Have you heard the one about the KGB chief, the ski guide - and Roman Abramovich...?
Neither had Brian Viner, until he hit the slopes and got talking to the locals in Courchevel. He rediscovered his old skiing skills and learnt a lot more besides in the playground of Europe's high rollers
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Saturday 05 February 2005
Being in the mountains with a ski instructor, like being in the bush with Bruce, is probably the closest a middle-aged adult gets to being a child again. That, now that I think about it, is doubtless the root of my fascination. Here is another human being who keeps you safe, who tells you what to do next, who smiles indulgently while you make a tit of yourself, who occasionally shows off for your delectation, and who, if you're lucky, takes you somewhere cosy for a hot chocolate.
I'm surprised I haven't realised before that the relationship between ski instructor and pupil replicates that between father and small child, with the extra dimension that this father figure invariably has the coolest pair of sunglasses imaginable, a tan, a sexy French accent and an enviably aquiline nose.
This, at any rate, describes Guy. Guy was the ski instructor assigned to my small group during our two days in Courchevel last month, and although I hadn't skiied for 12 years, all the old feelings came flooding back. On a long chair lift ride I asked Guy my favourite question of ski instructors: what does he do out of season? I have never yet met one who does anything worthless and flabby away from the slopes, and Guy was no exception. He told me that he teaches archery. So not only could he ski like Franz Klammer, he could also handle a longbow like Robin Hood. Even, remarkably enough, at the same time! During the winter he often sets off on his cross-country skis and hunts chamois - the alpine antelope - with bow and arrow. He explained to me how it is done. The hunter must get within 35 metres of the chamois, which is so difficult that even Guy has managed it only once in five years. His arrow must then hit it plum in the heart while it is standing in repose. If the chamois so much as looks at you, it becomes instantly stressed, its blood coagulates, and its meat will taste horrible. I don't suppose that I will ever find myself in a position to profit from such knowledge, but simply knowing it somehow made me feel like more of a man.
Guy is singularly dishy and capable, even by ski-instructor standards, and this being Courchevel, he has had some notably rich and famous pupils. Once, the widow of the Shah of Iran was in his party. He showed me the notoriously tricky bend where she came a cropper and where her Cartier sunglasses went flying into the snow. "She said it didn't matter," Guy recalled. "I always meant to go back in the spring to find them, but I forgot."
No doubt the Shah's widow was able to replace her sunglasses in the boutique at the Byblos Hotel, which is where much of the beau monde stays when it comes to Courchevel. The beau monde and me. A couple of years ago I stayed at the ultra-swish Byblos in St Tropez and had a fabulous time, despite suffering a trauma on the dance floor of the famous Caves du Roy, the nightclub where Bruce Willis and Naomi Campbell hang out when they are on the Cote d'Azur. My trauma revolved around trousers that were considerably too big for me. I had forgotten to take a belt, and was unable to find one in all of St Tropez, possibly because I had it in my head that the French word for belt was chaussettes, so I kept going into shops selling leather goods asking to buy a pair of socks. Anyway, the result was that I had to strut my stuff in Les Caves du Roy with my thumbs hooked into the top of my trousers, like a fan of Status Quo or perhaps the Grumbleweeds. This greatly amused the owner of the Byblos, Antoine Chevanne, and may even have been why he subsequently invited me to visit his sister hotel in the Trois Vallees, in the hope that I would perform a similar cabaret turn there. Whatever, I accepted with alacrity.
Chevanne is an interesting phenomenon. Just 31, he has been voted one of the 10 most eligible bachelors in France, yet he is no playboy. The Byblos St Tropez was founded by his great-grandfather, and the Byblos Courchevel was later added to it. When it became likely that he would inherit the family business Chevanne learnt the profession from the bottom, which meant washing dishes and sweeping floors. Meanwhile, the rest of the empire - which included France's premier radio station and even a small airline - was sold off. Chevanne, an only child, runs the St. Tropez property in the summer and Courchevel in the winter. His regulars are film stars and billionaires - on the day I left, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, owner of the George V in Paris, was due to arrive with his usual 60-strong entourage. Yet I doubt whether Chevanne made Prince Alwaleed feel any more welcome than he did me, and indeed the other guests. As a former bellboy at the Paris Ritz I recognise a classy hotelier when I see one.
The Byblos is certainly a classy hotel. It stands at Courchevel 1850, the highest of the four villages that make up the exclusive resort. Its interior, recently tarted up by Chevanne's mother, is what I can only describe as log-cabin chic, an effect compounded from tea-time onwards by the gentle clicking of backgammon counters. There is a piano bar and cigar lounge. The place is almost risibly elegant.
Like most people who discover skiing as relatively impoverished graduates in their mid-twenties, my formative experience of skiing hotels is of unfussy, functional places with boot rooms that smell of yesterday's sweat. The first couple of times I went skiing was to Borovets in Bulgaria. We stayed in a cavernous hotel with a self-service restaurant, where the choice of main course was between a coiled sausage that looked as if it belonged at the foot of a lamppost and an omelette literally floating in grease.
Over the subsequent five or six winters I moved a little more upmarket, but not much. Then I became a parent and stopped taking skiing holidays altogether. So last month's trip was my first since 1992, and also my first stay in an establishment designed to take the pain out of skiing and leave only the pleasure. Not only did the boot room at the Byblos have not the slightest aroma of sweaty feet, there was even a nice young man who cheerfully helped me on with my boots in the morning and removed them in the afternoon. As someone who once incurred a groin strain trying to get a ski boot on, I found this an incalculable blessing. Moreover, as soon as the boots were removed he produced a pair of slippers that, if I'm not mistaken, had been warmed in readiness. Now that's what I call first-class service.
On the slopes, to my surprise, it had not taken me long to find my ski legs again. Admittedly I was always more Zimmer than Klammer, but I had not expected to rediscover my clumsy intermediate style quite so quickly. Having done so, though, I fretted about the next day's aches and pains. I was using muscles that had been in storage since 1992; I would probably struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
Here, too, the Byblos came to the rescue. At the end of that first day's skiing I had a full-body massage in the hotel's plush spa. My masseuse was the admirable Sophie, although the star turn is Catherine, who is blind. Just as blind people make the best piano tuners so, apparently, do they make superior masseuses. My two companions, experienced five-star travellers who have been pummelled in smart hotels all over the world, both said that Catherine gave them the finest massage they had ever had. And Antoine later told us that several of his richer guests have tried to headhunt her, happily to no avail. None of this is intended to disparage Sophie. Because the morning after her ministrations I didn't have a single ache, which was astonishing. I headed back to the slopes feeling like a 25-year-old, which was doubly astonishing, because when I was 25 a day's skiing made me feel 43.
As for the other striking contrast with my Bulgarian experience all those years ago, the food at the Byblos was exquisite. As in St Tropez, Chevanne has introduced four themed menus in his Bayader restaurant at Courchevel; one specialising in meat, another in seafood, a third in vegetarian dishes and a fourth in local cuisine. Every dish is sumptuous - not a coiled sausage or a greasy omelette in sight. Which is not to say that I ate entirely healthily while I was in the Alps.
On our first night we went down the mountain to La Saulire, perhaps Courchevel's most famous restaurant, where I had fondue with truffles. It cost a fortune at Û40 (pounds 29), and my arteries are still complaining, yet I would go back tomorrow for that experience alone. I'm not sure I would say the same for night-time sledging, which I found very tricky indeed. The concierge at the Byblos fixed us up with Richard, a Topol lookalike who runs a company that organises bespoke special events for the very well-heeled. A couple of nights after taking us sledging, Richard was due to take a group of 16 Arabs on snow-scooters to a specially erected teepee village for fireworks, an ice bar and rides in a hot-air balloon. He was charging them Û25,000 (pounds 17,800). I'm surprised it wasn't more.
Richard's best, and at the same time, worst, customers are the Russians. "They want everything right now," he told me. "It takes time to organise a permit for fireworks but still they want these things now, now, now!" They have become so prolific in Courchevel these last few years that the signs on the slopes are now in Russian as well as French and English. Guy is always hired by Roman Abramovich when the billionaire Chelsea FC owner comes to town, and skis with him, his wife, children and three bodyguards. Another regular client, he added indiscreetly, is a former KGB colonel, a singularly unpleasant individual. According to Guy, this man makes his wife cry every single day, and a week never goes by without him picking at least one fight on the slopes. I like to think that he might one day end up with an arrow in his forehead. I know just the man who could see to it.
Brian Viner flew to Geneva with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Other airlines serving Geneva include Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) and SWISS (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com).
The writer was a guest of the Byblos Courchevel (00 33 479 009 800; www.byblos.com) which costs Û700 (pounds 500) per night half-board. However, the hotel currently has a special offer of seven nights half-board from Û2,450 (pounds 1,750).
Courchevel Tourism (00 33 479 08 14 44; www.courchevel.com); French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, calls charged at 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com)
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