Skiing, France: Slowly up the Valley of Death

Sarah Gracie follows Hannibal into the bandit country of the Savoy and learns how to ski on the flat - well nearly

What a place to get to. The village of Bessans lies at 1,700m in the French Alps. It is almost equidistant between Lyons and Turin and a sled-ride from the pass where Hannibal took his elephants over the Alps. It is one of the wildest areas of France, known for its frontier communities of brigands and bandits. For centuries it boasted a lively trade in smuggled salt and relics: the Turin Shroud itself was shuttled back and forth between Italy and the Savoy capital of Chambéry by groups of robber pilgrims. And we were here for a skiing holiday.

What a place to get to. The village of Bessans lies at 1,700m in the French Alps. It is almost equidistant between Lyons and Turin and a sled-ride from the pass where Hannibal took his elephants over the Alps. It is one of the wildest areas of France, known for its frontier communities of brigands and bandits. For centuries it boasted a lively trade in smuggled salt and relics: the Turin Shroud itself was shuttled back and forth between Italy and the Savoy capital of Chambéry by groups of robber pilgrims. And we were here for a skiing holiday.

The idea was to learn how to cross-country ski on the flat, while taking in the views. In addition, the brochure had promised trips to medieval mountain villages, Neolithic caves and raclette feasts in the evening. But arriving on the shining plateau for our first lesson, we were confronted with swarms of brightly coloured people flashing past at approximately 40 miles an hour. Jerome, our guide, dressed in wraparound shades and a little padded gilet, took us through the basics. We had a choice between two main techniques: le skating and l'alternatif.

L'alternatif is a time-honoured means of locomotion, practised by everyone from Norwegian trappers to Antarctic seal- hunters, in which you keep the skis parallel. Le skating is a modern invention for a culture addicted to speed. You cutlass along on narrow blades, the undersides waxed for good measure. No prizes for guessing what we opted for.

But even l'alternatif turns out to have its complications. Getting yourself in the required grooves is OK, especially as a snowplough comes by and cuts new ones every morning. But once in there, going up or down or turning the corner is another matter. Just as you are attempting to lift your left ski out of its groove to do a bit of braking, a very delicate operation, someone sizzles past and you find yourself flat on your face again.

"Le skating, c'est chouette," said Jerome wistfully, as he watched them flash past. But he didn't desert his faithful post as we tumbled and staggered up again. Soon we started to achieve a certain locomotion: shuffling and inglorious perhaps, but locomotion none the less. We did our best to ignore the swarms of seven-year-olds streaking past in brightly coloured salopettes and goggles, even when the mere friction from their speed was enough to send us tumbling. Soon we started to enjoy ourselves and were ready to do "une p'tite ballade", as Jerome put it. We set off down the shining valley, surrounded on every hand by 4,000m peaks. We passed rivers rolling with steam and fairytale forests with trees all sparkling with hoar-frost. We passed tiny stone oratories with plastered walls and statues of votive saints. And we saw the marks of the liÿvre variable (snow hare) and chamois in the freshly fallen snow. "C'est chouette, n'est-ce pas?" said Jerome. "C'est chouette!" we agreed.

By day three we decided it was time for an adventure: a trip up the Averole valley to see the Charbonel glacier. "Are you sure?" asked Jerome, anxious. We insisted. The trip was flagged in the brochure. It included tiny villages and the famous glacier, whose image we had already seen in the 15th-century chapel of Bessans in a picture of the Nativity.

Jerome checked it out with our hotelier, M Clappier, who knows the mountains well. He said that it would take us half an hour to ski up to the village and a further hour on foot to the glacier. Altogether, a "bonne p'tite promenade" which would have us back by lunchtime if we started early. "M Clappier is very fit," said Jerome doubtfully. This did it for my husband, who settled into the obstinacy of which he is capable on such occasions.

Compasses were laid out on the bed; extra pairs of socks purchased; and we were up at the crack of dawn. It was minus 20 when we started out and it was not long before we were feeling every one of those missing degrees. We had entered the Valley of Death. There was a vast silence. Not a ray of sunshine penetrates here; and on every hand were the sinister scars where avalanches have trotted boulders down the mountain before hurling them into the ravine below.

In an hour of trudging, the only other sign of human life was a group of desperadoes with red stockings over their heads. Instead of kidnapping us they positioned themselves at the bottom of a frozen waterfall with more tiers of icicles than a wedding cake and started climbing it with picks. This sport, designed for sociopaths and would-be suicides, is known as l'escalade des cascades.

But soon things began to improve. The sun struck the upper flanks of the summits. The odd little bird was heard. And we began to enter the enchanted world of the mountain villages. They were all built to a formula. Thick stone walls and narrow streets conserve warmth; low windows catch the winter light; and roofs made of enormous slabs of schist were designed to withstand snowfalls that can reach two metres in a night.

Every house has a deep wooden balcony at the front, which serves as a drying shed for stacks of logs. Until recently, the villagers practised cohabitation, not the last word in urban sexual behaviour, but an essential means of survival. Mules, goats and cows lived in one half of a basement room while the family slept in the other. Their manure was placed in a trench beneath the beds to serve as a primitive hot water bottle. This harsh way of life was broken by a weekly trip to Bessans for Sunday Mass - a chance to stock up on provisions and gather gossip that it was hard to pass up. And many are the stories of people taken by avalanche on their way to or from the messe de dimanche.

At this point Jerome dropped a small bombshell on us. It had taken us four hours to do what M Clappier said would take one. The sun was low in the sky and we would have to turn back. A tussle followed which tested this link of Anglo-French relations to the utmost. (Jerome could not understand why we wanted to continue under these conditions; my husband couldn't understand how he could contemplate turning back).

In the end we came up with a compromise: we would take off our skis and walk to the next bend in the road and see if we got a view of the glacier from there. We were in luck. As we rounded the bend, the glacier appeared on our right, floating eerily just as it was in the painting. The only adjective for it is "cold" - a vast crystal of turquoise ice, it sends out metallic rays. Lilac shards at the edges appear like the last blood fleeing tissue.

"Ça suffit?" asked Jerome. We agreed that it did. Something about the glacier had given us all the shivers. If you stood around here much longer it would reach into your bloodstream and freeze you from the inside out. Going down we were punished for our hubris. Without downhill breaking techniques, it turned out to be harder than going up. By the time we reached the bottom we had fallen over so often we were crawling on hands and knees.

When we collapsed in a log shelter at the foot of the mountain Jerome took pity on us and brought the van round so that we had only a few feet to walk. This expedition finished off our appetite for adventure. We spent the rest of the week skiing along the sunlit plateau like the rest of the world. And we got heavily into the aprÿs-ski.

Bessans has no McDonald's, Swedish sauna, or nightclub. It is visited only by the French and the main aprÿs-ski activity is village life itself. The dramatis personae quickly unfold before you. There was Denise at the fromagerie, who gave us a wonderful lecture on how to make Tomme de Savoie. We also got to know M Clappier, our hotelier, whose ancestors went to Rome to learn Italian painting techniques and built the altarpieces in the local chapel.

Finally there was Ambroisine. A tiny woman in a flowered apron, she serves pitchers of vin chaud in her parlour, an interior unchanged for a century. Ambroisine's, as it is known, is such an institution that it has even appeared in Marie-Claire and Vogue. But Ambroisine is unimpressed. She continues to do exactly as she has always done, serving her pitchers with a clear eye and a ready smile.

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