Thursday, January 26, 2012

It can be tempting to stay put in the Vaucluse in Provence because it's so attractive, but the region offers such easy access to other great places that you just have to move now and again. Elsewhere I've talked about the ease of getting to the Cote d'Azur, Paris, the Camargue, the Aveyron, Corsica, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Languedoc-Roussillon, Italy, Spain....

Well, last week my partner and I decided to go and ski up in the Queyras in the Hautes Alpes. The pistes looked pretty good online - plenty of snow. We booked a cheap apartment in Molines that turned out to be pretty swishy, spacious and comfortable. And off we went. The journey from Isle-sur-Sorgue took around 4 hours, via Pertuis and Sisteron.

My partner (I find I can't call a grown man a boyfriend) knows the Queyras well and told me that Molines is just beside St Veran, the highest village in Europe. The Parc Naturel Regional du Queyras is one of four such parks in PACA - Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur - the others being the Verdon, Luberon and Camargue. The Queyras is known for its beautiful mountains and valleys, its flora and fauna, its honey, and of course for skiing in the winter months.

We set off without snow chains for the car wheels, betting that the roads would be well cleared. As we neared Molines and the road climbed steeply through snowy mountains, we found the snow ploughs had been out and there was no problem. Although cascades of solid ice gripped the rocky roadside, looking like molten wax from huge candles, the sky was a perfect blue and the sun was dazzling.

The apartment we'd booked was in a new building, Le Clot la Chalp, which was slap bang in front of the alpine pistes, with the pistes ski de fond (cross-country) directly behind the building. To access the alpine pistes, you simply had to cross the road and grab the tire-fesses or take the télésiege. But since my partner broke a vertebra in a skiing accident some years ago, we'd decided to stick to ski de fond. There was a piste running just 100 yards behind the building so access to that was easy too.

Each morning we'd get up, prepare a picnic, get our gear on, pick up the skis and batons from the locker on the ground floor and off we'd go. From Molines you can ski for dozens of kilometres, picking up pistes by the river, up the mountain side, into the forest or off to St Veran. I hadn't skied for years and years and was cautious about the fairly steep ascents and descents at first. My partner was off like a hare though - whizzing over any old precipice and marching up steep slopes à pas de canard. (Like a duck, with skis angled outwards.)

Ski de fond is quite demanding physically as you have to climb quite often. On the flat, you can race along but you're still using your arm and leg muscles all the time. As the weather was so warm and sunny, I skied with my salopette and just a T-shirt much of the time. It was too warm to wear a jacket.

The pistes on the mountainsides around Molines gave wonderful views of the snowy Alps on the French-Italian border. The snow, rock and mélèze pine forest are home to many animals - the chamois, mouflon and bouquetin among them. All three come down to around 1000 metres in winter but we saw nothing but tracks in the snow. By the river we noticed many tracks leading right to the clear running water and away again.

We skied on one piste that led through forest half way up the mountain opposite St Veran. The precipice on our left was rather scary. The mountain and forest to our right were well covered by snow. A cheerful-looking sign announced we were in a zone avalanche but my partner gave a typically French shrug and told me that if I noticed an avalanche starting I should place myself behind the nearest wide tree, hang on to it and wait till the snow stopped 'running'. Right-o.

The Queyrassins build their houses, or fustes, from the local pines - mélèzes - which are well adapted to Alpine conditions. The ground floor these days is built in stone - traditionally animals were kept there - and two or three rickety-looking wooden storeys are plonked on top. The houses have wide, open wooden balconies running round the outside - usually one used in summer, for eating outside and relaxing and one used for storing or drying stuff - like cheese, perhaps, or animal fodder. Again, the balconies look fragile and rickety. Quite a few houses had interesting names - Paradis d'Enfer, was one; Ailleurs another.

In the evening we went up to St Veran. Parking was right on the edge of the mountainside in fairly thick ice and snow. If you engage first gear when you leave, rather than reverse, then your skiing holiday is over. We parked beside a large van which had its wheels about three centimetres from the abyss and was teetering in a dubious fashion.

Neither Molines nor St Veran offered much in the way of nightlife. A couple of restaurants and bars offered lethargic service. If you're looking for tranquility, you can find it in the Queyras in January. Which suited us fine.

During the day it was a different matter. Although the pistes opposite the apartment were far from crowded, there were skiers and one large group of young kids was being taught to ski. Each day the moniteurs took around 40 kids up the mountain and taught them the chasse-neige technique to bring them down gently. There was lots of shrieking and hilarity as the children fell around on the slopes.

Once the piste was closed for the day and night fell, the beautiful dameuses took to the mountain to resurface the pistes. These huge machines looked wonderful surging up into the darkness with their powerful headlights shining on the snow. We watched as the tough-looking drivers climbed into their machines and headed off together, then split in three directions to take different pistes, their lights dwindling as they climbed higher and higher on the mountain. Most nights they worked on the mountainside until after 10pm. As the temperature outside was -7° at that hour, the dameuses need to be well-maintained. Who wants to break down high in the Alps at night on a steep mountainside?

Before we went to the Queyras, we had thought of crossing over into Italy to ski on that side of the border too. But the Col Agnel is closed in winter due to the snow so we had to drop that idea. Instead we decided to investigate the trips offered with chiens de traineau. You can go out with a sled and huskies and the dogs did look beautiful racing through the snow. Four types are used: the Siberian husky (the breed with ice-blue eyes); the white-furred Samoyède; the Greenland, which is the fastest of the four; and the Malamute d'Alaska which is the least swift.

Our other option was to try raquettes which neither of us had ever used. We chose the raquettes in the end since we could go into the forest and right alongside the river with them, getting to spots you can't access with skis or dogs. The modern raquette has a great little gadget you can tip up with your baton when you come to a steep ascent. It fits under your heel and gives the impression you're walking on the flat. When you go downhill or walk on the flat again, you just flip it down with your baton. So using raquettes is less taxing physically than ski de fond.

We'll go back to the Queyras to ski again. But we'll also go in warm weather. The marmots will be out of hibernation and tootling around avoiding predators. The shepherds will arrive with their flocks and the great sheepdogs that attempt to keep wolves at bay. The beekeepers will bring their hives so their bees can make the famous miel toutes fleurs of the Queyras. Edelweiss, saxifrage, absinthe and other alpine flowers will carpet the slopes where we only saw snow and pine trees. And we'll follow the same pistes we skied along, under the same blue skies.

If mountain air practically drugs you, and I believe it does, then I can imagine becoming addicted to visiting the Queyras. This is an alpine paradise where you can skate in Abriès village in winter on a natural outdoor skating rink. Where the dark orange water in the two sources at Guillestre flows at a steady temperature of 28°. Where you can go kayaking, birdwatching or ice-climbing. Or drive a team of huskies. Or simply ski and fill your lungs with clean mountain air while gazing at the beautiful Alps.