I was out of control, tearing down the skislope. The skis, on top of which I was a hapless passenger, seemed determinedto break the sound barrier and all I could do was lean forward to keep mybalance as the French countryside dissolved into a blur.
Crash, party and play seemed to be themantra on this skiing trip in Val D’Isere.
This village in the French Alps boastsspectacular slopes, lots of activity and a rollicking apres-ski scene.
Freewheeling in France
It was my first day on skis since 6thJanuary 1996, and I was buoyed by the adage that ‘you never forget skiing onceyou learn it’; I’d done a few runs on gentle slopes and then tried a steepergradient. Patrick, my coach, skied alongside me trying to keep up, all thewhile yelling, “fall, fall!” and asking me to lean towards the side and take afall to stop. I was in a collision course with an outdoor cafeteria at thebottom of the slope, and as my speed went up and the distance to table number23 shortened, Patrick’s yells became heartfelt pleas.
I finally threw my selfover to the side andcrashed in a tumble of poles and skis.
After I had sorted myself out and theinhabitants of table no 23 had settled down again after their hurriedevacuation, I realised that the knack was to always keep your skis in aninverted ‘V’, as this gave some modicum of control over the speed.
I had arrived in Val D’Isere, in the RhoneAlps region of France for a weekend of skiing as an escape from the searingIndian summer, and though this was the very end of the ski season, there was morethan enough snow to give the entire village a white-washed look and ensure thatits slopes were busy with skiers.
The village, comprising of its cozychalets, restaurants and ski equipment hire shops, seems to exist in harmonywith the magnificent snow-laden countryside that surrounds it. Standing out ofmy chalet balcony that looked out onto the street, it was immediately apparentthat this place was a very famous ski resort. Almost all pedestrians were ontheir way to or on their way back from the ski slopes. They had their skisslung over their shoulders and were strutting about in their ski shoes. Notbecause of some over inflated ego or precipitous pride, but rather because thestiffness and inflexibility of ski shoes will make you strut, never mind thatyou may be as timid as a mouse. Val D’Isere and its hamlets are strung outalong the valley at a 1850m altitude under the imposing Bellevarde Mountain.
Each hamlet has its share of chalets andchapels—free shuttle buses link them to one another—and each one can also bereached on skis via the slopes.
Romancing the slopes
On my first walk around the village and theski slopes, what struck me as fantastic was the incredible infrastructure. Thesky was crisscrossed with ski lifts attached to cables taking skiers up hugeslopes. Yet it didn’t seem to give the place an untidy look. Because of thesheer number of slopes and ski lifts, the mountainside seemed to be buzzingwith skiers taking advantage of the lovely weather. And for those who had hadtheir fill, cafeterias and snack houses provided a welcome respite, withoutdoor seating that looked out at the slopes.
The next morning, fortified by a breakfastof French rolls and various kinds of cheese, I hopped onto one of the freeshuttles and headed out to Le Fornet, one of the last hamlets. I was certainlythe odd one out because everyone else was either carrying skis ora snowboard.And while they hopped off the bus and onto a huge cable car that would takethem up the slopes, which they’d come tearing down, I set off on the snowcovered walking track gradually going up the mountain.
I spent a fantastic hour on the mountainthat morning—the white snowscape contrasting the rich blue sky—and while I sawpugmarks of the native chamois goat, I didn’t actually see a specimen.
What I did see were my fellow buspassengers whizzing down the steep snowy slopes, and each time they swerved,their skis kicked up clouds of powdery snow. The fluidity made it look sosimple—and it was not—as I was soon to find out.
But before getting onto the slopes, therewas the battle of the boots to be won. Jean Sports on the main street is one ofthe many places where you can hire skis, boots and poles. After I had loosened theclips, stretched open the neck of the boot and fought my foot into it, my firstimpression was that it was caught in a trap.
Being a ski resort doesn’t mean thatthere’s nothing to do in Val D’Isere once you’re done skiing. There are finerestaurants serving the best of French food, and an especially fine one was LaFruitière.
There is absolutely no flex, but it is thisquality of rigidness that protects the ankle joint while skiing, especially onthat ‘lean forward’ stance while coming down the slopes.
Getting onto the skis and snapping yourboots in is all very simple when you are on flat snow. But on an incline itgets a little intense, with the skis seeming to have a mind of their own.Patrick, who taught skiing as a hobby in winter, first had me go through theregular motions of getting used to having extra long and narrow feet.
After about three hours of fumbling andfalling, I managed to get the skis under some control and they started behavingin a more disciplined fashion.
In fact, except for that one wipe-out thatI mentioned at the very beginning, the rest of my time on the slopes wasuneventful and my other crashes weren’t all that spectacular.
Being a ski resort doesn’t mean thatthere’s nothing to do in Val D’Isere once you’re done skiing. There are finerestaurants serving the best of
French food, and an especially fine one wasLa Fruitière, halfway up the Bellevarde—one of the most imposing peaks in thearea. We’d gotten there by gondola, and what followed was a lively eveningfuelled by delicious canapés that went sublimely with champagne.
I’m not even going to start describing thethree-course dinner, but if you’re guessing slow-roasted shoulder of lambaccompanied by fantastic French wine, then you’re indeed hovering around thesame frequency.
In addition, there was the live jazz band,Vitamine playing, the members of which blew their trumpets and trombones withenough enthusiasm to whip out taut and foot-tapping tunes. And as if thatwasn’t enough, the management even encouraged guests to dance on the tables!All this undoubtedly ensured that the evening was a complete blast. In fact,they had to literally shoo us out, and by the time we were done I realised thatit had gone dark and the mercury had come crashing down to minus two degreesCelsius; even the Gondola had closed for the day. Most guests were going todescend on skis, holding lit torches. This is a common thing to do in ValD’Isere, and is popularly called the ‘Torchlight Descent’. From the town, it makesa spectacular site to see a line of lights zipping down the mountainside.
Joining the joyride
But that was only for experienced skiers,and I had this horrific image flash in my mind—one of me flying off the edge ofthe mountain, desperately out of control.
So instead, I decided to ride asnowmobile—sort of scooter with skis, what the locals called a skidoo—down themountain.
Because of its surefootedness, it wouldturn into corners as sharply as an auto rickshaw and “zis can topple youovere”, Frenchman Freddie told me. I had decided to follow him down because he knewthe route, for with a white blanket of snow and pitch darkness, you really do needto know where to go. For the first few corners Freddie held back his horses,and then once I had gotten the hang of it, he let loose and I followed him. AllI remember was a white blur rush past as I concentrated on keeping to his line.I briefly remember a red fox dart across the road, but otherwise I wascompletely enveloped by the thrill of blasting that snowmobile down theBellevarde. It was a huge adrenaline rush—never mind that my nose, hands andears were almost falling off from the cold when we got to the bottom.
All said and done, I spent an extendedweekend in Val D’Isere, a ski resort, and didn’t run out of things to do eventhough I didn’t know how to ski all that well. Of course, if you do know how toski then this village will enchant you. And even if you don’t, it’s a goodplace to start, for there is a lot more you can do to keep yourself entertainedand occupied.
Jet Airways has daily flights to Brusselsfrom New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. From
Brussels we connect you to Paris, Lyon,Marseille, Toulouse, Nice and Strasbourg in conjunction with our airlinepartner Brussels Airlines.
The region offers accommodation to suitvarious budget ranges, and a good chalet to put up at is Les Sorbiers:www.hotelsorbiers-valdisere.com
In April the temperature is around fourdegrees, but in the height of the winter (and the ski season) it usuallyplummets to -15 degrees and sometimes more, so warm clothing is a must. JeanSports is considering hiring out skiing clothes next year, especially for overseasvisitors.
Dark glasses are an absolute must and skigoggles are even better, for the dazzling effect of the snow can causeblindness. Other essentials include gloves and sunscreen.
Hiring skis ranges from €20-25 per day andhiring shoes costs €8 a day. Ski passes that give access to the ski lifts costbetween €5 and10 for the weekend or two days
For more information: Log on towww.valdisere.com, www.savoie-mont-blanc.com
Text & photographs Rishad Saam Mehta