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!
40 thoughts on “WINTER HOLIDAYS FRENCH STYLE”
This is an English family living in France and I might have sent you her blog before. Long but she is such a good writer. Thought you might be Interested in another part of France.
Hi Nancy, I think you might have been sending this to someone else? If this is the case and the compliment is about my blog and my writing then I thank you most sincerely, I really do appreciate all the feedback I get, great to have you following along. Susan x
Yes! That first glimpse of the mountains just north of Pau is a magical moment. I used to spend hours on the Boulevard des Pyrénées in Pau just looking at the mountains, especially my favourite Pic de Midi d’Osseau. I only know the Barèges area in the summer, though – I think we hired bikes there, got the ski-lift to Super-Barèges and mountain-biked down one summer’s day. Or was Super-Barèges where we went paragliding? Anyway, it’s a wonderful place both in summer and winter, by the sound of it.
Hi, we are planning to go back in the summer, I actually love the mountains just as much in warmer weather without the snow, as you say there is so much to do and there is so much history, I find them fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to comment and have a great upcoming weekend, Susan x
Looks like you had an amazing time. You are in the snow while I am baking in Cape Town’s sunny weather.
Lucky you Nadia! I think I am actually now totally ready for some warm weather, shorts and t shirts, it’s been a good winter and I enjoy all that the colder months have to offer but now I am ready for spring! Enjoy the rest of your holiday. Susan x
That is absolutely a Beautiful piece of the world!!!!
I totally agree with you, thank you. It was stunning, so much history and such wonderfully nice friendly people everywhere, it was simply a brilliant holiday! Susan x
We nearly bought a house between Pau and Gourette. It would have been 40 minutes from the pistes whenever we wanted. Sadly fate took its turn and we couldn’t be further now in Normandy. Still a “coup de coeur” for me nevertheless. I’m glad you had so much fun.
We used to live an hour from the Pyrenees but then the children were tiny and not old enough to ski and so we visited the mountains but they were too small to do much, wrong place, wrong time! Still French roads are so easy it makes the journey fun and it was just under five hours! Do you ever get down to the mountains? Susan x
We are closer to the Alps now, which means we rarely get to the Pyrenees. We tend to go to Switzerland where a distant member of the family has a ski appartment, but though we don’t pay for that, based on the cost of Swiss baguettes, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper to ski in the french alps instead!
Oh I totally understand where you are coming from. We have family in Grindelwald and have skied there a lot, again the chalet is free, but with the cost of ski lessons, equipment hire, food etc in Switzerland it is actually cheaper to pay for accommodation in France!!! Plus it is five hours on the road instead of ten or eleven, which really is quite a hike.
THIS! This is an amazing way to spend winter if one is going to be immersed in the activities of winter vs. getting away to warmth. My husband & I love to snowshoe (we ski too), and we live in West Virginia in the US – a state that has all four seasons, and a great place to take advantage of such outdoor sport activities. Your pictures are wonderful!
Hi Rita, thank you so much, fabulous to have you following along and commenting. We loved the snowshoes, much as I love skiing, it is fun to do other things to and it was so calm and peaceful, there was no one else around and I felt as if we noticed so much, things that one never sees zooming down a ski slope. I would definitely combine the two again for future holidays. Susan x
I’m not much of a snow person – and I’ve never even come close to putting on skis – but can I come with your on your ski week next year? This looks amazing, and I don’t even like cold weather!!! I’m tucking away this place in the Pyrenees for future reference. I’ll have to go skiing eventually if I’m living in Europe, right? Love this post!
Hi, yes of course you can! I believe in making things as much fun as possible and mixing things up a little, hence the toboggans and snowshoeing and not just skiing. But yes, if you stay in Europe, you are going to have to put on those skis! I don’t like cold weather either, but they say “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” and it is very true. Somehow the cold is different in the mountains surrounded by snow, it’s good cold if that makes any sense! Susan X
What a glorious week you had. Your second to last picture made me think of Austria. I am definitely adding those parts of the Pyrenees to my list.
Hi Emm, it was a fabulous week and we all had so much fun. Do make sure you visit this area at some stage, it is beautiful and equally stunning in the warmer spring and summer months with so much to do. We can’t wait to return this summer. Susan x
Sounds like it was a delightful week.. I loved reading about it.. it has been years since we’ve been skiing. We live in Mississippi in US and don’t get much snow but love to ski in Colorado. Enjoy the time with your little ones. We have never regretted any of the family vacations we’ve taken and now that my kids are 27, 24, and 18, it is hard to get them all together as they live in 3 different states.. At least I have my youngest, my only girl still home with us and she will graduate high school in May and will be on to college in August. My oldest son and his wife are expecting our first grandchild within a week and we will start a new chapter in our lives. It’s also been a few years since we’ve traveled to Europe so reading your blog takes me back to the time we’ve spent in France, the UK and Italy. Blessings to you and your family!
Hi Carla, thank you for taking the time to comment, I love hearing other people’s stories and you are so right, family vacations are truly the best, we really have so much fun together, it was just a great shame our eldest daughter who is 19 could not join us too as she is at University in the UK and didn’t get any time off. Make the most of the last few months with your daughter at home. But as you say, a new chapter is just beginning, and a very exciting one. With very best wishes to you and your family, Susan x
This brought back memories of the Laurentians….north of Montreal. The ski resorts are both winter and summer oriented….ski or hike. The villages in that part of Quebec have a special French vibe. Around the resorts they have created villages with cobbled streets…lots of good restaurants and condos above. Also lots of high end hotels if that is what is wanted. It has a very European feel…half timbered…cedar….stone. Naturally there are lots of stores and boutiques to tempt when not on the slopes. There are chalets built along the sides of some of the runs…a beautiful area.
Friends had a condo there and whould lend it to us once in a while. It seems a long time ago…another lifetime.
Great post as always.
Hi Ali, it sounds utterly charming, you see you are tempting me again! That was one thing I did notice about Bareges, there were not really any shops, one souvenir shop, the usual ski shops and of course a baker, but nothing else, it certainly was not a shoppers paradise and was definitely far more geared up to everyone taking part in either summer or winter sports, not that I am complaining! Susan x
Thank-you Susan! They are not ‘my’ mountains, but they still bring back the strongest of beautiful memories. You’ll have to come and visit us in the Alps at some stage – summer or winter, it is all magical.
Hi Catherine, now I know you are just itching to get back to “your” mountains! When are you back in France? We should definitely plan to meet up. Have a great weekend, Susan x
Snow-shoeing looks SO fun! I have to get to the Alps next year and that’s at the top of my list. Love the snow, thanks for sharing your pics. Looks like a lovely place! #allaboutfrance
Hi Diane, it was great fun, far more so than I expected, of course one can take far easier routes, this was a real hike with one of the fittest people I have ever met who decided we all looked as if we were up for the challenge! The shoes grip so well and you can adjust the height at the back for up or down hill, it was more technical than I had realised! Have a lovely weekend, Susan x
Love those stone cottages, they look fabulous against the backdrop of snow.
Aren’t they fabulous. They remind me of little Irish cottages on the moors or Scottish cottages, there is definitely a similarity, not that that is surprising! Susan x
What an exceptional family vacation and in such delightful surroundings. The lack of shops and the quiet area would make that a bonus for me as opposed to big resorts in other locations. Haven’t tried snowshoeing, but I do remember one hilarious family trip to Jay Peak (northernmost Vermont), when some of my teenaged boys tried snowboarding for the first (and last) time. Their instructor was a very cool teenage girl who they clearly wanted to impress. Unfortunately, it was not to be. One of them could not maintain his balance for more than a few feet at a time and finally walked down the mountain in disgust. The other one not only couldn’t stop at the bottom of the hill, but ended up in the parking lot where he finally threw himself to the ground in order to not end up in another county. I’m afraid their sister and I weren’t sympathetic as we watched from the sidelines. We were bent in half laughing the entire time. But then it is just those kinds of moments make up great memories. We still laugh about it and they are all now in their 30s.
Love your photos of the majestic Pyrenees, Like you, the mountains will always draw me winter or summer. I lived in Germany as a teen and my family spent many weekends camping in Lucerne. One of my favorite places for beautiful views.
Hi Mary, Oh that is so true, it’s the funny moments that get talked about for years and years, family holidays are just the best and for me the lack of shops was a huge bonus, we had no time to shop anyway and neither did we want to, this was all about the mountains. We shall go back in the summer months. Have a wonderful weekend. Susan x
I noticed the Pyrenees gleaming today. I’m more familiar with the resorts in Ariège, like Font Romeu, Puyvalador and Formigueres. They aren’t big, but very family-friendly. And the countryside is amazing.
For people who want to do as much shopping as skiing, Andorra is the place to go.
Hi, I have skied many times at Font Romeu and had a lot of fun there. The Hautes Pyrenees are closer to us here in the Charente Maritime, hence our choice this time. Actually I love the whole chain from east to west and I love the atmosphere of the Pyrenees ski resorts, I find them far more relaxed than the Alps! Rain, wind and hail up here in the Charente Maritime today, hope you have a lovely weekend, Susan x
A 5 hr snowshoe trek, I would need more than 1 scotch on the rocks to offset my aches and pains. Great post and pics, thanks
I am not sure if it was madness or just sheer ignorance that made me book it! However, it was worth every aching muscle, it was breathtakingly beautiful! Have a lovely weekend Susan x
How glorious! Fun and beautiful and adventurous. Thank you for sharing these photos and stories with us. I have to say that I particularly like the idea of coming in to the chalet after the chilled and active day…calming with a snack and sauna…then dinner and family games with a bottle of wine to share. That’s it: this is the plan for my travel list next winter!
Hi Jill, when you’ve been out all day in the cold and are really quite exhausted physically and ready to flop in front of a warm fire there is nothing so good as everything laid on and waiting. For us this is the perfect ski holiday, no one has the inclination to dress up and go out to dinner and so a catered chalet is the perfect answer, I highly recommend it!
Than you for your comment on meteorological calendars. I never understood why our seasons [Australia] were dated differently to Europe. Autumn started on March 1 and we have had weeks of 30 degrees!
Hi Hilary,I know it is very confusing! I am no expert, but I do believe that more and more people are now following the meteorological calender, it makes more sense, otherwise the fist day of summer also falls on the longest day of the year 21st June, which doesn’t seem to make sense either! So for me, I am happy to say we are in Spring and today is a beautiful sunny springlike day! I hope it cools down for you soon, which part of Australia are you in? Hope you have had a good weekend, Susan x
I could have sworn I’d commented on this lovely post Susan, right at the beginning of this month’s link up as I didn’t want to get behind again last last month, but there doesn’t seem to be anything here from me. What a great holiday you had, I’ve never been to the Pyrenees, something my husband is determined to change soon as he loves them. I dream of a chalet ski holiday with someone else doing the cooking and making lemon drizzle cake; pure heaven! Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance
Hi Phoebe, you have to take a catered ski chalet holiday, it is simply the best way to ski! And I am sure you can appreciate the luxury of not having to cook, wash up, lay the table, well not having to do anything actually, it was bliss!!! The Pyrenees are beautiful and nowhere near as crowded as the Alps, but lots of fun still. Susan x