Slopes with savoir faire: Val d'Isère still retains its centuries-old character

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

Polo, the ski-shop manager at Les Barmes de l'Ours, Val d'Isère's swankiest hotel, is the kind of fellow one finds only in winter-sports resorts and Bond movies: charming, cooler than cool, with an impressive air of worldliness for a man whose horizons are all jagged and snow capped.

He was 16 years old when, 34 winters ago, he first visited Val d'Isère from his home in Brittany. He fell in love with a local girl and decided to stay. Now their son, Tom, is in the French freestyle skiing team. Of course Polo is also a formidable operator on the slopes, although during our visit he was carrying a pronounced limp. Somehow it compounded his coolness. He ruefully admitted, however, that it was the consequence of chatting to someone while skiing quite slowly backwards and coming a dreadful cropper. As one who knows what it is to come a dreadful cropper while skiing quite slowly forwards, chatting to nobody, I sympathised.

It was another outsider, Jean-Claude Killy (from Alsace), who put Val d'Isère on the map with his extraordinary heroics in the 1968 Winter Olympics. Having learnt his skills in Val d'Isère, he won all three men's skiing gold medals, in the downhill, giant slalom and slalom.

In return, the old Savoie village put him on the map. The combined ski areas of Val d'Isère and neighbouring Tignes are known as Espace Killy. The territory contains more than 300km of pistes and some of the most dramatic scenery in the Alps. It is accordingly hugely popular. Yet the town itself – it can no longer honestly be described as a village – is appealingly French, if with a flavour of nearby Italy in the form of some rustic pizza restaurants.

At any rate, in the week we were there, in February last year, not once was it possible to close your eyes and be transported, by the braying noises all around, to London's Fulham Road. Or, for that matter, to Tverskaya street in Moscow. Courchevel and (especially) Méribel have had the Gallic life all but Anglicised and Russified out of them recently, and I'd expected to find the same of Val d'Isère. But despite all the fancy shopping opportunities, it has retained its centuries-old character, particularly in and around the delightful baroque church, dating from 1664.

The adjacent 1914-1918 war memorial, heartbreakingly inscribed with the same few surnames – no fewer than four young men from the stricken Bonnevie family – offers a poignant reminder that this was a working mountain village before anyone knew a slalom from a snowplough. Yet not long after the First World War, Val d'Isère caught the new British-led wave of enthusiasm for Alpine sports.

In 1937, a new road leading to the Col de l'Iseran pass, used the following year in the Tour de France, made the valley properly accessible. Then came the great Killy, and then the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, for which Val d'Isère was one of the skiing venues. A new international clientele descended. Yet there is something defiantly contradictory and non-cosmopolitan about Val d'Isère that I liked very much. It's not every Spar supermarket, even in the French Alps, that sells 2003 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru, at €420 a pop.

Not least of the many perks of staying at Les Barmes de l'Ours is that, although it stands practically at the foot of Val d'Isère's main Bellevarde run, the hotel will despatch a shuttle bus on demand to pick up guests who wind up at the bottom of other slopes, further along the valley. One afternoon my youngest child, Jacob, and I ended up at La Daille, a hamlet a couple of kilometres away. I phoned my wife Jane, who was back at the hotel and asked her to have the shuttle bus sent for us. "Could you please send the bus for my husband and son," she asked the chap at reception. "They're at La Daille." He reeled backwards, clapping both hands to his face in genuine horror. "They die!?" he cried, as if she might have broken such terrible news so equably. "No," she said, similarly shocked. "They're at La Daille!"

Is it everybody, or just my family and me, who has funnier experiences on skiing holidays than on all other kinds of holiday combined? And yet in the mountains, of course, comedy and tragedy are close cousins. Happily, it was only the former we invoked on the day that my three children and I, on a four-person chair lift, ascended into such a cold, murky mist that we decided not to dismount. For some reason the English sign "Mandatory Unloading" did not alert me to trouble, as an unvarnished "Get Off" might have done, and so we sailed serenely on and round, crashing not only into a language barrier but also the lift mechanism. The chap in charge was apoplectic as only a Frenchman can be who has watched an Englishman do something stupid. I got the strong feeling he'd seen it happen before, possibly earlier that day.

That was the only poor weather we suffered. Every other day was Alpine blue and white. We enjoyed some wonderful long lunches in what for my money – which admittedly was greatly diminished by mid-afternoon, for nothing hits the wallet quite like a French ski-slope family lunch – are among the finest mountain restaurants in the Alps. The pick of them was the studiedly eccentric La Fruitière, a Val d'Isère institution with a delightful if incongruous nautical feel, where they store your jackets in milk churns.

As for Les Barmes de l'Ours: it cannot yet claim to be a local institution, having opened only eight years ago, but it is well on the way. It's a fabulously located mountain-lodge style hotel named after the caves in which Alpine bears dwell, hence a huge mechanical bear in the lobby, which spends all day jerking its left paw up and down in what is meant to be a wave, but looks gloriously vulgar. We loved the bear and we loved Les Barmes.

The alpine-chic rooms were immensely comfortable, and the food was terrific (although I could not find a single bottle on the wine list for less than €50). But what I loved most of all was Polo's ski shop. When you started skiing on a student budget, as I did, struggling into your boots in cold, damp hangars with concrete floors, the luxury hotel boot room is one of life's enduring pleasures.

Brian Viner's Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn: The Great British Holiday (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) was voted Travel Book of the Year in the 2011 British Travel Press Awards

Travel essentials: Val d'Isère

Getting there

* Brian Viner travelled with Scott Dunn (020-8682 5050; scottdunn.com), which offers seven nights at Les Barmes de l'Ours from £2,120 per person. The price includes half-board accommodation, return flights from Gatwick or Heathrow to Geneva and private transfers.

* Val d'Isère can be reached from Geneva, Lyon, Grenoble or Chambéry.

Staying there

* Les Barmes de l'Ours Hotel & Spa, Val d'Isère (00 33 4 79 41 37 00; hotel-les-barmes.com).

Eating and drinking there

* Restaurant La Fruitière, Val d'Isère (00 33 4 79 06 07 17).

More information

* Val d'Isère offers seven-day ski passes from €255.50 (00 33 4 79 06 00 35; valdiserepass.com).

* Val d'Isère Tourist Office (00 33 4 79 06 06 60; valdisere.com)

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sport LIVEFollow the latest news and scores from today's Premier League as Liverpool make a blistering start against Norwich
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLESir Cliff Richard has used a candid appearance on an Australian talk show to address long-running speculation about his sexuality

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

    Sports coaching volunteer jobs

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Kaya Responsible Travel offer a variety of sp...

    Turtle Nesting and Coral Reef Conservation in Borneo

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: Volunteer with Kaya in Borneo and work on a p...

    Elephant research project in Namibia

    Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: If you have a passion for elephants and want ...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit