Skiing in France: Invaders of the lost Arc

Quiet slopes and cosy village life... Matt Carroll is sold on Bonneval

When I first clapped eyes on the village of Bonneval-sur-Arc, I thought I'd stumbled across a specially designed tourist attraction. It's like a recreation of how French mountain life used to be before the arrival of super-resorts such as nearby Val d'Isère – with its sprawling, "pseudo-rustic" hotels. Bonneval, however, is the real deal: a working village where life seems hardly to have changed in centuries.

Tucked away at the end of the Maurienne Valley in the central Alps, it's little more than a scattering of rough grey stone houses huddled together against the elements. Most of the people who reside along these narrow little streets still earn a living with their hands, just as their great-grandfathers did: building, baking and farming. The air is thick with the telltale smell of wood smoke and manure.

Many of France's most celebrated resorts – including Morzine and Les Deux Alpes – started as just this sort of sleepy village before skiing took over. But in Bonneval, life has remained simple for 150 years. There are strict planning controls on any development here – even telephone cables have to be buried.

However, it's not just a pretty face. Perched at 1,800m and surrounded by powder-packed peaks, it's sheltered enough to remain snowy until late May. More importantly, though, the slopes are often deserted.

"Bonneval is like a secret place," said ski-guide Vincent, as we chugged our way up the mountainside. "You never have to wait for the lift, the slopes are nice and quiet and the snow is always good." He may well have been biased towards his local area, but the evidence was there in front of us. Having jumped on to the Vallonnet chairlift for the five-minute ride from the village to the ski area, the three of us arrived to find just a handful of people helping themselves to the empty slopes.

Bonneval is fairly small compared to most other French resort, with just 25km of pistes. There are 21 runs altogether, with a blue/green bias, all of them funnelling conveniently back down to the middle of the mountain, where you're only a few metres away from a glass of vin chaud at Le Criou – the only on-mountain eatery.

If you're here with a mixed-ability group, this means you can go your separate ways and find each other again later, without the frantic arm-waving or expensive texting that a mid-mountain rendezvous normally entails.

Vincent knew the place like the back of his weathered hand, and had no trouble tailoring the runs to match our moods. Which was a good thing, because my girlfriend Maria was on skis and I was snowboarding – something that usually requires a compromise on someone's part (either steepness or pace).

Here, however, Maria was happily spent the morning cruising the Troglodyte and Tétras blues – which gently wind their way down from 2,640m to 2,200m – while Vincent showed me some cheeky little powder stashes and shortcuts inbetween.

All morning I'd been nervously scanning the scenery for powder junkies coming to steal my lines. But they never appeared – and so I had that rarest of treats: a whole face of fresh powder to myself.

Aside from the handy layout and quiet slopes, the other thing that makes this place special is the scenery. After taking a drag-lift (there's a few of those, unfortunately) and a couple of chairs up to Pointe D'Andagne at 3,000m, we paused to appreciate what looked like the whole of the Alps spread out around us.

Seen from on high, the chiselled peaks gave me an indication of just how much backcountry terrain there is around here: valley after valley of virgin snow disappearing into the distance.

Bonneval's bijou layout meant that it took just 20 minutes to go from standing seemingly on top of the world to kicking the snow off our boots outside a cosy restaurant back in the village. Tucked away on one of the side-streets close to the church, dining at the Auberge d'Oul is like eating in someone's home.

We opened the tiny door to be greeted by a blast of warm air from the wood-burning stove in the corner. Four or five little tables were congregated around it, French couples sitting elbow-to-elbow, ruddy-cheeked and bright-eyed from a morning of fresh air. The boeuf bourguignon was just what I'd been dreaming of; homemade and piping hot. Better still it was only €13 for two of us, including wine. Upstairs are four rooms (two doubles; two sleeping four people each) plus a dormitory sleeping 12. Much of the accommodation in Bonneval is like this: simple, cosy and cheap. A double at Auberge d'Oul costs just €36 per person.

If you feel like venturing further afield, there's plenty more skiing further down the valley. In fact there are seven villages altogether, strung out along the floor of the Maurienne. They provide access to more than 125km of skiable terrain. All the villages are accessible by a free shuttle bus, allowing you to ski a different area every day.

We tried Val Cenis, where there are 56 runs to explore. They comprise a mix of steep, ungroomed blacks and tree-lined blues, all accessed by gondolas and high-speed chairs. And as with Bonneval, the views are incredible; at the top of the TS4 Met lift you can see right across into Italy, with the Mont Cenis Lake spread out below.

There are more slope-side eateries here, though. My favourite was La Fema, which has an enormous sundeck that's perfect for catching some post-lunch rays. As with Bonneval's Le Criou, it's perched at the funnelling point for three different runs, giving you the option of separating from the group without getting lost.

After yet another day of sunshine and blues skies, we dropped in to the village of Lanslebourg on the valley floor to fill up on homemade crepes with banana and Chantilly cream at La Ramasse.

By the end of the week we were regulars here, the owner, Christelle, dispensing with the menu and cracking on with our order the moment we walked through the door. We weren't getting special treatment; it's just what village life is like.

Travel essentials

Getting there

* The writer travelled by train from London to Chambery (via Paris) with Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) and TGV. Return journeys available from £109. Alternatively, a range of airlines serve Grenoble airport, from where a transfer bus is available from Grenoble every Saturday, costing €70. Pre-booking is essential. Call Maison de Val Cenis (00 33 4 79 05 23 66; info@valcenis.com)

Staying there

* A one-bedroom apartment (sleeping up to four) at Residence les Alpages (00 33 3 21 30 79 88; les-alpages.com) in Val Cenis costs from €590 per week.

More information

* Haute Maurienne: hautemaurienne.com

* Savoie Mont Blanc region: savoie-mont-blanc.com

* Bonneval: bonneval-sur-arc.com

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