Strap the plank on and get down le montaigne!
Since 2005 every time I’ve had the food fortune to speak to my lovely chum Elisa in France, the sentence has popped up like the chorus to some sisturbingly long Proj Rock song: “You should come to the snow with us & stay at my Grandfather’s chalet”. It turns out that the play length of that song, my fans of a desperate metaphor, is about 6 years.
Or, to put it another way: We went to the snow. – Note: We went in February. It has taken a little longer than I expected to get this post out.
Flying with BA to Nice (from Heathrow – one of London’s more sensibly accessible airports) Liz & I were seated next to a charmin & impeccably groomed middle aged French diplomat who – had we met on a train – wouldn’t have seemed out of place discreetly relaying information via encrypted cell phone to James Bond. He told us that Nive was famous for its pizza, being a former party of Italy but gifted to France by the King of Sardinia in thanks for Napoleon III’s efforts in the Second Italian War of Independence against Austria. Bet they’re kicking themselves now for giving THAT away. Still, it gave the bloke something sensible to talk about. He was off to visit his mum for the weekend, and probably didn’t need an Australian idiot wittering on about what a massive fortress the US Embassy in London looked like.
Arriving in Nice we had 5 hours to kill before our bus to Valberg so we headed in to check the place out. First impressions were that based on weather the city should be more accuraltey named Pissy-sur-Mer. We wandered about didging rain before deciding to bus it back to the airport. No jasonbstanding holiday is complete without a massive transportial cockup, so in this case our bus pulled into Nice airport in time to see the back end of the bus we were meant to be on turning out of the carpark, which left us – as they say -in the merde. After briefly investigating options like chasing the bus in a taxi or hiring a car to drive up, we resigned to staying overnight & heading up the next day on teh bus. Pausing only for a quick photobooth opportunity to record our downcast demeanour we headed back into Pissy-sur-Mer and checked into the majestic Hotel Ellington : selected primarily for its keenly priced deal on lastminute.com, but also due to its lofty claims of “extensive whisky range in our ‘Bar Jazzy'”.
The experience promted me to begin pondering the merits of what makes a “good” whisky bar, however of more importance was what to do for dinner, and we opted for the ever-sincere option of asking the concierge. In this case however the advice was goot. No, great – we had an epic milestone of a meal at Villa d’Este: and Italian restaurant of such vibrancy & high quality that we’ve considered returning to Nice just to go there. It really was staggeringly good.
The next morning we discovered just what a superb idea it had been to ramaing in Nice rather than driving up, as our bus (a *local* bus, no less, costing €1 each!) wound its way up through the breathtaking but ridiculously curvy red-walled gorge into Les Alpes Maritime. Our presence on the bus seemed to amuse some of the locals, who came over to say hello and to talk about England, triggering my now all-too-familiar reflex to feel guilt & helplessness at only being able to speak one language as the elderly French woman spoke falteringly but well in English using words she’d not used in quite some while. C’est la vie.
The French gang of Wilfried, Luc, Charlotte, little Nahel, Harmony, Cedric, and the ever-fabulous Elisa are a genuine hoot, and always a pleasure to hang out with. Also, pretty handy in the kitchen – for while Liz & I were out on the slopes working through an introduction to the ludicrousness of snowboarding, they whipped up a sensational raclette: leading to the inevitable pioneering of the grilled quail’s egg omelette.
Valberg’s not the biggest resort in France but there were enough pistes to keep us busy for a while, and a few great beginners’ pistes. The snow was surprisingly good given that we never really had a decent snow drop the whole time we were there, and daytime temperatures averaged about 10 degrees Celcius. There’s some fairly new lift gear up there: Elisa explained how many new lifts had gone up in the last 4 or 5 years, so it’s probably just as well we hadn’t gotten organised enough to head up before now as I totally suck at button lifts.
Without the mild & gondola-served snow ramp of Zell Am See or the huge blue bowl of Solden, Valberg is still well served for beginners, with a couple of nice short green runs (the French grading system goes Green >> Blue >> Red >> Black), next to a fairly shortish straightish wide-ish blue. This guaranteed Liz had no shortage of 6 year old kids to feel envious off as they careered past on their boards without a care. Evening up the talent balance, the French Foreign Legion were on site that week as well doing snow training. It seemed apparent that their curriculum consisted of saying “C’est ci ton surf!”, and addressing any further questions to Madame Gravity.
Every day we’d venture out to a different part of the resort’s piste system. That is to say, Liz & I would – the Frenchies would hop on the button lift near the chalet first thing in the morning then ski their way across the entire resort and back: looking fabulous and barely raising a sweat in the meantime. The bastards. I managed to cover off most of the red and blue runs, plus one black run which Wilfried got me onto through vile underhanded duplicitousness, and nothing at all to do with a lack of concentration or map reading on my part. Liz’s progress across the pistes was occluded fairly severely when she twisted her ankle during a tricky dismount from a chairlift, so she played bench for the last few days and actually got a relaxing holiday out of it.
Cuisine for the week was nothing short of fantastic: it worked on a daily raffle draw system. We opened with the raclette (not sure the world really needs quail egg omelette, now I think of it). We also had meat fondue, “roti” (a creamy veal potrost) with “socca” (a local-made chickpea pancake coated liberally with pepper), spaghetti carbonara, 10pm savoury crepes, and finished with “resto”: a trip to a “mountain food” restaurant in Valberg where we hit the Cheese Overload button BIG STYLEE, with Wilfried and Luc getting stuck into a real raclette, Liz and Elisa sharing a cheese fondue, and I tried a variation on Tartiflette which is essentially a baked cheese. There was no escape from cheese. At all.
There’s something perversely good about revelling in the relaxation rituals of another culture, and we both fully embraced the decadence of dipping our breakfast brioche into our morning coffee (which not only results in a great taste, but also covers up the fact that your brioche went whistling past its best-before date about 4 days ago), or taking the opportunity for a tipple of pastis any time someone optimistically said “Apero?”. Equally impressive was the tenacity & effectiveness of the French postal system, where it turns out it’s possible to get a DVD delivered to your house by making up an address, then jury-rigging a rudimentary mailbox out the front of the house from an old fence post, an old cardboard box with a hole cut in, and a marker.
Sadly we had to make our way back so farewelling the cadre of crazy Gauls we boarded the meandering bus back to a much sunnier Nice. With a bit of sunshine about the relative merits of the place suddenly become abundantly clear! And back once more to the welcoming bosom of the Hotel Ellington. Our firm resolve to visit Villa d’Este again was scuppered by our success in finding a great little wine cave, and then the blissful embrace of a mid-afternoon nap.
Thankfully the London arrival portion of the trip saved us from any residual sense of happiness by providing utterly fucked trains back from Heathrow. And suddenly life was back to normal.
Snowboarding trips are awesome. You should try.
(The rest of the photos are on Flickr. There was some video footage too, but I can’t seem to find what I’ve done with it.)