Border crossings: The French resort of Montgenèvre has plenty of Italian influences
Plus slopes that are perfect for beginners as Mary Novakovich discovers
Saturday 22 January 2011
Border towns can do strange things to the brain, as you're never entirely sure which country you're in. Montgenèvre, barely 2km from the Italian border, is no exception. One of the best ways to travel to this corner of France's Hautes-Alpes is by train to Oulx, 20km away in Italy. Its nearest airport is 90 minutes away in Turin. It's the only French resort within Italy's 400km Milky Way ski domain and it hosted some of the 2006 Winter Olympics races.
Montgenèvre holds firmly on to its Frenchness, though, even if Italian voices are everywhere. They have taken this small village to heart, loving a bit of foreignness on their doorstep. The Italians are also well aware that, while they have Sestriere, Claviere and Sauze d'Oulx on their patch, they get better skiing for their money in Montgenèvre's 75km of pistes – and a more rounded experience.
What really sets it apart is the quality of high-altitude pistes for beginners and less adventurous skiers. Rather than let the advanced slopes hog the best views, the pistes at Montgenèvre include wide, long green and blue runs that start at 2,650m. At this altitude, the trees have long disappeared and the landscape looks as though enormous fluffy white blankets are draped over the peaks.
The village is set in a pass between two towering mountain ranges, which offer great skiing for all except the most hardened experts. The nursery slopes are on the northern side of the village, where a blue run takes you under a bridge to the Chalmettes hybrid cable car-chairlift. Take the w inding green run to the chairlift at Les Gondrans for a choice of wide cruising greens, blues and reds, with boardercross, a freeride zone, off-piste slopes and a black run thrown in for good measure.
Apart from a bit of congestion outside the restaurant, Les Anges, there's plenty of room for everyone and negligible queues for the lifts. The longest line you're likely to encounter will be for the new monorail toboggan run, the Monty Express, which snakes down the mountain for 1,400m in an exhilarating ride for all ages. Dress warmly for the wait, but it's worth the effort, and your lift pass includes a free ride.
The slopes on the sunnier southern side at Le Chalvet have even more astounding views from the top of the Serre Thibaud chairlift at 2,550m. There is a captivating stillness in the snowy moonscape of the Col de l'Alpet, then you swoop down below the tree line where the piste winds through the woods. You could ski across the border into Claviere, but returning could be a trial if you don't fancy red runs.
The journey on foot takes 15 minutes along a snowy footpath beside the cross-country trail linking the two villages. Stop for a taste of Italy with lunch at Kilt, a friendly family-run restaurant with Piedmontese specialities such as agnolotti pasta stuffed with beef. The flavours provide a pleasant counterpart to the cheese blowouts in Montgenèvre. It may be in Provence, but the cuisine is Alpine: chunks of slowly melting raclette and bubbling fondues at L'Estable and Cadelsol restaurants, or gooey galettes at La Refuge.
I worked off the meal with a night-time snowshoe trek through the forest beneath Mont Janus's imposing peak led by Philippe Fraud (yes, that's his name) from the A-Peak ski school. Our goal was a meal in a Mongolian yurt deep in the forest, where Philippe had laid on local cheeses, Italian meats, country bread and vin chaud. The lights of Montgenèvre soon disappeared and were replaced by stars, the moonlight almost bright enough to guide us. The magic was made even better by the delicious food served in the cosy fire-lit interior of the yurt.
Montgenèvre isn't a place for throbbing nightlife. Restaurant-bars such as Le Graal and Jamy are lively enough, but the atmosphere is geared towards families and groups of people who prefer eating good food to getting tanked up. It all makes for a relaxing and self-indulgent experience, especially if you stay at Le Chalet des Dolines. This is a four-star MGM residence in the upmarket Hameau de l'Obélisque. The spacious flats are warmly furnished and the pool and spa facilities are excellent.
It's not surprising the Italians have invaded this small village that offers such good skiing for considerably less money than its northern Alpine neighbours. The Brits, though much fewer in number, surely aren't far behind.
* Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk), offers return fares from London to Oulx in Italy from £126 per person. Turin airport is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com). Shuttle buses from Oulx TGV station cost €5 one way.
* Peak Retreats (0844 576 0123; peakretreaks.co.uk) offers seven nights' self-catering in the Chalet des Dolines for £179 per person, based on five sharing. Equipment can be hired through Ski Set Au Chalet du Guide from £76.50 per week. A six-day adult lift pass costs €186. The snowshoe trek costs €35, book at the A-Peak ski school at the Espace Partenaire.
* Montgenèvre Tourism: 00 33 49 22 15 252; montgenevre.com.
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