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Aiguille Rouge, by Pete Caswell. Click on the painting to visit his site

Friday, 24 January 2014

SKI HISTORY: In search of "White Gold"

A look at the history of ski resorts in France reveals some common themes: rural depopulation in the Alpine valleys, virgin snowfields in the mountains above.  Not to mention some pioneers clever enough (or crazy enough) to see the potential of a ski resort.  Each had their own vision for bringing the rewards of l'or blanc to their part of the Alps.

A quick mine of YouTube finds many of these stories caught on film.

First up, Val Thorens (or should we say Val Thorens United).  Their 40th birthday video includes interviews with various local luminaries, from the early days through to current Tourist Office Director Gregory Guzzot.


Further south, the Isola 2000 story starts at the end of the second world war, with Italy ceding the  land above the village of Isola (Tinée valley) to France in 1947.  The history is interesting: a British developer, arguments about the access road, and a ski resort (Azur 2000) that was never built.  Here's a short film:


For a longer video, covering the story in quite some detail, click here.

Isola 2000's neighbour, Auron, is rather older, with the story of its first 70 years set out in this 2007 video.  Take a look at the newsreel celebrating the launch of the telecabine (at 4 mins), and various ski racers struggling with the long skis.  Finally, things start to get a little easier - as witnessed by the local ESF demonstrating their 1970s turns (12 mins):


Back in the Tarentaise, here's a video celebrating La Plagne's 50th birthday in 2011.  For more on the history of La Plagne click here.

Meanwhile, in Les Arcs, this video describes the grands travaux put in place by Robert Blanc, Roger Godino, Charlotte Perriand et al.  More on the history of Les Arcs here.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

SNOWBOARDING IN 2014: Four Very Important Questions

1.  Is snowboarding on the increase?  No, quite the contrary, although it is stronger in North America than in Europe.  In France and Switzerland the percentage of slope users who are snowboarding ranges from 6% to 17%.

2.  Is snowboarding safer than skiing?  It's not entirely clear.  There is certainly a fair amount of research showing that snowboarders are more likely to get injured.  For example, this study from the US found that, in Taos, the injury rate rose from 206.7 per 100,000 before snowboarders were allowed to 233.8 after the ban was lifted. On the other hand, there is evidence indicating that snowboarders are less likely to be killed. Other factors - such as the younger age profile of snowboarders, and their greater propensity to wear helmets - probably need to be factored in before we have the definitive study.  In the meantime snowboarders need to protect themselves against distal radius fractures, while skiers run the risk of anterior cruciate ligament injuries....

3.  Is snowboarding protected by the American constitution?  It seems we are about to find out , with a test case now going through the courts.  The Utah resort of Alta has banned snowboarders since the 1980s, but a a lawsuit has just been filed to challenge this, on the basis that it is in breach of the 14th Amendment of the US constitution.  Two other US resorts, Deer Valley and Mad River Glen also ban snowboarding, but they (unlike Alta) are on private land.

4.  Will Britain win medals for snowboarding at the Sochi Olympics?  Well, we certainly have a team, and Eddie Eagle-esque they are not.  Apparently, 1-2 medals are expected from skiing and snowboarding this February.  Here are the Twitter accounts of some of the British snowboarders: @billymorgan89@jennyjonessnow@aimee_fuller@OrmerodKate:

Saturday, 11 January 2014

COULD BE WORSE: The 2013/14 Season So Far

Today's Le Dauphiné report early season figures showing a 5% fall in numbers using French ski lifts.

It all started so well, with many resorts across France able to open their slopes during November.

Now, with the exception of the Pyrenees, snow cover is well below expectations for January.

Worst hit are the southern Alps, Isere/Drome, the Vosges and the Jura.

The 5% fall is not yet deemed to be a disaster, however:

1.  It's still early days, with only a quarter of the season to go
2.  Last year's early season was exceptional, both in terms of snow and helpful school holiday calendars  which gave the resorts three "good weeks" during the festive period
3.  When compared with the last 4 years, these figures are 10% above the average
4.  Figures for hotel/accommodation operators are apparently rather more encouraging: 
"There have been loads of people in the resorts.  A few less on the pistes", reports Le Dauphiné

Click here for more on the French ski market.

Megeve earlier this week.
Snow cover "OK, but..."

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

WHAT'S NEW IN LES ARCS: Parking matters

UPDATE: 12 Jan: You can buy your €50 "weekly ticket" from the new "parking chalet" at the foot of the steps below the funiculaire.   If you arrive outside working hours, you can go and see the chap on the desk before you leave.  However, factoring in the 12€ for the return ride on the funi, we now have the sad situation where parties of two or more can save money by making the 15km climb up to Arc 1800 and paying the 65€ charge there...

Les Arcs is no stranger to parking controversies.  The introduction of parking charges in 2009 did not go down well with the local saisonniers and proprieteres.  The Council was very clear at the time that it needed to introduce charges to help cover its deficit, and saw no strong argument as to why parking in the ski resort should be subsidised by local taxpayers.  Not all were convinced, but the issue seems to have died down now.

For many years, a very sensible alternative for the holidaymaker has been to use the funiculaire from Bourg St Maurice, leaving the car in the adjacent (free) car park.  The parking is of course heavily used by locals as part of their daily commute.

This state of affairs has now been thrown up in the air, in the wake of the municipal council's decision this October to introduce new parking charges in Bourg St Maurice.  

For the tourist, a daily charge of €3 sounds reasonable, but there is a cunning surcharge for an overnight stay which means I clocked up a €65 bill for a four day stay.  When I questioned the amount, I was advised that "You do not have the right to park overnight". It does seem, however, that parking overnight is not entirely frowned upon: a €50 weekly ticket (for 5-7) days is now available.  Full details of the costs are on the Les Arcs website.  

For those working in Les Arcs, there is the option to buy a €180 ticket covering the season.

This has been condemned as a "tax on work" and the CGT and FO unions representing the resort workers have have launched a campaign.  This included a march on the town hall the week before Christmas.  The issue appears to be far from over...


Bourg St Maurice, 21 December 2013

For the moment, Les Arcs' claims to be "eco-friendly" or "car-free" appear a little hollow. By my maths, the new cost of a week's parking down in Bourg (50€ plus return ticket to Les Arcs) makes driving up to the resort and paying the 65€ charge the cheaper option. Which seems odd.

WHAT'S NEW IN LES ARCS: Two new places to eat

What's new in Les Arcs for 2013/14?  Well, alongside what's here, a couple of things to report on. These cover two of the essentials of modern life: food and parking.

First, food.  The new restaurant above the pistes at Arc 1800 is now open.  Chez Grillette has a brilliant location on the home runs above the golf course, with great views across the valley.  It's a great addition to an area which has been crying out for a piste-side refreshment stop for years.  There is a big outdoor terrace, and a fair-sized indoor area, which does get busy.  It's more upmarket than the Arpette, but nothing like the Chalets de l'Arc: €12-14 for a one-pot casserole, and, in a possible first for Les Arcs, a selection of "wok" dishes.  

Chez Grillette

Expect to see more developments in this part of the resort over the next few years, as part of the reorganisation of the Chantel slopes and lifts - details here.

There is also news over at Arc 1600.  The original Les Arcs village suffers more than Arc 1800 for not having a proper front de neige with restaurants, places to meet etc.  The facilities are all rather set back from the lifts.  Step forward a new hostelry, just to the side of the Cachette piste, below the Hotel Beguin.  Not sure what it's name is - it appears to be called "restaurant" at the moment.

The new restaurant is at the foot of the
beautiful Mont Blanc piste

Strictly speaking the newly-openend Aiguille Grive Hotel may not count as a "mountain restaurant", as it is only a stone's throw from Charmettoger.  But you can ski to the door, and directly to the lift afterwards, and the location does feel quite away from it all.  Resort old-timers will still miss the "Gilles and Annick" restaurant which used to sit on this site. But at least Gilles is back running the restaurant, and the new construction is quite something:

The hotel's opening was delayed due to problems
with the electrical licence - here is the restaurant

Although the area will win no prizes for its mountain restaurants, things are definitely improving, both in terms of quantity and range.  For more on piste-side eating in Les Arcs, click here.