There's something familiar about the slopes of Formigal

Colin Nicholson on the mapping of a Spanish ski resort that is new to the British

The recently expanded ski area of Formigal is the latest buzz for skiers – its new, high-speed chairlifts make it Spain's biggest resort, and the introduction of direct flights from the UK now put it in easy reach. But one thing about this destination is curiously familiar: the stylised, angular signatures in the bottom right-hand corner of the piste map of Frédérique and Pierre Novat.

You will see the same signatures on the maps of Tignes, Val d'Isère and Chamonix in France, and Grandvalira in Andorra, Formigal's better-known neighbour in the Pyrénées. So who are the Novats, and are they responsible for every wrong turn and non-existent connection?

"Oh no," laughs Frédérique, when I speak to her at her home outside Lyons in France. "The resorts tell us what pistes to draw on the scan. I just paint the picture." The Novats don't so much produce maps as create panoramas – and with the care that any work of art requires.

Their singular profession began when Frédérique's father, Pierre, was scraping a living working as a Cubist-influenced artist in Val d'Isère in the 1960s. One day, Pierre learned that Courchevel was looking for an artist to produce the sort of panoramas that Austrian and Swiss resorts were developing. It eventually became the family's main business, with Pierre teaching his daughter his craft.

Pierre Novat died in 2007 but Frédérique, now 53, still signs the painting with both their names in an homage to her father, while her brother Arthur, 50, does what she calls the infographie – mapping the information the resort provides on to digital scans of her paintings.

In Formigal's case, these include the 137km (85 miles) of pistes and the six mountain dining areas. But why should a modern resort such as Formigal employ such a quaint system? Surely a photo or a GoogleEarth projection would be more accurate?

"An overhead projection would give no sense of the relief," Frédérique explains, "while in a photo most runs would be hidden by other mountains."

In fact, it is because the resort is now spread over four valleys that the skill of an artist is most needed. "What my technique allows me to do is to cheat," says Frédérique. "You have this small mountain in the way. I can gently distort the landscape so that you can see the pistes behind."

Formigal wanted Frédérique to emphasise the resort's free-ride zone in the fourth and furthest valley, accessible by what they call a Ratrak – a fun string of button lifts pulled along by a caterpillar-tracked vehicle.

Although the resort is principally marketing its network of cruisy blues and rolling reds to families, it has a host of off-piste itineraries which you can easily explore without a guide. This topography is expertly represented by Frédérique.

Creating the image takes two to four months. She first flies over the area, taking photos and making sketches, and then skis or boards it. She then creates a first draft in black and white, which she sends to the resort for approval. Only then does she add the colour, drawing in the details such as villages, roads and woods before handing the scan over to her brother.

Hopefully, Formigal will soon ask Arthur to draw in a piste and chairlift between the village and the base of the mountain. At the moment, the resort's most obvious shortcoming is that you need to catch what looks disconcertingly like a red London bus for the five-minute ride to the slopes.

Recently much of Frédérique's time has been taken up with drawing expanding villages and summer vistas – reflecting the changing ecological environment in the mountains – although this year Formigal is enjoying heavy snowfalls.

Now with the changing economic environment adding to everyone's woes, collectors of paper piste maps may have to wait a while until they can add a new Novat to their collection.

Compact Facts

Colin Nicholson travelled to Formigal with Thomson (0871 971 0578; thomsonski.co.uk), which offers seven nights half-board at the four-star Aragon Hills Hotel and Spa starting at £559 and at the three-star Hotel Nievesol from £469. Both prices are based on two sharing and include return flights from Gatwick to Huesca with Monarch, and transfers.

Flights can also be booked independently through Pyrenair (pyrenair.uk.com).

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