Warmth and cuisine make up for Pyrenees' lack altitude and plentiful snow
Saturday 16 January 2010
A scene from White Christmas flashed through my head as the train sped through France towards the Pyrenees. Just as Bing Crosby and chums sang in anticipation of snow in Vermont, I was hoping against hope that the forecast for rain in the Pyrenees would be wrong and that white fluffy stuff would magically appear in its place. Like Bing, I would be disappointed. You can't take plentiful snow for granted in the Pyrenees. It hasn't got the altitude and enviable snow record of the Alps. But, for the average visitor, it has ways of making up for that.
St-Lary Soulan was my base, one of the liveliest and most attractive of the nine resorts in the Hautes-Pyrénées department, its centre filled with pretty stone houses and half-timbered shops. The village meanders along the river Aure, its rocky banks and surrounding hills reminding me of Snowdonia. I think that perception was helped by the lack of snow on the hills and quite a lot of rain.
A bad cold left me unable to ski for the first couple of days, which coincided with balmy weather in the village. As I downed medicinal vin chaud outside the funky Izard Café Central, the thermometer read 15C. Strong winds had shut most of the runs at St-Lary's highest ski station at 2,400m, leaving many of those who had arrived for a week of pre-new year's eve festivities to throng the streets.
For a village of about 1,100 people, St-Lary Soulan is well stocked with restaurants, cafés and shops. Most stocked decently priced ski wear and local produce plus soft toys celebrating the region's favourite animals: bears and marmots. While the real marmots were busy hibernating, the village's resident bear was on show at the Maison de l'Ours. If you can stomach the rather high entrance fee of €6.50, you can visit the burly creature and watch a film about the local wildlife. Personally, I think the fee is better put towards a dish of duck confit at La Maison du Cassoulet on rue Vincent Mir.
The weather was creating havoc, though. Last month, St-Lary opened a new cable car that surpasses the old gondola as the fastest way to get from the village's 800m elevation to the first ski station at Pla d'Adet at 1,600m. It is also designed to cut down on car journeys, since the resort is keen to minimise its environmental impact. Unfortunately, the wind shut the cable car too, so I joined the long queue for the gondola to Pla d'Adet.
It was a sorry sight under stony skies. People were gamely walking over the bare ground and muddy patches towards the pistes, which normally would have been wide motorway runs. Broad streaks of brown earth separated the pistes, narrowing them considerably.
I took the free bus to Espiaube at 1,900m where I was hoping to get another cable car up to 2,400m. That was shut too. I could just about make out the half-pipe, devoid of snow. Strangely, this didn't seem to bother most people, especially the little ones. The bottom of the slope had been turned into an anarchic toboggan run, children joyfully flinging themselves down the hill while their parents carried them back up again. They weren't going to let something as trivial as a lack of snow spoil their ski holiday.
Indeed, making the most of the conditions seems to be an inevitable part of vacances here. The overwhelming majority of visitors are French, who regard the mountain range as their local playground, and drop by for a spot of skiing whatever the weather. Spaniards make up the next biggest group – not surprising, considering the border is only 15km away and the Spanish resorts are more expensive than their French counterparts. In fact, the Spanish flavour adds a pleasant dimension to St-Lary. Most of the bars offer tapas, and Spanish, rather than English, is the second language. Many of the region's inhabitants are descendants of refugees from the Spanish civil war, so restaurant and shop staff switch easily between the two languages.
Eventually, I was well enough to check out the skiing for myself, zooming up the new cable car to Pla d'Adet on the last day of the year. The sun had returned, even if the snow hadn't, and you can forgive a lot of things when the sky is blue. The snow cannons had kept the pistes in decent condition, and there were more patches of soft snow than I had envisaged. There were long queues too, as the higher slopes were shut again. But it didn't spoil the warm and friendly atmosphere. More warmth was awaiting in the Bergerie mountainside restaurant in the form of big bowls of cassoulet.
Even if the skiing was under par, you couldn't fault the food. There were the usual mountain cheesy favourites (fondue, tartiflette, raclette), best enjoyed at the restaurant La Tute in rue Vincent Mir (book ahead) or at L'Authentique Vignecois in neighbouring Vignec. The south-western French penchant for duck stretches into the Pyrenees, and the mountain range adds its own specialities in the form of Bigorre black pig and garbure, a thick soup of bacon, cabbage and whatever else is lying around.
The lack of snow over New Year meant families had to entertain their children once the thrills of tobogganing had worn off. St-Lary, unlike many Pyrenean towns, doesn't have its own natural thermal springs, but it makes up for it in the wellness centre at Sensoria. While children splash about the cave-like interior under shooting jets, parents can relax in the large thermal baths. A warning for men: if you don't own the tight swimming trunks the French demand in public pools, you have to stump up €12 for a pair at reception. No such restrictions were in place in the pool and hot tub in my residence at Lagrange's L'Ardoisière, which was close to my spacious flat.
So if the skiing leaves a lot to be desired and the weather is so changeable, is it worth it? Those who want snow-sure conditions in their ski-in, ski-out chalets should stick to the Alps. If skiing takes second place to a friendly atmosphere, atractive landscapes, gorgeous cuisine and a lack of pretension, try the Pyrenees. But you may like to book late to make sure of snow.
Travel essentials: St-Lary
*The writer booked train tickets with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk ), which offers return fares from London St Pancras to Tarbes from £110 per person. The nearest airports are at Tarbes and Pau, served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ), and at Toulouse, served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com). A free shuttle bus runs from Pau and Tarbes airports every Saturday timed with the Ryanair flights.
*A one-bedroom flat at the Lagrange Prestige residence L'Ardoisière (020-7371 6111; lagrange-holidays.co.uk ), sleeping four, ranges from £271 per week in low season to £892 per week during February half-term. Equipment can be hired through Intersport from £66 per person per week. A six-day adult lift pass costs from €149-€165.
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