Swap the stress and expense of flying for an adventure to the Alps through the sprawling hills of France, says Ashwin Bhardwaj
I’VE spent far too much time in Geneva airport: delayed trains, volcanic ash clouds and frozen engines have all conspired to keep me on terminal floors instead of mountain slopes.
With transfers and trains at either end, flights to ski resorts are stressful and expensive. So this year, I decided to combine the essential journey to the Alps with another of my favourite activities: the road trip. You can get all the way from London to the Alps in one day, but given that a true road trip is as much about the journey as the destination, I broke my drive up over two days, stopping to enjoy the French countryside and towns en-route.
Our first obstacle: traffic on the M20 to Folkestone. Fortunately, the voodoo technology in our car’s sat-nav knew about the upcoming crash, suggested an alternative route, and within four hours of leaving home, we had driven onto the Eurotunnel car transport, been carried under the English Channel, and arrived in Calais. The motorways of France are astoundingly empty, largely thanks to the toll system, so you quickly eat up the miles. The countryside isn’t the most inspiring, with green grain fields rolling into the distance, but there are plenty of charming, historical towns, well sign-posted from the motorway, where you can pull over for lunch.
We arrived in Rheims mid-afternoon. Having freshened up at the hotel, we went for a stroll. Rheims was integral to French royal history as the coronation site for many French kings. The enormous cathedral was badly damaged during the First World War, but in a moment of poetic justice, it was at Rheims that the Allies received the German surrender in May 1945. The now restored 13th century cathedral is spectacular – the interior is cavernous, but it’s the intricately carved exterior that truly grabs your attention – sculptures and adornments cover every surface, and soaring buttresses add a visual balance to the two towers.
Rheims is also the largest town in the Champagne region. I couldn’t leave without exploring the cellars of the world’s oldest champagne house: Ruinart. Grapes from the region are blended and aged in chalk caves up to 38 metres below ground. Cellar masters hold a vinotheque (wine library) of previous blends to ensure that the taste remains consistent during the two-stage process: first a still wine is blended from up to three grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier); this wine is then decanted into the familiar champagnes bottles, before a yeast and sugar mix (knows as lees) is added for the secondary fermentation, producing bubbles. The lees are removed through a process known as riddling, a champagne cork is applied, and the finished article is aged in cellars.
At parties it’s always a race to quaff as much champagne befor it runs out. So to have the chance to try several side-by-side, overseen by a wine master, was an opportunity not to be missed. I became aware of variations in scent and taste, of how one vintage could taste wildly different to another produced just two years before, and of subtleties in colour. All of a sudden, I began to understand how people could spend years studying the impact of terrain, climate and maturation – I could taste the difference.
After the tasting, we had dinner, accompanied, of course, by Ruinart. Each course was matched to a different vintage of Ruinart rosé champagne. My eyes (and taste-buds) were agog at how the flavours and fizz interplayed.
The following morning, after a suitably lazy breakfast, we pulled out of Rheims and continued our journey south. Before long, we reached the Jura Mountains, where the plains of France meet the foothills of the Alps. The landscape sprung to life, with rolling hills replacing the plains, and mountains marching into the distance as we skirted Geneva. By now we could clearly see the snow-capped giants of the Alps, and we pulled over to eat our lunch of baguettes and cheese, with the domed peak of Mont Blanc majestically dominating our view.
The autoroute then changed character in order to navigate the dramatic landscape, becoming steep bends, narrow tunnels and sweeping viaducts. It is one of the most awe-inspiring roads in Europe – and an astonishing feat of engineering – but intimidating to drive, with precipitous drops on either side. It is not known as The White Motorway for nothing and we could still see snowdrifts at the side of the road. If you consider taking this route, then snow chains are a bare minimum, and I would recommend winter tyres and an intelligent All-Wheel-Drive system, as we had on our car.
The road flattens out as you approach Chamonix but the vista remains impressive – the U-shaped valley is a steep-sided glaciated affair, with enormous mountains hulking over the plain, and cable cars climbing vertiginously up to the legendary ski fields. To reach Courmayeur, you have to cross the French-Italian border, which is under Mont Blanc itself. The 11-kilometre-long Mont Blanc Tunnel is a monotonous experience, and it was with some relief that we emerged into the bright afternoon sunshine of the Valle D’Aoste. We checked into our hotel, and relaxed on the terrace with a prosecco, before getting an early night in preparation for the slopes.
Unlike the French mega-resorts, in which you would be forgiven for thinking you were in England, Sweden or Russia by listening to the accents, Courmayeur is a local affair; a boutique resort for the wealthy of Turin and Milan. The Italians don’t treat ski holidays like the Brits, for whom it’s a mad dash for first lifts, and afternoons knocking back Jagerbombs; for visitors to Courmayeur, it’s more about sedate runs, and a long lunch with plenty of wine. The feel and pace of the resort is much slower than anything I’ve encountered before, with lift queues that are almost enjoyable, rather than the elbows-out scrum of other ski areas.
Courmayeur is definitely an intermediate resort: Italians love their piste-skiing, and the corduroy-perfect slopes are wide, smooth and wonderfully maintained. The mogul runs are hard to find, and small compared to “Les Bosses” on the French side of the mountain but that’s not to say challenging skiing can’t be found here. On the contrary, Courmayeur is a stop on the Freeride World Tour, and fresh tracks are but a short hike from the main ski area. As always, hire a guide, but you can find fresh snow for days, or even weeks, after a snowfall – long after Verbier and Chamonix have been tracked out by the powder-hounds. And the heli-skiing here is great value. Those in the know will do a few runs in the morning, before meeting their families for lunch. A rocky ridge separates the sunny front side from the tree-lined backside of the mountain. Pay close attention to your piste map on the first day, as it can be confusing to work out which side of the mountain a piste will lead you. Beginners are best to stick to the front side, as the narrow paths through the trees are something of a bottleneck; the combination of crowds, ice, and converging pistes can be intimidating.
But Courmayeur is about more than just skiing. “It’s a real place,” explains Amin Momen of Momentum Ski, “which is why I decided to settle here. It doesn’t just shut down in April; it’s got a sense of community all year round. As you walk through the streets at aperitivo time, there’s a buzz about the place. This is a boutique resort – it’s not mass tourism.”
You can feel that authenticity in the cobbled streets as the mountains close and the bars fill up. Aperitivo is the northern Italian tradition of complimentary canapés served between 5pm and 9pm in the evening – any bar in town will have a tapas-style selection of cured hams, cheese and more for you to help yourself to. And while the main street might have shops from Prada and Cartier, it’s not an extortionate destination. Indeed, it’s the only place in Europe I’ve had lunch and a drink on the mountain for under €10.
Overall, Courmayeur is a great resort for a relaxing ski holiday, with delicious food and some real Italian culture. A relentless piste-basher could cover the whole area in a day, but if first lifts and a sandwich on-the-go are your bag, get your elbows out and stick to Les Trois Vallees.
But the greatest discovery of this trip was the pleasure of driving to the Alps. The champagne caves were a lot more interesting than the inside of an airline cabin; and for four of us with kit, it was cheaper than flying. I’ll definitely be taking the car again. Maybe I’ll stop in Burgundy next time.
NEED TO KNOW
Eurotunnel Car tickets start from £23 each way. Visit Eurotunnel for more details.
Ruinart is the oldest established Champagne house, exclusively producing champagne since 1729. Founded by Nicolas Ruinart in the Champagne region in the city of Reims, the house is today owned by the parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Find out more and how you can visit at www.ruinart.com.
Momentum Ski specialise in ski weekends, corporate events and tailor made ski holidays to Courmayeur.
For more information contact Amin or Ben on 020 7371 9111 or go to www.momentumski.com.
Ash was driving Ford’s new Kuga. Ford is teaming up with the UEFA Champions League to offer you and three others a chance to attend the 2013 UEFA Champions League Final at Wembley this May. The prize includes an overnight hotel stay, transport from the hotel to the match and £400 spending money. There are 364 tickets up for grabs across Europe – go to www.drivetowembley.com for your chance to win.