Snow and Circuses
It takes a certain jostling in the queue to eventually enter the lift that carries you to the top of Aiguille Rouge, from where an incredible 360-degree panorama opens up to you. The giant gondola rises up nearly parallel to a sheer cliff so fast that your ears pop, and everybody is packed together like rush hour on the subway. It’s a good thing that most of the passengers, including us, have left their skis and snowboards at the foot of the mountain. The black and red runs, which begin at an altitude of 3,226 meters, can only be tamed by seasoned pros. The rest of us travel further to the top to reach the highest point of the resort and look out over the surrounding Aiguilles Rouge mountain peaks, which are about 500 meters lower.
You have a steep climb up some icy snow on the last leg, it’s a struggle, but the view from up here is worth the effort. Somewhere a bit below the peaks, you can see the odd cloud gently floating. An eagle flies, silhouetted against the blue background, and the snow-capped waves of the French Alps stretch out as far as the eyes can see.
It is very cold up here and after a final flash my cell phone loses the will to live. Luckily there is an automated picture point and, together with our instructor Ann, we managed to take a group photo. This being the digital age, cameras that shoot both photos and videos are installed in the resort at the sites where the images taken have a particularly striking background. Download the Paradiski YUGE app and you can automatically get pictures and video of your spectacular day in the mountains sent to your phone the next time it connects to the Wi-Fi. The app proved essential from the very first day. Not only do you get access to the piste map, you get a weather forecast, can check out where the best après ski is taking place, see what the queues are like by the lifts, track how fast you have been skiing and even find friends on the resort’s interactive map.
You really can’t get by here without a map, by the way. The skiing area of Les Arcs is enormous and consists of four mountain villages located at altitudes ranging from 1,650 to 2,000 meters. Each of them can be reached via funicular or by car, but within the territory of the resort itself you have to travel on foot, or to be more precise, in most cases people prefer to travel on skis. The idea of "skis aux pieds" (skiing from the doorstep) is a reality in Les Arcs. This resort, along with two others (Peisey-Vallandry and La Plagne, which are linked with Les Arcs by the Vanoise Express double-decker cable car) together form the Paradiski ski area, which is considered one of the largest ski areas not just in France, but the world.
Even experienced skiers will struggle to tick off all the resort’s red and black pistes during a single vacation. And for those who are just beginning to master the slopes there is plenty to enjoy as almost the entire ski area can be traversed on wide comfortable descents, clearly marked in blues.
And, of course, every mountain village of Les Arcs offers its own skiing and entertainment. Arc-1800, for example, is home to the Mille8 leisure park with its own freestyle zone, a 900-meter-long ski track letting adults and children speed down on sledges, and a special ski area for kids and beginners. In addition, it has a large water park with a spa and fitness zone, and a lodge where you can visit the restaurant, practice your golf swing on a simulator or just hang out listening to live music.
Arc-1950 is a village offering five-star apartments and is famous for having the largest spa complex in the whole resort, and it really is the real deal – indoor and outdoor pools, whirlpool-style baths, a hammam, hot tub and other aquatic delights, which all help to soften the muscles after a demanding day spent skiing. While the village is large, everything is within walking distance, so don’t be surprised to see some of the residents head out to the spa through the snow wrapped only in their bathrobes and flip-flops.
A giant igloo has been built at an altitude of Arc-2000. The igloo has its own giant ice cave and a maze of interconnected halls. The walls are decorated with snow bas-reliefs, and ice sculptures of unicorns, trolls and other mythical creatures are set into the niches and illuminated with different colors. But its difficult to fully appreciate the cold here during the day, as the bar beneath the icy dragon serves warm drinks – grog, mulled wine, tea and hot chocolate. And in front of each sculpture there is a queue of people clamoring to take photos of their unusual outing. However, those who are thirsty for not only a physical, but perhaps more mystical experience might decide to return here when it gets dark and stay for the night.
But still, one doesn't want to hide away in the ice during a sunny day for long. After drinking mulled wine as an aperitif, we decided to dine on a terrace. The places that have tables on the street are always crowded with people. All the deckchairs, which are so convenient to lie on for sunbathing, are taken. Closer to the afternoon, most of the skiers, taking off their caps or even stripping down to t-shirts are busy trying to even out their tans. Closer to the end of the vacation almost all the skiers look like inverted pandas with their weather-beaten faces inset with big white circles where their masks have been.
So the typical French habit of dining for an hour and a half is very welcome, providing as it does enough time to lie in the sun and release the pressure from the ski boots. It gives one the required time to feast on Savoyard cheeses and sausages (best washed down with red wine), followed by tartiflette and finished off with a tiny glass of génépi – a wormwood tincture that serves as an ideal digestive.
Today we decide to choose not a traditional Savoyard restaurant, but an oyster bar with a view of the peak of Aiguille Rouge. It has become fashionable nowadays to open fish restaurants at ski resorts. Although we are hundreds of kilometers from the closest sea or ocean, oysters on ice, sautéed seashell clams and seafood bisque with a glass of chilled sparkling wine are no less delicious here than in a restaurant by the coast. The opportunity to go down from Col de la Chal a couple more times, navigating some jumps in the Rodeo Park along the way, before they turn off the lifts is the only reason to drink the last sip, to stop squinting at the sun and get in the line for the chairlift that takes you up to the altitude of 2,600 meters.
But bad weather can strike – when the sky is covered with grey clouds, and you can't tell whether it's raining or snowing and not only is the view of Mont Blanc obscured, you can’t even see the mountain where the nearest ski lift is carrying you. There are few people keeping staying out on the slopes on days like this, most head home after a few runs, preferring to soak in the spa or, at last, go skating on the ice rink.
And on this cloudy day we decided to go to Annecy – a famous city-museum on the shores of the lake with a same name. Everything is different in the village of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, where the train stops and from where a funicular goes to the ski resort. There is practically no snow and the grass is healthily green. After only an hour traveling along a picturesque road and we found ourselves driving by the open water, which reflected the castle-looking Imperial Hotel located on the opposite bank.
Annecy is one of the most famous summer resorts in the Alps. Winter is low season here, while in the summer, people come for the mountain paths, biking, water sports and paragliding. Now the lake is covered with a light haze and the houses along the shores on the backdrop of the Alps look like a watercolor drawing. Like a ship made of stone, Palais de l'Isle cuts through the water of the canal. The white-stone Church of Saint Francis, in which the weaving factory was set after the French revolution, is located on the opposite bank.
It is nice just to stroll around Annecy, to go all around the streets, walk across the pedestrian bridges over the canals (the city actually looks like Venice if you squint a little), spotting some interesting details here and there. Find a monument to Francois De Sales, depicting the patron saint of writers and journalists with his hand resting on a large folio. At the intersection of the pedestrian streets of Carnot, du Pâquier and Notre-Dame, you can find the well of the Knights of the Order of St. John and, looking inside, find a bronze frog there.
Eventually we climb up the hill to the 12th-century castle rising above the city, which was the residence of the Counts of Geneva and the Dukes of Savoy, with hope of seeing a crimson sunset, which, according to popular signs, promises that tomorrow the sun will shine in the mountains again.
- Les Arcs is a two-hour drive away from the closest airport in Geneva. It is possible to reach the Bourg-Saint-Maurice train station by train from Brussels and London, the resort is just a seven-minute ride on a funicular from it.
- The season in Les Arcs begins on December 16 and ends on April 28. A ski pass for one day costs €52, or you could spend €307 for a week pass, but there are discounts advertised from time to time. From January 6 till February 10 a special offer starting from €65 per person per day also includes accommodation in a participating hotel and a three-day ski pass.
- Les Arcs offers other winter activities, too: dog sledding, sledging and skating.
Published on: September 25, 2018
Text: Svetlana Troitskaya