there was a ‘cash’ pump and we filled up and drove out, expecting to pass the payment booth as we do in so many places in France. We drove a little further and as we left the service station we started to feel very uncomfortable; we still hadn’t paid and we were about to rejoin the autoroute.
Nervous and not wanting to return home with the police waiting for us we managed to take a right-hand exit into a shopping area just before the motorway; alas we had little idea how to get back to the service-station. In pitch darkness apart from our headlights we eventually found a tiny lane between tall fences which meandered back towards the distant lights of the fuel pumps, but as we neared it we found it was surrounded by a high barrier and we could find no way in. Along the way though, we passed a lay-by full of trucks stopped for the night and by pure luck spotted a small gate half ajar in the fence. We pulled over and Roddy, armed with his wallet, walked back to the service station; we locked the car and sat and waited with a slightly uneasy feeling in the darkness. Eventually it all turned out well. Apparently this was an exceptional station where one parked, got out and then paid inside the shop/restaurant after filling up.The cashier called the manager and Roddy explained what had happened and paid; they laughed and said all was well but we have kept the receipt just in case!