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Hiking above Peisey Vallandry

Saturday, 29 June 2013

BIENVENUE DANS LE YORKSHIRE

This time next year will see the Grand Depart from another fiercely independent-minded part of the world: Yorkshire.




Stage 1 sees the Tour take in the Dales, en route from Leeds to Harrogate.  Stage 2 is York-Sheffield, which will be a "mini Liege-Bastogne-Liege" including a fearsome looking climb up Jenkin Road, just before the finish.





Stage 3 sees the tour leave Cambridge for the capital.  Boris will be no doubt be seen beaming as the peloton passes the Olympic site and then all the central London landmarks.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LA PLAGNE: 1939-61

More than 50 years since its opening in 1961, where next for La Plagne?

This winter's Alpes Loisirs magazine looks at the history of the resort, and talks to some of the locals.

It may not quite be a rag-to-riches story, but it's some transformation: from declining mining area (for lead and silver) to what is the biggest ski resort in the world in terms of turnover.

Today's La Plagne ranges from the famous "snow liner" at Aime 2000 - "la montagne facon banlieue" to the protected village that is Champagny-en-Vanoise.

Rewind back to the second world war, when the local mines saw the French resistance using them as a base.  The Mont de la Guerre piste is a direct reference to the fighting seen in the area - more here.

By the 1950s, the area was losing its young people.  Agriculture was in decline, and the mines weren't going to last forever (they closed finally in 1973).

Those were working in the mines had been able to make a living, but at the expense of their health.  Step forward Dr Borionne, mayor of Aime, who saw all this first-hand with his patients: "It's hell on earth in there - a cemetery".

Dr Borionne appears to have been a charismatic chap, very good with people, and able to interact with les paysans, his fellow mayors and the developers who would help finance the new resort.  He was able to bring the diverse communities that are Aime, Macot, Bellentre and Longefoy to come together behind the plan.

Inside the "snow liner" at Aime 2000
They needed help in order to work out exactly what to do in terms of starting a new ski area.  "At that time, a good skier wasn't taken seriously - they were seen as layabouts", says La Plagne pioneer, Gilbert Vivet Gros.

In 1960, ski champion and technical director Emile Allais came to look at what was then a virgin site.  "La Plagne has some amazing possibilities" he said.  "Sun and snow are guaranteed".  The plateau above what is now Plagne Centre was ideal in terms of allowing skiers to move from one part of the mountain to another while staying in the sum.  The glacier at Bellecote provided access to slopes over 3000m and even summer skiing (now defunct).  And there were forests down below, providing a natural fridge.

Michel Bezancon was the young Parisien architect (and keen skier) brought in to develop the site.  His first plan involved 7 sites and 36,000 beds.  "You'd better hide that, it'll make everyone scared!" said Dr B.  Today it has 10 sites and 53,000 beds...

Fifty years later, Bezancon is used to people calling it "Sarcelles des Neiges".  He comes back regularly to Aime 2000, where he is a proprietor.  "La Plagne has evolved in line with the needs of its clients", he says.  "In the 1960s, the middle classes were dreaming of the modern world.  This was the generation which had rebuilt France.  They were looking, above all, for a functional environment".  Here's a link to a video, created for the 50th anniversary, which charts the history of La Plagne in photos.


Sarcelles

The functional environment the tourists of the 1960s were looking for can be seen in Plagne Centre, with its commercial galeries (now being renovated - see story here from 7 June).  People could walk around in their slippers and pick up their croissant and paper....mingling with the morning's skiers as they left for the lifts.  "This was the time for pioneers", says the author of the Alpes Loisirs piece, Jacques Leleu.  "People felt part of it.  Holdaymakers could pass from the pistes to the cafe utterly seamlessly."


For another overview (in English) see www.laplagnenet.com

For a very detailed history (in French) see the excellent www.perso-laplagne.fr site

And here's a "fact file" covering key dates, published at the time of La Plagne's 50th birthday in 2011

Friday, 14 June 2013

SUMMER SKIING

Val d'Isere, Tignes and Les 2 Alpes are the three main remaining sites for summer skiing in France - details of opening times etc here.  Deux Alpes seems to have the slight edge over Tignes, boasting an 800m vertical drop.

It may be a poor third, but the short summer skiing season in Val d'Isere is already underway - more details on Henry's Avalanche Talk.

After the middle of July, the two remaining choices will be Tignes and Les 2 Alpes. www.summerski.co.uk is a loyal companion.



There used to be a rather greater choice of venues...

La Plagne gave up in 2005.  The Chiaupe glacier used to be a nice, quiet, mellow place to go in summer, according to Frogblog.  It sounds like skiing up here could have continued, but it was simply not economical any more.

Alpe d'Huez used to open regularly, but no more - although it was "exceptionally" open for a week in June 2012.

Apparently there used to be summer skiing on the Grands Montets in Chamonix until the 1980s.

And Val Thorens used to attract serious skiers to the steep Peclet slopes, but global warming made things more and more difficult through the 1990s, before they gave up altogether in 2002.

Back in Les Arcs, the focus in recent years has been more on protecting the Varet glacier from retreating any further, for example in spending €30,000 on a protective sheet to keep the snow away from the sun between May and September.  I haven't researched it extensively, but there seems to be some discussion as to whether there used to be a draglift on the glacier during the 1980s.  It seems that summer skiing was certainly on the summer lift map at that time, but a guide rather than via a ski lift.

Further east, there is more summer skiing to be in Switzerland (Engleberg & Saas Fee, but no longer in Verbier or St Moritz).  Austria has a number of sites: Kaprun, Stubai, Hintertux (where lots of ski teams train) and Solden (one of the few areas for Autumn skiing) - more here.  The excellent www.weathertoski.co.uk site gives the title of "best summer ski area" in Europe to Hintertux.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

FLAINE

NEW 21 Dec 2013: More on the proposals for a new mega-lift (the "Funi Flaine) which would take skiers from the valley to resort in 15-20 mins can be found here.

Flaine (and the Grand Massif) is one of France's top ski areas.  No question.

The road to Flaine

The mountain and its various villages boast an impressive list of attributes.  Here are seven of them.

1.  Easy access: You can leave Geneva airport and be at Les Carroz in 45 minutes.

Above Les Carroz
2.  Easy access: Drive to Morillon instead and you have the easiest access to the skiing: a drop-off point for skiers, places to hire skis and a big car park.  And at 700m, you are unlikely to get stuck, have to get the snowchains out, etc.

3.  Choose where you stay.  Samoens has a powerful rustic village + jumbo gondola option; Sixt Fer a Cheval is completely away from it all; Les Carroz has various hotels and feels like a proper place.  And then we have Flaine.  This gives the "traditional" French ski in-ski out experience - the twist being the unique architecture.  The setting is a bit like Val Thorens, although the overall set-up feels much less urban - even if you don't like the architecture.  The wikipedia entry, charting the development of the site since 1959, is well worth a look.  


4.  A big ski area.  At 265km, it's bigger than La Plagne (225km) and Les Arcs (200km). The layout of the mountain gives you a real feeling of travelling around.  Meanwhile, the lift pass, at €43, is slightly cheaper than Les Arcs' €46.


5.  Great snow record.  The summit at 2500m may not sound too high, but the location of the Grand Massif really makes a difference - the area consistently posts some of the highest snow depths in the Alps.

6.  Some epic pistes.  The Cascades run from les Grands Platieres and the Marvel green run above Morillon are both worth making a detour for.  Try lunch at the Lac de Gers:


7.  Summer.  The Giffre valley is beautiful and boasts the feared cycling climb that is the Col de Joux Plane.  More sedate pleasures can be found strolling around the Cirque du Fer a Cheval beyond Sixt.



A few other things to watch out for:

  • The Bissac at Flaine is a great spot to meet up, but gets very crowded, and the toilets can't cope with the demand.
  • At the big Platieres gondola, you can beat the queue by opting to stand up rather than sit down in the cabins.
  • The lift at Morillon 1100 struggles with the crowds during the (March) Paris school holidays - so must be a mare during the main February crush...
  • If it's bad weather, the links to Flaine may close.  Even if they don't, they may be very, very cold.

For more on the area...some links:

The Telegraph's guide to Flaine

The We Love 2 Ski review of the area

Where to Ski and Snowboard's review

www.flaine.info - an independent English-language site

The summit, at 2500m

Flaine

Saturday, 1 June 2013

LE TOUR DE FRANCE IN THE TARENTAISE

This year's Tour de France sees the peloton visit the Tarentaise briefly en route from Bourg d'Oisans to the practically perfect Le Grand Bornand.

The Tour has spent a good deal of time in the valley in previous years.  Here's a quick resumé:

Les Arcs 1996 - scene of Indurain's downfall

The doctor's car at Arc 1800, July 2009

Bourg St Maurice 2009 - Armstrong and co stayed in Arc 1950; the poorer teams like Euskatel made do with Arc 1800

La Plagne - "it's Stephen Roche!!", visited in 1984, 1995 and 2002

Tignes 2007 - won by the (later disgraced) Rasmussen

Val d'Isere - visited in 1963, 1996 and 2007.  At some point the Tour will make the climb to the top of the Col de l'Iseran.  That's the hope, anyway