A week in the French Alps at Val d’Isere

Location MapThinking about winter in European mountain towns brings to mind thoughts of toasting up in front of cosy fireplaces, wooden chalets and heart warming food. Coming from Australia, it’s hard to see how the soft white fluffy stuff could be considered a nuisance in day to day life and in fact I think it makes the winter cold all very bearable. Maybe that’s a little naive, perhaps it’s just ignorantly blissful positive thinking, but I came out of it with a deeply cemented view that I could call the Alps home and that Val d’Isere was a pretty special place.

Val d’Isere is in the southern French Alps, below Switzerland and within a few hours drive of the Italian border. It’s a French mountain town with a lot of charm about it. Built around an 11th century stone church, many of the buildings are welcoming and authentic, as opposed to the nearby but highly built up settlements of Tignes. As a result it is more expensive, but if you’d rather splash your cash on piste instead the combined resort offers a massive variety of runs keeping you amused for days.

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The 11th century church

It was a 3 hour high speed train from Paris to Chambery and then about another 2 hours on a slower local train to Bourg Saint Maurice. The slower local train was significantly more enjoyable and reminded me of the train rides through the mountains of central Japan. It’s not necessary to bring your own entertainment when you can gaze out the window and admire the cute little villages dusted with snow or marvel at the snow covered forests that blanket the mountains.

Bourg Saint Maurice itself was a nice stop, but we were only really here to change to a bus that would take us up another 1000m into the mountains. You can also drive to Val d’Isere, but you might want to bring a shovel to dig your car out of the snow drifts.

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Bourg Saint Maurice

Val d’Isere isn’t so big so you should be able to walk to your accommodation assuming you don’t have to lug too much ski gear around. Hiring gear there was also very cheap compared to Australia. Pre-booking on the internet was only 125€ for 5 days for advanced skis and boots which also included insurance (get insurance – it’s cheap and considered mandatory). The other great thing about hiring there is that you can swap gear very easily and whilst I paid a bit extra on the 6th day to have some skis I really wanted, by the end of the week I’d tried 3 sets of advanced skis (some of which the German slalom team was using) and two sets of boots with different flex ratings.

On piste

But enough about the village and the gear! What about the snow? Well I have to say I had never skied in so much powder. Soft and fluffy, not sticky and hard to turn in, but still deep to the point that it’s hard to keep track of your skis.

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Looking down on Val d'Isere from a run

But it’s not just the snow that’s worth raving about. While you’re skiing, when you’re on the chairlift and even when you’re inside grabbing a bite, you get to appreciate the beauty of the French Alps. Unfortunately, I’ll never look at the Australian Alps quite the same.

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You don't see this from the chairlift in Perisher!

In Australia you don’t get such dramatic peaks like the Grande Casse. Cold and dark, but yet they still look inviting to me. Maybe the snow softens their appearance or maybe I’m just crazy. In Australia you definitely don’t get monstrous mountains like Mont Blanc, but yet whilst staring at it I can’t help but think that we drove higher than Mont Blanc in Bolivia!

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The Grande Casse

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The mighty Mont Blanc

Big mountains mean big snow though. In the resort here there are glaciers on the Grande Motte and a few other runs. Where ice can survive year round, so can snow, and so here you can ski all summer long at 3,500m plus. I’m not sure the effects of altitude were really noticable, but a lift ride up 1,700m certainly demonstrates that the earth is cooler up there! If you’re not moving the cold starts to set into your bones and clearly it’s tough times for all the equipment up there.

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A frozen chairlift below the Grande Motte at over 3,000m

It isn’t the snow without some blizz but we had great luck with the weather. A couple of overcast days, fresh snow, but no strong winds.

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Overcast and snowing but fortunately no harsh winds

Even when visibility was low there were breaks in the bad weather. It all just kept a bit of mystery about the mountains for me for the first few days.

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Breaks in bad weather sometimes make the best views

If you get tired of skiing you can always go for a walk between villages and up the mountains. We saw a few people walking on the roads, snow shoeing (really need to try that one day) and there was even a guy dog sledding. It’s also worth pointing out that you can take your dog on snow too. I love that you can do that because it’s not possible in the Australian Alpine National Parks.

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You can hike up the road to these cabins and we saw sled dogs heading away from them

But in any case, with a resort this big is just lots of skiing until the day’s end. There are loads of intermediate and advanced runs to keep you busy from first run to last run.

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The end of another good day

Eating and Drinking

It was only late January when we went, but yet competition was still fierce to get a seat at the restaurants in town. Anything that had good reviews was booked out on the night so it’s better to book than try and walk in. We had a hearty winter meal at 1789 where large well cooked cuts of meats are their specialty. They even smoke some of the steaks in front of you over coals on the fireplace. One of the cooks had an interesting trick to fire the coals with a hairdrier.

There’s a nice rissoni type pasta dish that’s baked here in the mountains called gratin de crozet. It’s delicious, warming and the perfect fuel for the next day on the mountain.

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Gratin de Crozet

I’m sure you’ve heard of fondue. Well it’s another great winter warmer from the Alps. The Fondue Factory in Val d’Isere will serve you up a generous 200g portion per person and the best thing about being in France is that everything comes with amazing bread. The fondue also came with some herb baked potatos in a traditional sack.

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Skis from 1915-1945

Even if you don’t want to eat there it’s worth stopping by to check out the ski museum. They have a huge collection of skis and boots from the last hundred years and surprisingly it only seems to be in the last 10-15 years that all the technology advancements have really kicked in and changed skiing.

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Oh how the boots have changed over time

I’d have to say that the best coffee in town was at the Chevallot bakery. They also make a lot of delicious pâtisserie and bake good bread.

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