2011 Mountain activities

If quizzed on skiing in the Pyrénées, a reasonable number of British skiers might recall a lager-fuelled trip to Andorra with a faceless tour operator, but barely a handful would even know that the French Pyrénées are a skier’s adventure playground.

If quizzed on skiing in the Pyrénées, a reasonable number of British skiers might recall a lager-fuelled trip to Andorra with a faceless tour operator, but barely a handful would even know that the French Pyrénées are a skier’s adventure playground.

It is a secret well-kept by the French, but in the Pyrénées, you can explore kilometres of beautifully groomed slopes set in spectacular unspoiled scenery, for a fraction of what you would pay in the Alps, and without the crowds. Even better, the Pyrénées have a maritime climate and get more snow annually than the Alps.

Why then do so few British people ski here? Only 3% of the clientele are British, and most of those – who come back year after year – want to keep it to themselves! The fact is that the Tourmalet ski area is a French resort, but in the Pyrénées, Francophiles are made to feel welcome.

Here you can enjoy fabulous French food and wine (local specialities include delicious sheep’s cheese, dry cured hams and saucisson, free-range lamb, mountain honey and duck served with wild bilberries in addition to regional wines such as the crisp dry Jurancons and full-bodied Madirans of Gascony) as well as the spectacular mountains.

With that in mind, it is difficult to understand why anyone would want to suffer cabbage soup in Bulgaria when the budget-friendly skiing in the French Pyrénées has so much to offer.

The largest ski resort in the French Pyrénées is the Domaine du Tourmalet, also known as Barèges-La Mongie, situated in the Pays Toy area of the Hautes-Pyrénées department south of Lourdes. The lift-served area extends up to 2500m, with 100 km of slopes and acres of undeveloped space between the slopes for easy-access off-piste.

While you might be tempted to think that the Pyrénées are insignificant in comparison to the Alps, here the lifts go higher than many of the famous resorts such as the Portes de Soleil (Morzine, Avoriaz, Les Gets), much of the Mont Blanc ski area (Chamonix-Les Houches and Megève) and as high as Flaine and Samoëns in the Grand Massif.

Unlike some of the smaller Pyrenean resorts, the Domaine du Tourmalet has long, cruising slopes with a very Alpine feel. The slope skiing is best suited to beginners and intermediates, although there really is something for everyone. Advanced skiers will particularly enjoy the snow-park and the huge off-piste potential, including the legendary descent from the Pic du Midi at 2877m.

For those who want to “get away from it all’, the mountains are easily accessible for ski touring and snowshoeing whilst retaining the untouched beauty for which the Pyrenean wilderness is so renowned. Many of the National Park refuges are now open in the spring, and with touring routes marked on the summer walking maps, there is a wide choice of day tours or multi-day hut-to-hut trips.

The Tourmalet ski domain is a resort with two faces. Barèges, the second oldest ski resort in France, is a traditional mountain spa village with friendly residents and a lively atmosphere. There are green and blue return pistes to the village, as well as a regular free ski-bus service, with an easy five minute ride up to the lifts.

On the other side, La Mongie is a custom-built resort, with handy piste-side accommodation, but it is somewhat lacking in ambiance or charm. If you are looking to experience skiing from an authentic French village, but want the home comforts and convenience of a typical Alpine ski chalet holiday, why not stay with Rob and Emma – year-round British residents in Barèges, and owners of a small activity holiday company, Mountainbug?

Rob and Emma host one of the few ski chalets in the Pyrénées. Chalet ‘Les Cailloux’ is an original village house that has been renovated to a very high standard to offer comfortable accommodation in six ensuite rooms (sleeping 2 - 14 people) with sauna, dining room and cosy lounge featuring a wood burning stove, bar, reading and games corner, CD and DVD player.

Rob and Emma can take care of airport transfers, ski lessons and equipment hire. As permanent residents in France, they are experts on things to do and places to see in the local area, and are always on hand to offer advice. They are also qualified snowshoeing and mountain walking guides, and can arrange guided off-piste skiing, telemark, ski touring, snowshoeing, ice climbing and paragliding through local instructors.

The Pyrénées are a great, budget alternative to the Alps. Most of the French people who ski here are from Brittany, the Charente and Dordogne, Bordeaux and Toulouse areas, from where it is a long, slow drive to the Alps. With the new A65 autoroute from Bordeaux to Pau due to open in early 2011, it will be even easier to get to the slopes.

The Pyrénées are just a short hop from the UK too – with budget flights into Lourdes (45 mins transfer) and Pau-Pyrénées (1.5 hrs transfer) with Ryanair, and to Toulouse and Biarritz (2.5 hrs) with Easyjet, Ryanair and Flybe from various UK airports including Stansted, Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham.

Further details:

- Mountainbug winter holidays in the Pyrénées, email info@mountainbug.com or call 00 33 (0)5 62 92 16 39 for a chat with Rob or Emma

- Barèges Tourist Office

- The Domaine du Tourmalet ski resort

This article first appeared on FrenchEntrée.com

0 votes