March 2001   
Larch trees and skies worthy of Cezanne - skiing down into la Foux d'Allos, in the High Alps of Provence.
all photos © Linde Waidhofer
Skiing on the riviera
Blame it on Marc Bremond. I'd call Marc a thoroughly internationalized Frenchman, a rarity — a Swedish wife and years abroad had forged a tempermant that's equally at home guiding treckers in Lapland or the Sahara, or organizing ski tours through the Alps for Australian journalists. But his hawklike features, dark complexion and black hair all spoke of the Mediterranean, of olive trees and garlic, vinyards and tile roofs. Marc's roots were in the south of France, in the midi , in Provence — and that's where he suggested we ought to spend a week skiing.

"What do you mean, Marc, ski the Riviera? There's no snow down there! It's been a dry December in the Haute Savoie, and those little mountains down near the coast, they're tiny, right? with dinky ski areas that probably aren't worth visiting even in a good snow year."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Marc insisted, and introduced us to the least know corner of the Alps. We were blown away. I still don't know how it's possible, less than a hundred miles from Nice and the Mediterranean. And these are not small resorts. Or better yet, they are small-to-medium resorts by European standards, intimate, warm, and welcoming, but scattered across some really big mountains - and offering really big skiing. The mountains are big because they come that way, but the skiing is extra-big because these resorts simply aren't crowded. Even to the French the southeastern corner of their own country remains the unknown Alps. When the French think of Provence and the south they think of the sun, and often have a harder time than we did believing there's good skiing an hour's drive from the Riviera. But skiing, like life, has a special flavor here.

The south of France is less a real place than a myth, a mystique, a collective fantasy in which so many people believe that it seems to have come true. The people who live here are no more average Frenchmen than Texans are average Americans. And just like Texans they have their own way of talking - a delicious drawl peppered with extra syllables - their own tradition of outrageous hospitality, and their own way of looking at the world. A world which, even to the outsider, does look different. The stucco buildings in the small villages we drove through were all painted in warm sunny colors, pinks, ochres, burnt siennas; and when we reached the mountains, the Alps of haute Provence, I was surprised to see snow was still white.

La Foux d'Allos, secret getaway in France's southernmost Alps
It was and there was lots of it. First stop at La Foux d'Allos (we'd never heard of it either) wasn't the ski school or tourist office, but the boulangerie , the bakery run by Marc's uncle, Lucien. Dusting flour from his hands, this wiry intense oldtimer, whose foxy wife was half his age, reached for the pastis bottle - and soon we were deep in the middle of the basic ritual of Provence, the ubiquitous anise flavored aperitif, nibbling at a fougace , the spiced regional bread, and staring out past a window full of baguettes, tartes and pastries at some pretty vast slopes. Definitely mountains, not hills. One modern mega-building just above town had been constucted two stories in the air on concrete pilings to allow room for avalanches to pass underneath! Of course, in the old hamlet of la Foux down below, the ancient stone buildings had wisely been placed away from the avalanche paths.

Despite the epic lunches on sunny terraces, despite the rich red wines of Provence, despite the hospitality and long loquacious conversations, despite all the heavy, heady, irrationally happy ambience of Mediterranean France, we got our skis on, got our licks in, started piling up snowy memories, one after the other, day after day - although we never did find the time to ski the same runs, or take the same lifts, twice.

In the southern Alps it seems as though the ski resorts always come in pairs: from La Foux we skied over to the neighboring resort , Pra-Loup (just as later that week we would ski from Vars to Risoul). We even talked the packing crews into taking our bags across to Pra-Loup in their Piston Bullys. Mid station between the two resorts was a ruined farmhouse-turned-mountain hut, les Agneliers , a church steeple and two lifts stretching up, up, up and out of sight, and not more than a dozen skiers.

We sailed down into Pra-Loup on long waves of evening light, limestone towers glowing behind silhouetted larch trees. Wide elegant pistes curving down into a zone of thick forests, friendly and sheltering after the starker, wilder whiteness of La Foux. A rare storm-proof resort, I thought to myself - and I was right. We woke in a wild and wooley snowstorm, and had an unforgetable day skiing tree-sheltered powder in gusts which would have been nightmarish in higher, treeless areas. Evenings we wandered from bistro to restaurant along the covered arcade at the foot of the mountain: gourmet, three-star, nouvelle cuisine memories; conversations that lasted till two in the morning spiced with unpronouncable phrases in the local dialect and crazy history lessons about the "Mexicans" living in the valley below, in the town of Barcelonette - a whole poverty-stricken community that had emmigrated to Mexico at the turn of the century and eventually come home to France, dripping with pesos to build themselves lavish latin villas below these mountains. We were absorbing local color like sponges. We could have stayed for weeks but the storm broke and we moved on, driving through a medieval landscape on which the 20th century looked like a thin veneer, the car radio tuned to the daily madness of Radio Monte Carlo.

Another new valley, another unknown (to us) ski resort. - skiing down toward Vars.

Next stop, Vars, vallée des peintres , Vars, "valley of painters." We felt like we'd arrived for one of those music festivals, film festivals, or other cultureal extravaganzas that flourish like weeds in the fertile civic soil of tiny provençal villages, but six months out of synch so that the only gypsies left in town were the multi-hued skiers scattered in all directions over the slopes on both sides of town. Vars was really a string of toy-sized villages strung like pearls along an alpine valley beneath the col de Vars, Vars-les-Claux, Vars-Ste.-Marie, Vars-St.-Marcellin. It was hard to tell where Vars started and stopped, in which direction it, or you the skier, were really headed. Part of this impression came from the double-ended chairlifts where you'd load in the center of the cable with a choice of going right or left, up one side of the valley or the other. Cunning. But where was the action? There were bigger peaks, higher and longer lifts on one side of the valley, and much more untracked powder on the other. An embarassement of riches, an excess of choices.

But to tell the truth there was powder everywhere. These mountains which looked so big to us suffer by comparison with their even bigger relatives to the north. "Our southern Alps resorts are so small," said Jean Pierre Giuliani, head of tourist promotion for Vars whose sidewhiskers made him look like a cherubic19th century whaling captain. "We simply have to link up with the neighboring ski resorts. Otherwise no one will take us seriously." We nodded and laughed. Each of these "little" resorts by itself would be a giant back home in Colorado.


Endless fields of untouched powder, in this photo at Auron 2000 - because the strongest skiers are elsewhere, pursuing the popular image of the steep and deep in the more famous resorts of the Haute Savoie.

But skiing, it seems, like every facet of European life is influenced, even overinfluenced by tradition. And tradition says that strong, athletic, ambitious skiers go to places like Val d'Isère and Chamonix. The sportif set doesn't congregate in the southern Alps. Which only means that there's at least twice as much untracked snow to ski here for any good skiers who do break the mold and head south to these out-of-the-way marvels. We went nuts. There was so much fresh snow that it didn't ever seem worth taking the same lift back up just to put a second set of tracks beside the first one. Only totally virgin slopes would do.

Risoul is the other half of Vars' twin constellation. The other half of the mountain, another village, another valley, another whole lift network. But although Risoul was Vars' double, doubling the vertical, doubling the skiing, it didn't double the charm. Risoul is, and feels like, just another modern ski resort. When you finally wind your way down to the bottom, you're surrounded by a squat semi-circle of newish condo structures. We fled back to the heights, and enjoyed the squeaky cold snow on Risoul's northern exposure, finding the very best snow beside long tongues of avalanche debris. The dragon had stirred in its sleep during the last storm and left these traces. Like smugglers we explored the tortuous ridgeline frontier between the two areas, looking for new and ever more secret routes for our contraband tracks: cornice and couloir, combe and crest. We couldn't ski it all. But we tried.

The yellow and black avalanche warning flag - an international symbol - and plenty of room to make your own tracks after the avalanches have come down.

We never found any better skiing in the southern Alps; but at Auron 2000 - our last stop before heading back north to the real world — we skied down an off-piste ridge where Moslem invaders were defeated by Christian knights long before America was discovered — imagine contrasts like that and you'll have some sense of our farewell to the Alps of southern France. Singular. Surrealistic. Sensational.

Marc uncorked a bottle of wine from his family's vinyards in Provence, and allowed himself a gentle "I told you so!" He was right. The unknown Alps. Les Alpes de Haute Provence. The mountains of the midi, skiing on the riviera.

   March 2001  
all photos of the southern French Alps
© Linde Waidhofer
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.