A few years back I thought my skiing days were over when Graham announced halfway through a week in Ischgl that flying down mountains was not something he considered a particularly safe, let alone enjoyable, way to pass the time. But then family came to my rescue and gave me a chance to hit the slopes again.
It’s how I found myself in the French mountain village of Champagny en Vanoise with my brother, his merry band and their friends. Once Graham had joined us mid-week, we were a lively party of 6 adults and 4 kids – a new travel experience for me.
The downside to it all was travelling in the February half term holiday, when the families of the UK and France rise up en masse to go on their holidays. I won’t drone on too much but the journey out to Grenoble from Gatwick Airport was hellish, thanks to endless delays and a terminal rammed to the rafters. An early morning departure turned into a mid-afternoon one, a grim experience only marginally softened by time spent in the new BA lounge and plenty of Champagne flying in Club Europe.
By the time I’d caught up with our friends for a sometimes nerve-wracking drive up the mountain, it was dark. We arrived almost 12 hours after my flight had been scheduled to leave, thankfully having avoided the holiday jams on the roads that my brother faced.
The return the following Saturday, involving a painfully early start, may have seen fewer delays but Grenoble Airport was overflowing with people, a truly awful experience of mighty queues and stress.
Still, the bits in between the travelling were a delight, helped by great company and extraordinary weather. We were blessed with almost endless sunshine and mild temperatures that meant most of my winter wardrobe remained in the cupboard. Despite the weather, the pistes held up remarkably well – at least on the blues we spent our week exploring in the Champagny ski area and over the mountain in the linked resorts of La Plagne.
Our accommodation, Club Alpina, couldn’t have been better placed for the Champagny gondola, the single lift that links the village with the ski area up the mountain.
Typically for French apartments, ours was compact but comfortable. All wood and Alpine touches, the balcony offered great views across to the swanky ski resort of Courchevel. Hot air balloons hovered over it in the early morning sunshine and the snow glistened invitingly.
Breakfast was typical continental fare of ham, cheese, bread and croissants, just enough to keep us going for a morning of exercise.
Despite it being peak holiday period, the lift queues were never so long as to make the experience a chore, even from the Champagny gondola. And while some pistes could get a bit crowded at times, the large ski area meant we could leave them behind without too much trouble.
Up top, young Sophie was packed off to ski school while a core group of us – a mixed bunch of adults and children – went off on our own, leaving the non-skiers back in town to their own devices.
The Champagny ski area offered a wealth of blues from the Borseliers and Rossa lifts, ideal for rediscovering our ski legs, building confidence and blowing the cobwebs away. The long Verdons Sud chair gave us access to a long but sometimes steep blue called Bozelet that left my brother a bit weak in the knees. Elsewhere, we skied from the top of Rossa down to the Carella chairlift and up again to Roche de Mio at 2,700m.
The views up top were top notch, an endless vista of snow-covered peaks set against the blue sky. Words like ‘breathtaking’ and ‘stunning’ couldn’t even begin to describe their awesomeness.
From Roche de Mio we loved the long blues of Carella and Le Levasset, as well as the motorway Tunnel run, which offered plenty of opportunities to practice our turns as well as point the skis downhill and experience the thrill of speed. It’s named for the Tunnel that we had to ski through to continue the run down into the modern resort of Plagne Bellecote. Over there, the vast bowl offered more amazing views and and endless runs.
We didn’t have the time to try any of them other than the Tunnel and a so-called family novelty run full of tricks and challenges that starts at the top of the Arpette lift. Nephew Christopher set the scene with a spectacular but harmless fall off the starting jump but professed to love every minute of it. I hated it because it was too narrow, with not enough room to turn effectively. I loathed it as much as the similarly narrow boarder cross run from the Rossa chairlift in Champagny. On pistes like those, the fear returned…
But overall, the skiing was great fun and just about testing enough for a rusty but experienced piste-basher like me. With days punctuated by visits to the pricey Les Borseliers mountain restaurant, where ample beer was consumed, I couldn’t have been happier. How great it was to ski with people again after having to ski (briefly) on my own in Norway.
Away from the slopes, I joined Lisa, Sarah and a dozen others for an evening guided walk around the village, all of us wielding potentially lethal flaming torches. We discovered attractive squares, atmospheric alleys and churches in the oldest parts of Champagny.
The French commentary left me none the wiser but Lisa and a helpful Frenchman assisted with some translation. We finished at St Sigismund’s, where the wonky walls and leaning tower provided evidence of the unstable ground on which it was built. Inside, our guide got terribly excited by the baroque touches but religious art has never been a fetish of mine.
Another day, I joined Graham for a daytime walk around the village to get a different perspective of Champagny. Its modern heart is where most of the shops, bars and restaurants are found and the planners have just about managed to conceal the multi-storey concrete construction around which much of it hangs. A lively mountain stream has been diverted through the heart of the village and was more lively than it should’ve been in the middle of February thanks to the mild weather and melting snow.
The village is not big enough to be an apres ski hot-spot, but we visited a bar or two every now and again, purely in the interests of research.
Several nights we ate in the apartment and entertained ourselves with cards, rediscovering the joys of Newmarket. Other nights we ate in the Alpina’s excellent but pricey restaurant. There, we tucked into snails, such calorie-filled delights as tartiflette and vodka-drenched lemon sorbets, all at the sort of bonkers prices that are such a feature of French mountain villages.
Despite all the exercise, the endless intake of carbs and booze left me heavier at the end of the week. I also returned home full of winter blues, the sort of gloom I only ever get when returning from the mountains. Perhaps they’re my spiritual home…