You may or may not have ever heard of the Vallée Blanche, some of you may have even skied it, but regardless of your previous knowledge, the pictures of this stunning ski run speak for themselves. Essentially it is a completely off piste ski trail, 18km long, ungroomed, unpatrolled, and follows an enormous glacier down the Chamonix Valley, marking the border between Italy and France. You enter the Vallée Blanche at your own risk, preferably with a guide, as there are no end of crevasses waiting to swallow you up if you head the wrong way. From start to finish the whole experience is simply breathtaking, in the sense that it literally will take your breath away. I’d say it’s worth learning how to ski if only so you get the chance to do this at least once in your life!
It has to be done on a sunny day as the views are just as important, if not more important than the skiing. To reach the start you have to fight your way on to arguably one of the busiest ski lifts in the World and trying to get a space on it between 8 and 10am is every man for himself, yet as we recently discovered, heading back round for lap number 2 in the afternoon is more than worth the effort. After the pandemonium of the morning, at 2.30pm we had the lift to ourselves, and saw just 2 other people in the distance during the entire run down, easily 2 hours of solitude in what has to be one of the most stunning places on earth. Add to this tranquility the beauty of skiing home at dusk watching the sun creep its way downwards behind the mountains and it all makes for a pretty magical day.
Going somewhere new is always an amazing experience, especially when it’s in an entirely new part of the World, completely unknown and with no pre-conceptions. No matter what you encounter, it will be an adventure, and Eastern Europe definitely delivered. Our only basis for going was that we’d vaguely heard the skiing could be good, and the half term school holidays in France are as good a reason as any to get the hell out of the Alps. You can fly directly to Pristina, Kosovo from Geneva, so why not?
Some of the absolute highlights for me:
* One man chairlifts!
* Dinner for two for €3.50!
* A local Kosovar overhearing us speaking English in the street and proceeding to shake our hands, thank us profusely for our help in liberating his country, and paying homage to Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II!
* The wonderfully friendly and welcoming people
* The heavily armed ski patrollers on the pistes in Macedonia
* Hitching a ride with a cat ski operation in the back bowls of Popova Sapka in Macedonia
* Sledgers outnumbering skiers by at least 20:1!
* The severe looking guards at the Macedonia/Kosovo border seeing our skis, breaking out in to smiles and telling us through the hatch where to go next for the best skiing.
* The total and utter chaos on the roads to Brezovica ‘resort’, Kosovo, with cars, coaches and pedestrians all sharing a one track, rutted, snowy road.
* Getting a ride up to our hotel on the back of a skidoo.
* The touts flogging soft drinks, chocolate bars and cigarettes at the base of the chair lifts from rickety wooden tables.
What an endlessly fascinating and intriguing area, I don’t think I have ever come across a more welcoming, friendly and hilarious people. In both Kosovo and Macedonia there seems to be no logic, very few rules, and a definite lack of urgency. The lifts in the tiny ski areas may or may not open and if they do it might only be for half an hour.
What a wonderful place, we’ll most certainly be back!
Well I don’t need too many words to describe this one, the pictures very much speak for themselves, even to those who have no knowledge and no interest of skiing! The European winter so far has been practically non-existent; easily the worst start to a winter in the Alps I can ever remember. Christmas and New Year were a nightmare, bare pistes and lots of angry holiday-makers, and January has been pretty snow-free so far, but finally, finally, the heavens opened last week and provided us with the base we need and at long last, the first powder day of the season!
Up until this weekend I must admit that my enthusiasm for skiing was starting to wane… Two months of attempting to ski on grass and ice will do that to even the keenest sportsman (!) But last weekend restored all my faith in the white fluffy stuff, and team this with blue sky, amazing pals and an obscene amount of brilliant banter, it all came together to provide one of the best ski days I’ve ever had.
So it’s been a slow start to Winter in the European Alps by anyone’s standards, a meagre amount of snow in November to get us all excited about skiing, followed by weeks of mild, sunny weather causing what little snow there was to gradually disappear and meaning panic for anyone working in the tourist industry. Most of the Chamonix ski areas were set to open early December yet barely managed to scrape a few slopes open for the Christmas week. We left here before Christmas desperately hoping for some of the white stuff on our return… And thank goodness, we did arrive back to Winter, rather than an even more extended Autumn! The Valley is now thankfully covered in white, although snow cover on the pistes is still the worst I’ve ever seen it for this time of year. There’s an awful amount of grass poking out of the pistes and the artificial snow canons are in full flow, plus it’s well below freezing every day so it’s all about layering up appropriately before leaving the house! But the mountains look beautiful, the sunsets are stunning and it’s always good to be back on the snow, regardless of of how good (or poor!) the skiing is.
Winter is coming to the mountains!! It’s getting darker, much much colder and the snow is imminent. It keeps falling high up and we’ve had some teaser flakes on the ground down here, but we’re still waiting with baited breath to see when REAL winter is going to hit. A few resorts have tentatively opened across Switzerland, France and Italy and getting back on the skis was as exciting as ever, but as always happens at this time of year, it’s hard to let go of summer! We’re still clinging on to the beautiful sunny and autumnal walks and the wonderful feelings that come with with hiking up a stunning mountain trail and breathlessly reaching the top, knowing you’ve just done something brilliant.
But this last week I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to end quite yet! Snowy walks under blue skies are still possible, just! Once the skiing kicks in properly I’ll be all over it and love every second, but I think when skiing people often forget their surroundings and just don’t have the time to stop and appreciate the mountains in the way you can when travelling uphill, and a lot slower! That’s why ski touring is so special. You drink it all in on the way up, appreciating every second and every peak, then when you finally reach that summit, strap on your skis and get your reward, you know you’ve earned every turn.
We’ve done some wonderful early season ski tours already this year and fingers crossed for a good winter so that there will be many more to come, but this week a friend suggested a snowy winter walk, and we managed to sneak one in, maybe the last of the year, and if so it was a good one! Forest trails are so beautiful in winter, and this is the perfect time of the year to enjoy them. In a few weeks they’ll be buried until spring so make the most of them while you still can!
It’s a sentence most people dread. September in England signalled the end of summer and back to school which inevitably brought with it short, dark days characterised by cold and rain. September meant Winter was coming which generally led to negative grumbling and griping about the weather and how hard done by everyone was! Winter and positivity were two words not often associated with each other! I think it’s safe to say that England doesn’t really get much of a seasonal weather pattern, it can get slightly warmer in the summer and marginally colder in the winter, but in general the weather pretty much stays the same, so although I was aware of ‘seasons’, I’d never really experienced them.
You grow up dreading winter and desperately waiting for summer, so how I ended up living in a mighty cold ski resort and itching for winter is anybody’s guess! Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the summer, especially in the Alps. It’s by far the most convenient season and I am genuinely sad that it’s pretty much over for this year, but the wonderful thing about living in the mountains is that you get four distinct seasons and you know exactly when it changes. This year the summer here has been pretty dismal, as I believe it has been across most of Europe, but almost as a special treat to make up for it, September has been absolutely glorious. Up until last week the sun has been shining and it has been genuinely warm; shorts and flip-flops weather still. We’ve been climbing, hiking, running and even swimming in the lakes, not what you’d expect from an often ‘dreary’ month. But this week we have clearly felt it ‘turn’. It has suddenly gotten very cold in the mornings and evenings, the trees are all turning fiery red and golden and the darkness is rolling in earlier and earlier. It’s such a snap change, Summer becomes Autumn almost overnight, not Winter, Autumn.
This is why I love it here so much. Everyone enjoys the summer but as soon as it cools down and the trees start to change, the thoughts inevitably turn to winter and the chat turns to skis, lift passes and winter plans. But before all that excitement begins we get a grace period where we get to ease out of summer mode, eek out the sunshine as much as possible, but gradually start to get our warm clothes down from the loft and think about when the snow will come.
In the vein of enjoying every last drop of that sunshine, last week I went for a wonderful long run along the Chamonix valley, starting and finishing at 2 different points which resulted in a reasonably long wait for a bus at the other end. Again sitting and waiting for a bus is a prospect that conjures up images of miserable commuters huddled under a rainy bus stop. It’s a strange place to count your blessings, but I couldn’t help but smile as I sat on a bench in the sunshine facing a spectacular mountain range bisected by a stunning glacier, and to top it off, the trees in the foreground were at that perfect autumnal point where they can’t quite decide whether they want to be red or green.
It’s the little things that make the difference… I love autumn!
This is an age old question which I’m sure countless numbers of people have asked themselves at some point in their lives. I would be tempted to say that the majority of people would automatically say ‘beach’ simply because they have spent more time on beaches and very little or no time in mountains, but also because our society tells us that beach holidays are more exotic and the obvious choice for a summer break.
Growing up in the United Kingdom it’s safe to say that we don’t get much experience of impressive mountainous regions or golden sandy beaches, our highest peak being Ben Nevis at 1344m and the hottest average summer temperatures hovering around the mid-twenties. Holidays mean ‘getting away’ and we grow up believing that hot places and beaches are the only option worth considering. This is where the rise in low cost airline flights has come from to countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy; people want a cheap escape to somewhere in the sun, and understandably so. Why would you want a holiday to a freezing snowy place if you spend the other 50 weeks of the year grinding away in a rainy, cold city? Most Brits live in landlocked counties and only see a beach once a year on an annual summer holiday; sand and sea are exciting, different and best of all, cheap. To go on a beach holiday a family needs nothing more than themselves and swimming gear, no expensive hiring of equipment or paying elevated prices for lifts or accommodation. In my experience children couldn’t care less and often have no awareness of whether they are staying in a 5* hotel or in a tiny tent on a crowded campsite so it’s easy to see why beach holidays win for a family.
Skiing holidays are viewed as only for the wealthy and privileged, a pastime which is only ever viewed in magazines or on television for the majority of people. It’s too foreign, too difficult and too expensive, why not just get a cheap flight to Spain with your togs and towel and you’re all set for a holiday? But those who have never visited the Alps or indeed any high mountain range I find are often extremely naive. What people don’t seem to realise is that in the summer months the mountains serve a very different purpose. I remember heading out to the French Alps in July aged 18 to work my first ‘summer season’ and several people asking me if I was going to be a ski instructor. I found this hard to understand because firstly even at 18 and having never stood on a pair of skis, I was aware that you probably needed qualifications and experience to be an instructor, and secondly, it was the summer, didn’t people realise that snow is generally a winter phenomenon??
However I imagine this is a completely different story for those growing up in countries with a more temperate climate or surrounded by mountain scenery such as the States or a lot of mainland Europe. Much of these continents are covered in spectacular peaks which their inhabitants grow up admiring and using in every way, and perhaps these people would have little interest in a beach. You can’t climb it, conquer it, travel down it quickly. I think my opinion of how people view mountains and beaches is very much British as this is the main pool of experience that I can draw from. With the exception of a hardy handful, Brits generally don’t grow up roaming the hills and valleys, children will generally choose building a sandcastle over donning a pair of hiking boots and trailing after dad over the Yorkshire Moors. Most people’s earliest experiences of holidays are on the beach in the sun and this is therefore imprinted in to their brain as what holidays are all about.
But I feel people are missing out on what these places of natural beauty are all about and often it takes an inspirational teacher or a school trip to broaden a young mind as to what nature has to offer. How many of us have walked away from the crowds at a beach and simply sat down to admire the tranquility of the waves, or snuggled up on a rugged coastline to watch the ferocity of a storm? In a similar vein, on those annual skiing trips how many tourists avoid the over-crowded mountain restaurants, take a packed lunch and find a peaceful spot to eat where they can really take in the beauty of a mountain landscape? I worry that ‘holidays’ have become such a desperation for over-worked and fed up people that most don’t even consider where they are going anymore. Wherever is cheap and hot, nothing else matters.
So back to my original question, having spent many a happy summer working on the south and west coasts of France, and having had the fortune to experience the East Coast of Australia in all its glory, I love the beach and the sea. I fell in love with the ‘beach’ way of life in Australia, so simple, so chilled, so beautiful. Scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking, it’s all hard to beat, but for me the mountains will always win. They are a geographical phenomenon and awe-inspiring doesn’t even come close. To me they are nature’s greatest achievement and will be there reigning supreme when everything else is long gone. Life in the mountains is constantly varied and I love that there are 4 very distinct seasons, all of which are magical in their own way. Rather than being a miserable, cold, dark period that everyone hates and wishes away, winter is highly anticipated and never long enough. Every year I think I like winter more and then when summer arrives I change my mind, until the following December when my love of snow is rekindled! Being in the mountains in winter, completely alone with not a soul in sight, having pushed your skis uphill for hours, you have truly earned your turns downhill, and in the summer, having got up at first light and climbed a steep, rocky and exposed ridge, standing on the top of that peak looking down at everything below is a feeling that cannot be beaten.
Beach or mountains? I think deep down, everyone is one or the other. It’s important to experience both. I’ll always spend time on the beach and in the sea, but the mountains will always take my breath away.
Living in a well known, massively overcrowded ski resort can become trying at times, especially during the school holidays. Being a non native myself I have no grounds to complain about the influx of expats and tourists in Chamonix, however it does nothing to dampen the irritation of never-ending queues wherever you go, from ski lifts to supermarkets, an endless sea of clueless punters trying to make themselves understood and carrying their skis as if they were a transporting a small child.
Couple this with a pitiful amount of snow falling in December, and the winter season was off to a bad start, with many of the pisted areas becoming so hard packed with artificial snow that it was more like ice skating than skiing.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, once you’ve lived somewhere for a while you start to learn how to escape the crowds and find the places that remain quiet and untouched, even in the busiest periods. Having only discovered the joys of ski touring in the last few years, and the pleasure and solitude it brings, I still marvel at how just a small amount of effort uphill can bring the finest rewards. Often the reward you are seeking is that all important powder stash, or the best snow around that can’t be reached from a piste. But sometimes no matter how heard you search, the reality is that the snow is pretty awful everywhere, and the best you can hope for is a day filled with beautiful views, fine company, a good lunch (!) and most of, total avoidance of those icy, crowded pistes, resulting in a long run down with no-one else around (even if it does involve a bum slide at the end!)