La Thuile: Blend French refinement and Italian gusto
Experience the best of two cultures with a holiday in La Thuile – a ski resort where you can country-hop on skis. By Leslie Woit
Saturday 15 October 2011
Pasta or foie gras? Chianti or chablis? Sunny slopes or powder pitch? You can have your cake and eat it too in the Italian resort of La Thuile. Under the gaze of Mont Blanc and deep in the heart of the foodie-friendly Aosta Valley, skiing here serves up all of the gusto of Italy alongside a soupçon of Gallic refinement. La Thuile has been connected by lift to La Rosière in France since 1986, so you can swoosh and glide between languages, weather, and cuisines all week long.
The last time I came here, it was as part of a group. After a week of ski touring around the Aosta Valley, we celebrated with a massive grolle – the traditional carved wooden vessel filled with hot grappa that you pass around in a circle. When I waved goodbye to my friends and our guide as they skied away to make the connection over to La Rosiere, the wind was howling and snow was bucketing down. It turned out that it had been a grolle too far. They spent the night huddled in a high-Alpine hut, the vital last T-bar link to France had shut at the last moment due to high winds leaving them stranded with only some cheese, chocolate and a slight hangover to lull them to sleep.
It wasn't all bad luck. At dawn, blue sky and deep powder awaited them; the beauty of having two weather systems in one holiday.
When I relate the tale to my guide, Eric Charamel, he explains: "It's normal that one day would be bad in Italy but sunny on the French side. You get more snow in La Thuile and more sun in La Rosiere. The border is not only political, it is geographical."
From the Aosta Valley, the clouds float up the mountain either one way or the other. Today, heavy cloud and wind are sloshing in from the south, so we're testing the theory and heading for France. We batten down our hoods and tighten our goggles in preparation for the typically high wind over the Little St Bernard Pass. Cresting the hill feels like I'm re-entering the earth's atmosphere. After a brisk facial exfoliation and flash-frozen fingers and toes, we slide past the border and over the top. Suddenly, the air is clear, the sun is blinding, the panorama explodes.
La Rosière claims to be one of the sunniest ski area in the country. With full southern exposure across the sprawling peaks of the Haute Tarentaise, the pistes are almost all smooth, rolling reds and blues. The sun immediately raises the temperature, and the wind is gone.
La Thuile and La Rosière share 160km of pistes between them. After exploring the top of this bijou area, we lunch in the piste-side hamlet of Les Eucherts at L'Ancolie, a pretty stone-and-pine lined restaurant with Savoyarde specialties. Knowing that dinner will be bringing its own pasta-filled rewards, it feels doubly decadent to be tucking into tartiflette and a pichet of Mondeuse.
The runs of Sainte-Foy are nearby, below which is the village of Le Miroir, a popular gastronomic destination. It's the perfect excuse to take advantage of La Thuile's other major attraction – heli-skiing. Heliskiing is not permitted in France, but if you take off and get dropped inside Italy, you can ski down into France.
"La Thuile has possibly the cheapest heli-sking in the Alps," Paolo Pieroni, a local guide, tells me over lunch. He says hiring a mountain guide costs €280 a day in Italy compared with €320 in France. In Switzerland, one heli-drop costs the equivalent of €250, compared with only €160 in La Thuile.
A popular route runs from the magnificent Rutor glacier (above) at 3,450m, where a long scenic descent to the Le Miroir lasts around 90 minutes. "You get out of the helicopter, ski down to 1,900m and stop at one of the best restaurants in the Tarentaise, Chez Merie," says Paolo. "It's cheaper than taking a taxi."
Always keen to save a few pounds, the next day we try to test the theory. Sadly, it's blowing too hard for us to make the glittering descent, so we head out to explore La Thuile. We're in fine intermediate cruising territory. Two high speed lifts, Les Suches cable car and the Bosco Express chair lift, whizz quickly up from base to mid-mountain. From here, blues and reds radiate out to Chaz Dura and a 360-degree panorama across an icy necklace of peaks, as well as to La Thuile's highest mountain, Le Belvedere.
From the top of Chaz Dura a long 11km piste winds through woods and past mountain huts, old military outposts and Second World War fortifications, all the way down to La Thuile. Only towards the bottom do we encounter more than a few other living souls: despite there being around 15,000 beds in La Thuile, most of them are in privately owned apartments, so numbers only swell on weekends and holidays, when the owners arrive from Turin and Milan.
All that terrain burns quality calories. Since the Aosta Valley is a secret foodie paradiso, it's piste maps and forks to the fore. Swoop down run four or seven and hang a left after Fourclaz for Maison de Neige, an austere stone military barracks built in 1924, whose specialities are carbonara and pappardelle with lobster. Visit rustic Le Riondet for thigh-girding raclette or Maison Carrel for cured ham to make you weep.
There are nine huts on the mountain, all designed to whet your appetite for the main event: dinner in town at the all-organic Le Coq au Vin in the Chalet Eden. The multi-course marathon includes homemade ravioli of goat cheese and sautéed crayfish, and lamb loin in a pistachio crust. Should the weather close in, it's always a good time to play pass the grolle. You can always hail a helicopter home later.
Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256 ; www.crystalski.co.uk) offers a week's half board at four-star Hotel Planibel from £669 per person with flights from Gatwick to Turin and transfers. A week's half board at four-star Hotel Miramonti costs from £779 per person with flights from Gatwick to Turin and transfers. Direct flights from seven other UK regional airports available at a supplement starting from £10.
From 9 January to Sunday 8 May, it's possible to go heli-skiing in La Thuile ski area. Located between Pointe Lechaud, Monte Miravidi, Mont Ouille, Mont Freduaz and the head of the Rutor glacier, with several helicopter pick up points and descents on the French and Italian sides. Each group of four skiers is accompanied by an Alpine guide, who also provides the safety equipment. Group departures take place from Les Suches and the Little St Bernard Pass, which can be reached with the La Thuile lift facilities. Price per person for groups of four skiers: one ascent from €160, two ascents from €260.
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