The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Late-Season-Powder Porn


Thus far in our stay in Lyon, the nearby Alps have been more a concept than reality, white shadows glimpsed on clear day but not much else apart from a hiking trip to Grenoble back in the summer. [photo, click to enlarge: the white thing at center far distance is Mont Blanc.] Still, we see people carrying skis and snowboard bags on the metro or through the train station all winter long, and the sidewalks of Lyon are often blocked by someone hobbling along on crutches wearing plastic casts to protect their boot-top tibia fracture. (As the closest major hospital to the world's largest skiing area, the doctors at the Lyon public hospital must be the world's most expert at treating tibia fractures, much as LA County General was once where the Army sent its medics to learn to treat gunshot wounds).

V's dislike of heights in general and mountains in particular has meant that free weekends find our rented car aimed toward the beach rather than the mountains. So when the local English Mums Club (technically English-speaking Mums Club, as it includes a fair number of Irish and the odd Aussie or South African) put out the word that they were organizing a late-season ski trip, I prodded V until she agreed to let Boog and me go--she doesn't ski, and wasn't heavy into the concept of hanging around a lodge with the baby while we went off skiing.

Unfortunately, as with many things in France, things were not necessarily well-organized for the trip (I'm thinking of the words "couldn't", "piss-up" and "brewery") and our lodging reservations fell apart two days before our departure date. Having already made reservations for a car, I decided to press on and go anyway. Hearing our enthusiasm (and talk of going dogsledding) V decided to come along with the baby as well.

Villard-de-Lans and Correncon are among the closest ski resorts to Lyon, an hour and a half by car: You just go to Grenoble and hang a right up a hill...a really really big hill. The Vercors massif is a huge plateau that is mostly at about 3000 feet but goes up to 7-8000 at some peaks. It's incredibly isolated, with one road going up it from the Grenoble side and one road going up it from the south. During WWII, it was a Resistance stronghold, so much so that after the Normandy landings, the Resistance declared the Rebublic of the Vercors and scraped out an airfield to await the arrival of Allied tranport planes. Unfortunately, the first planes the Resistance greeted at the airfield were gliders full of SS commandos, with disastrous results ensuing for both the Resistance and the villages that supported them.

With happier times came the establishment of a few winter resorts, though limited in size and scope by the difficulty in access. Villard and Correncon lack the glitz of Courchevel, the expanse of Les Deux Alpes, and the altitude of Chamonix, but have a reputation as a family-friendly resort that is good for beginners to intermediates and is close to Lyon--score on all counts.

Correncon, where we stayed, is quite literally where the road ends and the National Park of the Vercors begins. You need cross-country skis, snowshoes, or a dogsled to go any further, and many people do so. [photo: Correncon] There's an alpine church, a tourist office, a boulangerie, a Petit Casino store, and about 4 places that rent skis and snowshoes. That's pretty much it.

The hotel where we stayed was incredibly cosy, though (and correspondingly pricey), with a lounge and fireplaces and saunas and hot tubs and so on. Hotel du Golf--so named because of its proximity to the area's only golf course--if you're ever in the area. [photo: Boog checks out the night's snowfall]

As for the skiing: If you ever get the chance to ski in the Alps, especially if you happen to be, like me, a mediocre skiier from the neither-high-nor-snowy southeast, DO IT.

The ski areas are huge, for starters; the linked Villard-Correncon area has something like 120 kilometers of pistes. During the few hours that Boog was in ESF ski class [pic], I was able to explore only a tiny corner of it. More space means less skier density, too--I never waited in a lift line (except for the initial cable car from the parking lot) and I was occasionally completely alone on the slope. The snow was perfect as well; I may have been the lucky recipient of good snow, but it was all powder, nothing granular, no ice. The pistes were butter-smooth, too, without the moguling one usually sees in the Appalachians.

Nice views, too.

All in all I skied as well as I ever have, and I don't think that was a result of a sudden uptick in skill.

Up at the top of the mountain the cloud ceiling dropped over the slopes, creating a sort of whiteout condition in which there was no horizon, no visual differentiation between the snow underfoot, the air ahead, and the sky above [pic]. Interesting and a little disconcerting.

Villard-de-Lans itself, while not exactly a pulsating ritz-tacular apres-ski nightlife mecca, is a pleasant enough rural town that tries pretty hard to maintain its Alpine roots. There is a quaint downtown area that features lots of cafes and creperies, and on a sunny day like Sunday was, the cafe terraces are full of people in coats and sunglasses sitting outside in the sun, drinking wine and loooking up at the mountains. Would have been a postcard picture, but I didn't have my camera on me.

One of the local specialties is raclette, which besides being the name of a cheese, is a dish (or a meal, rather) made from that cheese. For raclette, you need a raclette apparatus. I saw one in a shop window but didn't buy it, the price being a bit much [pic]. A quarter-wheel of raclette cheese is mounted on the spiked bit at left-center, and hot coals from the fire are loaded into the top of the V-shaped hopper at right. The spiky bit and the tray underneath it slide on the rails to move the cheese close to the coals, where it warms up and starts to bubble and melt. The alert raclette-tender then uses the wooden handle (far left) to swivel the cheese away from the heat, and slices (or spoons) off a portion of the hot cheese onto a waiting plate piled high with potatoes, sausage and other dried meats. It's a little like fondue in reverse, but with the added bonus that the tablecloth may burst into flame at any minute, or a burning ember may pop off onto baby's bib.

In the afternoon, before heading back to Lyon, we sledded for a while at Correncon's sled hill, a steep rise just below the intial ski lifts. Pretty much every kid in town was there, which I suppose is what one does when one lives out here in the middle of nowhere [pic from top of sled hill].

[pic: V and Boog on the way down]

I'm ready to go back, and V says she might even have to try skiing next time. And that, dear readers, is an endorsement.


Our next trip is to Paris for the long holiday weekend, if we can find a decent place to stay on short notice.


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