I was off on another ski trip. "Where are you going this time?", asked a friend. To Spain. "Spain! Why do you always ski in such peculiar places?"
Pity Spain's national tourist office. Our vision of the country may have broadened beyond the Costas, but we still associate Spain almost exclusively with blue skies, golden sands and white-washed buildings. It's a T-shirt place, not somewhere you go all bundled up against the elements. How many people know that it's even possible to ski in Spain?
To get an answer to that question, I did my own survey, in the men's changing room of the Seymour Place swimming baths in central London. Four volunteers were asked: "Are there any ski resorts in Spain?" Everybody answered, despite the distraction of the interviewer – as if on one of those dodgy Italian television shows – taking off his clothes while he put the question to them. Nobody ventured a "yes"; but everyone figured that since the country has mountains, skiing was perfectly feasible.
Which is correct, of course. Spain has a lot of skiing in the Pyrenees, and a little down to the south, mainly at a resort just above Granada formerly known as Sol y Nieve, but now simply called Sierra Nevada. And its resorts are becoming increasingly accessible to British skiers. Formigal, in the Pyrenees, and Sierra Nevada are both new this season to the brochure of the biggest UK ski tour operator, Crystal, and are also offered by the second-largest, Thomson – which, like Crystal, is part of the Tui group. Formigal is a new arrival in the Neilson brochure, too; and while Baqueira-Beret in the Pyrenees is not new to Inghams it has a stronger presence this season, with the inclusion in the brochure of its excellent, five-star La Pleta hotel.
None of the resorts are actually new; they are simply making a comeback. Thompson sold packages to Formigal, which has Spain's biggest ski area, in the 1995/6 season, and the resort even made a fleeting but unproductive appearance in its "preview" brochure for five winters ago. Sierra Nevada has been a perennial of the Thomson programme for decades now.
Why has there been this resurgence of interest in Spain? For a couple of reasons. First, because Aramon, the company that operates Formigal (plus two other resorts nearby), embarked on a marketing campaign last year that sold itself to UK tour operators; and, second, because of problems with rival ski destinations in the Pyrenees. Interest in the many French resorts has dwindled, mostly because there's a lack of good accommodation. And Andorra, once the budget-holiday darling of the tour operators, has fallen out of favour dramatically – its share of the UK market almost halving from 13.7 per cent in 2004/5 to seven per cent this season. The "party town" image has frustrated Andorra's attempt to move up-market with, for example, a tremendous five-star hotel at Soldeu.
It was Melvin Westlake, the then head of product for Crystal and Thomson, who brought Formigal into the Tui fold. "I met the people from Aramon at a trade show, and they told me about the investments they had made and the improvements to the lift infrastructure. So I went to see it last season, and I was impressed. Having looked at the old brochures from the early 1990s, it was remarkable how much the ski area had been extended since then." (Formigal now has 21 lifts, 137km of pistes and 2,300 hectares of skiable terrain.) "The hotels are really good, and also the restaurants – not only in the valley but on the mountain, too," he adds.
Westlake said that Formigal was not a replacement for nearby Andorra; but he did compare the destinations. "Considering the quality of its hotels, the prices at Formigal are good, on a par with Andorra," he said, adding that with flights for Formigal landing at Huesca "the transfer time is short, much shorter than to Andorra".
For my first experience of the "new" Spain, I travelled last winter to Baqueira-Beret, driving across to the resort from Toulouse airport. The French side of the Pyrenees seemed barely alive, shuttered and dark at 8pm on a Monday night. But an hour later Vielha, the main town of the Arà*valley, was wide awake, despite the falling snow; so was the 14km route up to Baqueira-Beret, lined with chalets, ski hotels and equipment-rental shops. And the lobby of La Pleta was reminiscent of Oxford Circus Tube station at rush hour. I could stop worrying about whether the restaurant was still open, and start worrying about whether I could get a table.
It turned out to be school holiday time and the 70-room hotel was completely full. I sat down for dinner at 10.30pm, alongside a gang of children aged between four and nine, whose two sets of parents had wisely seated themselves at a table a short distance away. It was quite fun when the children were eating, less so when the burping competition got under way.
Snow fell all night, as it had the previous day. In the morning it was still going, and building up to a total snowfall over 48 hours of 85cm. Which must have been nice for the skiers who arrived after I left, when the sky cleared. True, I could go skiing, and I did; but I can tell you nothing about the ski area, because I never saw it.
Apparently, somewhere out in the blizzard, there were 33 lifts and 108km of pistes (mainly blues and reds, with a few blacks) on a skiable terrain of 1,922 hectares. I rode two lifts and felt my way down two descents before returning my skis and setting off to explore the resort.
The single best-known fact about Baqueira-Beret is that it is where King Juan Carlos skis. At the risk of breaching Spain's official secrets act, I have to tell you that this is not true. Some doubt it ever was: a friend who is a habitué of Lech in Austria claims the king did his skiing right there in the eastern Alps, the appearances on the slopes of Baqueira-Beret being merely one of his official duties. Anyway, he certainly doesn't ski there now, according to the resort's commercial director; he has handed on his ski poles to the next generation, so the royal family still uses the official chalet, an unremarkable property just down the hill from La Pleta.
Having imagined it to be authentically royal, I had clear preconceptions about Baqueira-Beret. Crowned heads habitually favour large, old-school ski "villages" such as St Moritz, Davos and Lech; so to find that Baqueira-Beret had less in common with them than with modern, concrete-built Les Arcs in France came as a shock. The central area has most of the familiar faults of purpose-built, resorts from the 1960s/70s, including empty shops and blocks of small, privately owned (and therefore usually unoccupied) apartments, plus a design flaw from an earlier era, of a lift base sited outside the centre. On top of that, there was the typical Bulgarian-resort blight of a huge construction site nearby.
It transpired that while I was a day too early to enjoy good skiing conditions, I was a year too early to admire the resort. Next month the heart of Baqueira-Beret will move sideways. In place of the construction site there will be a more convenient lift base (the route of the main cable-car has been extended downwards), a more user-friendly resort centre, and two new five-star hotels.
If Baqueira-Beret was unappealing by day, it was terrific at night.Dinner was at La Borda Lobato restaurant which is set in an ancient wooden barn that has been repaired rather than converted: most of the timbers are original, the only enhancements being the new, 15sq m floor, a glass entrance door and discreet concrete supports at each corner to keep the roof up. Along the back wall is a 5m grill; meat is the thing here, but as a non-meat-eater I had grilled sturgeon, caught locally and by far the tastiest freshwater fish I have ever eaten. The Ribera del Duero, last winter's most fashionable red wine, was also marvellous. The following day I drove back down the hill to Vielha, studying the contemporary architecture that Robert Buil Gascon, the resort's commercial director, had told me about. To prevent inappropriate development in the Val d'Aràn, which is cherished for its environment and its culture (it has its own language, which belongs to the Occitan family), planning controls are strict. They demand buildings that have an "authentic" Aranese style – of which La Pleta is an early example.
Laudable though the intention may be, that sort of prescription rarely produces satisfactory results. Here, as elsewhere, the few genuine, old buildings – the Aranese Gothic churches – were swamped by a sea of pastiche and façade.
At the roadside I saw a new petrol station built in the typical Val d'Arà*style of the early 21st century. Was this the new Spain, or just the old one making a comeback? Neither, unfortunately.
Getting and staying there
Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk) offers seven nights' half-board at La Pleta from £981 per person, including flights from Gatwick to Toulouse. Flights are also available with supplement from Birmingham and Manchester. Seven-night packages to Formigal start at £469 with Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) including flights, transfers and half board at the three-star hotel Nieve Sol.
More information baqueira.es; 00 34 973 639 010
www.formigal.com; 00 34 974 490 049