After a day of skiing beneath glistening blue icefalls draped across the slopes of the 3,638-metre Mont Albaron in France’s Haute Maurienne, my mate Hugh and I reflect on how few people we’ve encountered on the day’s slopes. Most of those we did meet were locals, and even they were pretty sparse on the piste. Maybe it’s the hassle of getting here, or maybe that no one seems to know just how good this little resort really is.
Sitting undeniably somewhat isolated at the head of the Maurienne Valley, Bonneval-sur-Arc has only a scattering of ski lifts but they take you up to what is frankly some of the most underrated and least-explored skiing in the French Alps. Thanks to this relative remoteness we’re able to ski virtually untracked powder straight after the Easter weekend, traditionally one of the season’s busiest periods.
The pistes are wonderfully uncrowded and naturally it’s even more deserted off them, which is where we’re headed. Hugh and I have hooked up with locals Veronique Boniface and Christian Batailli, who work for the École de Ski Français and Bonneval Ski Patrol respectively – so you’d be safe to say they know their way around these mountains.
Bonneval is small enough that even a first-time visitor can get familiar with the pistes in a day or two, but the off-piste, which is Bonneval’s big attraction for us is, of course, a different matter. We start off with a late morning traverse off the top of the ‘3000’ chair.
The combination of altitude and many north-facing slopes is another feather in Bonneval’s hat, ensuring the snow stays in good condition long after many bigger and better-known resorts are swimming around in slush or have grass and rocks poking through.
That said we’re out of luck on our first run today – the first slopes we venture to have a westerly aspect and have had a little too much sun, so Veronique advises us to ski over to the D’Andagne chair, from the top of which we can access the bowl beneath Albaron.
This is beautiful, wild and high off-piste terrain. Faint lines in the snow above us show where intrepid ski tourers have ventured up and over Albaron towards nearby Italy. But you don’t need to go for the grunt and grind of touring to score untracked snow here – we enjoy an easy traverse beneath dark cliffs and sparkling glaciers before a long descent down a wide, open bowl where we’re able to put in too many turns to count.
Call us boring but after lunch at the funky little Restaurant Criou – the only eatery on the mountain, incidentally – Hugh, Christian and I head back up to the bowl and spend the rest of the afternoon playing there in bright spring sunshine and soft, powdery snow.
Veronique, meanwhile, has gone back down to the village to take over behind the counter of the family ski shop. As is the case for so many other residents of small alpine villages like Bonneval she has more than one job – an aspect of living in remote mountain communities which, like the village, has barely changed over the centuries.
An après-ski wander around Bonneval-sur-Arc’s narrow streets reveals a maze of lovingly preserved buildings which have true charm and character.
Situated within the Vanoise National Park Bonneval-sur-Arc is a member of the group ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ which aims to preserve traditional architectural styles and cultural traditions.
Any building work has to remain true to the alpine vernacular style, telephone cables and street lighting are routed underground and shops and other businesses are not permitted to use large, garish signage.
The squat, stone tile roofed houses and Baroque style chapels have survived largely due to the village’s high, remote location – whereas German forces razed many of the region’s lower level, more accessible towns and villages on their retreat near the end of World War II, Bonneval was left untouched.
Tourism remains important to the local economy year-round, with cars, motor bikes and cyclists streaming past the village on their way up the nearby Col d’Iseran in summer, the highest paved road in the Alps, and the local hiking, climbing and mountain biking are excellent. But traditional transhumance agriculture and craft work are also still important, with produce such as Bonneval blue cheese, Savoie tomme and the work of local wood carvers.
For any keen skier with a hankering to ski in a resort with the elusive mix – especially in France – of traditional alpine architecture and authentic alpine culture it’s hard to beat. Sure, you won’t get buzzing nightlife and upmarket restaurants – this is the real thing, not some 21st century take on alpine-style, and it’s as far removed from the nearby purpose built resorts of Val d’Isere, Tignes and Les Arcs as you can get. If you do hanker for a bit more après action you don’t have to go far – just head a few clicks down the valley to Val Cenis – which is what we do the following day.
Here’s a curious fact about Val Cenis – technically it’s almost as ‘remote’ as Bonneval-sur-Arc – yet you can get to it from Paris in less than five hours on the TGV via Modane, which gives UK skiers the option of travelling here relatively easily by plane, train or automobile.
Once in Val Cenis you’ll find the ski area is located above three villages spread out along the Maurienne Valley – Termignon, Lanslevillard and Lanslebourg. We’re skiing from Termignon up the valley towards the pistes beneath the Glacier d’Arcelles and we’re doing so very rapidly; mainly because we’re in the company of Yves Dimier, currently the resort director, formerly a member of the French ski team and a competitor in the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Consequently the genial Yves does not hang about. As we get our breath back on the lift Yves tells us about the resort’s recent growth spurt: “Termignon was connected to Val Cenis in 2007 so that we now have 28 lifts. There are five more lifts in the pipeline, and a great mix of terrain which allows us to focus on families, while at the same time offering freeriders wonderful bowls and tree skiing”.
Yves also emphasises the importance to the resort of maintaining a traditional look and feel. You won’t find faceless high-rise blocks and faux Alpine architecture in Val Cenis either. Sure, it’s not as rustic as Bonneval but all the buildings are nevertheless easy on the eye and quite low key – whether it’s the hotels, eateries and ski shops or the cheery local market we chance upon later in the day after skiing. There’s a real feel that you’ve stumbled upon a secret corner of the French Alps, not just from the lack of English voices but also from the knowledge that wolves still roam the surrounding mountains.
As we ski down from the shores of the frozen Lac du Mont Cenis, which in the past has witnessed Hannibal, Napoleon and hordes of Tour de France cyclists passing by, we get to try one of the resort’s family favourites, the 10km Escargot run, which claims to be the world’s longest green.
Ski for all
If you’re a novice skier looking to get a feel for your skis it doesn’t get much better than this, starting off on high, open but easily angled slopes with magnificent views across the Haute-Maurienne, swooshing down through the dappled shade of forests on the lower slopes with glimpses of the distant valley between the branches before eventually skidding to a halt in Lanslevillard with a big smile, ready to go back and do it all again.
For skiers wanting more of a challenge there are scores of kilometres of quiet blue, red and black runs. When the conditions are right the freeriding is sensational too and, like at Bonneval-sur-Arc, doesn’t get tracked out quickly.
What’s more, skiing at both Bonneval and Val Cenis is easy on the wallet – for this season the six-day Eski-Mo ski pass will set you back just €186.50 (kids €156.50). In addition to skiing Val Cenis it allows you one day in Bonneval-sur-Arc, plus a free day in each of the neighbouring resorts of Aussois, la Norma and Valfrejus, which you can access via a free ski bus.
What is also striking about Val Cenis is the easy-going atmosphere of the place. Everyone seems to know each other and there’s a real community feel. Perhaps this is because all the villages that make up the resort are occupied year-round rather than being purpose-built ski resorts which only have any real life in them through the winter and the short summer seasons.
Considering that the area is so close to some of the biggest and best known ski areas in the world it’s remarkable that Val Cenis and Bonneval-sur-Arc should remain so relatively unknown, and it definitely goes to show that biggest isn’t always best…