Monday, 20 January 2014

Life in the French Alps

Looking down the slopes towards St Jean. Lake Geneva is in the distance

We have been in our apartment in St Jean d’Aulps Station for seventeen days now and in that time we’ve skied for fifteen, had one day off in between and had a day off today due to bad weather. We’ve skied over 250 runs, varying between green (very easy) to black (very hard), with some off-piste and covered probably 60% of the ski area. Each ski day has only lasted about four, occasionally as little as three or as much as five hours, but we’ve not stopped, only pausing for each other on some slopes and eating a sandwich on lifts, so it’s been pretty intense and our knees and thigh muscles have started to complain and the knee supports have been in use!

Jackie looking cold but cool!
In that time we haven’t really met anyone, we’ve had occasional chats with other English people we’ve seen about, but we haven’t been out to bars or restaurants at all, so not met anyone socially. I’ve cooked cake of differing types for every day and Jackie has cooked some great meals (her Boeuf Bourguignon was particularly superb), washed down by cheap but quite good French wine (less than €2 per bottle), so each day has generally ended just after 3:00pm with tea and cake, shower, vin chaud (once so far), preparations for and then eating dinner, followed by reading or watching English TV and bed by 10:00pm, often with a hot chocolate with rum, feeling very tired from the days of exercise. I know our social life doesn’t sound that exciting, but we’re feeling pretty wiped out by the time we get in.

Amazing mountain views all around
Our local area from a chairlift
Our skiing technique has, I suppose improved, but it’s a slow process. We can ski down mogul blacks rather than just ‘get down’, but when we watch good people skip down with such style we realise we’ve still a long way to go, but we are both feeling much better and confident in tackling tricky runs so it makes the enjoyment all the better.

The area, known as the Vallée d'Aulps in the Rhône-Alpes region of Southern France is very popular with English ex-pats and we can hear English being spoken widely. The reason is easy to understand, it’s very close to Geneva airport and has many villages dotted around the mountains with purpose built chalets, apartments, hotels and private houses and year round activities.
Thonon les Bains town centre
With an excellent record of good snow due to its geography and location, skiing is the main activity in the winter, along with ski touring, skating, para-skiing, heli-skiing, ice climbing, winter mountaineering etc, but it’s also a huge summer destination with mountain biking being a major activity. The ski lifts are adapted to carry bikes up to the high mountains, allowing hair-raising mountain bike descents down the slopes (sounds brilliant!), but other activities are rock climbing, there are a huge number of routes available locally for all grades of climber, with a lot fitting into our grade, and high mountain walking and scrambling and, so they say, some via-ferrata routes (mountaineering and climbing along fixed steel ropes and ladders), although we haven’t found evidence of those yet.

Lakeside view in Thonon les Bains with expensive yachts moored in the harbour. The mist makes the lake into an ocean
A section of medieval Thonon les Bains
As a result of this, many people, including English ex-pats have bought houses and moved here permanently, in some cases bringing their young families to start a new life in France. And why not, it seems relatively cheap, you can buy an apartment here for €80,000 to €100,000 or a house for €200,000 to €300,000 (much more if you want something near a ski lift and in a town centre such as Morzine), and food is certainly no more expensive than in the UK and possibly a bit cheaper (certainly the wine and beer is!). It’s quite tempting for us too, everything we could possibly want is here and we’re thinking maybe a summer here might be worth trying sometime and, if as good as we think it might be, why not base ourselves here for a few years….?

Anyway, since we’ve been here, the weather has been unusually warm (relatively speaking ) and, although there’s plenty of snow up high (above about 1300-1400m), it’s a bit thin at lower, village levels, meaning that runs back into resorts are few and far between. Only a few are kept open by both expert piste grooming and snow making machines. It really is magic how the piste groomers keep the slopes in such good condition, even in conditions of lean snow falls and warm days, they scrape the snow from beside the slopes (reducing the off-piste considerably) and mix it with snow made from the machines at the sides of many slopes to produce very good runs. However, even with their best efforts many of the lower slopes are closed and others have rocks, earth and bracken poking through, making them passable with care.

The view from our balcony after a fall of snow
Last week and so far this week, it has been relatively cloudy weather with intermittent flurries of snow, some of them quite reasonable, so runs at high level are good with plenty of good off piste, it’s just at low levels where temperatures have been between about 2⁰ and 5⁰C during the day and the precipitation here has been either sleet or rain. The forecast from tonight onwards is for it to turn much colder with freezing levels coming down to 450 or 500m, so if it snows again (as is forecast), we should wake up to snow all around us. The cloudy weather, although bringing much needed snow, makes skiing that much more challenging as dull skies remove all definition from the slopes making it all just white, hiding lumps and bumps. It means more careful skiing, and even then hitting an unseen bump which plays havoc with the technique, weight back, aching thighs and constant staring at the slope for those hidden traps. Roll on lots of snow and then clear sunny skies!

And the view from our balcony this morning! notice the bread crumbs on the balcony rail, I put them there each day for the visiting Blue Tits, but haven't managed to get a photo of them yet, they are too fast for me! We noticed that overnight lots of bread went missing and, this morning we saw the culprit, a small white cat appeared, grabbed some bread, was startled to see us looking, dropped the bread and dashed off. Jackies going out to buy some cat food now, but I've told her we have to buy bird seed as well! Look carefully and you can see cat paw prints on the white paint.
Today was particularly cloudy with rain here and very low cloud, in fact this afternoon we were in the cloud and could see nothing, so we decided skiing was off and we should go sightseeing. We drove down to Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and our nearest large town, Thonon les Bains, which is the capital of the Chablais region. Unfortunately the weather here was as bad as in the mountains, so we didn’t get the best impression of the town. It’s an old medieval town built on two levels, a low level on the shores of Lake Geneva and a higher level with remnants of the fortified wall of the old town. On a good day the views of the lake from the old ramparts would be magnificent, but we could see a harbour full of expensive looking yachts, a grey expanse of water disappearing into the mist making it look like an ocean, and around us a town of mixed modern functional buildings and old to very old buildings in a clearly affluent town.

Skiing as it should be - fresh powder!
In the town centre was a market that we visited with coats buttoned up from the drizzle, but we were a bit late as they were just packing up, so we ambled around and came upon an imposing statue of a Joseph-Marie Desaix who lived from 1764 to 1834. He was born and died in Thonon, but in between he participated in the storming of the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution, served on the first Legislative Assembly in the first Republic and had a valiant military career as a General under Napoleon, being seriously injured by a musket ball, subsequently the governor of Berlin and then imprisoned after the fall of Napoleon. He was nicknamed ‘the fearless’ and has his name engraved in a stone at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A pretty impressive career!

Tomorrow we’re hoping for better weather and more skiing, just for a change!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the update, glad to hear you are fit and well :-) Its rain and more rain and cold and frosty and rain here. Dull really. Couple of nice weekend days (as you saw we went cycling!), but we haven't got up to much more that Old Mow, Diwans and a visit to Bill and Sue's pups. Just need some dry bright weather to cheer us all up. Happy skiing dears xxxx.