By Ron Bernthal
As we skied off the chairlift at the top of Cap de Baqueira my son adjusted his goggles, called out “Adios” and headed down Ta Argulls, a single diamond, five thousand-foot trail that ends at a mid-mountain restaurant.
I remained at the top a few minutes longer, mesmerized by the view of the snow-covered Pyrenees Mountains stretching along the horizon as far as I could see. To the north, somewhere in the middle of the outstretched of 8,000-foot peaks, was France . To the south, beyond the historic cities and small villages of Spain ‘s Catalunya province, was the Mediterranean . And above all this spectacular topography was the Spanish sun, warm and bright on this January afternoon.
By the time I reached the restaurant my son was already seated outside, relaxing on the sun-splashed terrace with a cold Estrella beer and some ingenious Spanish tapas. So this is what skiing the Pyrenees is all about, I thought, as I removed by parka, turned my face into the sun, and listened to the casual chatter of Catalan as I rested my weary legs.
Skiing Baqueira-Beret, the largest ski resort in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain , is a lot different than skiing Colorado or Utah , France or Switzerland . Lift tickets, equipment rentals, and accommodations are one-third the price, and the mountains and villages are usually free of crowds and have a definite un-pretentiousness to them. If globalization, pricy boutiques, fast food chains, and Starbucks have infiltrated most European ski destinations, it seems like this place, tucked away in the central Pyrenees , has been spared….for now.
Okay, the mountains are not as high as the Rockies or Alps, and the rich and famous are nowhere to be seen, but the soaring peaks that I can see from my hotel window are stunning in the crisp purple twilight, and the working class Spaniards that drive up here from Barcelona and Madrid for long weekends are the friendliest skiers I’ve ever met.
We flew into Barcelona first, spending a few days adjusting to jet lag and enjoying one of the nicest Mediterranean cities in Europe . Strolling down La Rambla, the tree-lined boulevard that runs from Port Vell ( Old Harbour ) to Placa de Catalunya, is a year-round activity, with winter visitors having the luxury of getting seats at the most popular tapas bars and seafood restaurants. The trendy restaurants Roig Robi and Talaia offer exquisite cuisine, while the historic Bar Marsella, which my 24-year old son chose, is filled with local university students filling up with beer and the intoxicating absinthe.
The Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic) is a classic medieval district of narrow, winding alleys that lead into wonderful cobble-stone plazas, with fountains and stone structures from the 16 th century. Antoni Gaudi, a Spanish architect of the early 20 th century, has contributed several modernistic buildings to the city, including the spectacular, and still unfinished, La Sagrada Familia. One of Gaudi’s unique designs for an urban hotel was recently submitted to New York City for the World Trade Center memorial project.
We rented a car in Barcelona and drove up to the town of Vielha , about 3-4 hours from the city, and just 10 minutes from the ski lifts at Baqueira. There are numerous routes you can follow, all good roads that provide sweeping views of mountaintop villages and the snowcapped peaks in the distance. In a surprising twist of scenery, the roads will occasionally tunnel through a small mountain range, and you will exit the other side moments later, in different terrain, under another set of gorgeous clouds and views.
We stopped often, visiting on foot some of the ancient villages perched on the top of nearby hills, or pulling to the side of the road to snack on goat cheese, olives, and bread bought from shops along the way.
Vielha (pop. 3,800) lies in the Val d’ Aran, the valley in northern Catalunya that provides a natural opening between Spain and France . Continue on the road north and within minutes you would be in southern France , and French armies did invade this region of Catalunya many times during the middle ages. But in 1312 the residents of Val d’Aran, known as Aranese, elected to remain loyal to Catalunya, although Napoleon’s army did occupy the area from 1810-1815.
This isolated, off-the-beaten path outpost of Spain has its own language, Aranese, a dialect of the old Romance languages of southern France , and most locals can easily switch between Spanish, Catalan (the language of Catalunya), French, and some English as well. The local cuisine is also a great combination of cultures, with excellent grilled Catalan pork sausages, ham, lamb, fresh trout, and crème caramel, along with the delicious French influences of snails, crepes, and baguettes. And the Spanish custom of tapas, the small bar snacks of olives, cheese, fish, grilled mushrooms, calamari, and peppers, is alive and well in the small tapas bars scattered along the narrow streets of this mountain village.
Visitors stay at one of the small hotels in Vielha, or in renovated stone houses in one of the villages closer to the ski area. Arties, Salardu, and Bagergue are tiny, picturesque, stone villages where Spanish peasants once farmed the valley floor and supplemented their income by guiding smugglers across the mountainous border to France . Today, many of the homes of these country folk have been enlarged, and converted into lovely rental apartments for winter skiers and summer hikers. Using stone and wood exteriors to resemble the original village structures, thus blending into the environment, the interiors are cozy and modern, with beamed ceilings, fireplaces, and satellite TV.
When the lifts at Baqueria-Beret close down in the late afternoon (there is no night skiing), most skiers head to their hotel for a sauna, or perhaps a short nap, before meeting at their favorite tapas bar for pre-dinner refreshments. My son and I enjoyed a little place called Café Nuevo, in the middle of old Vielha. Over small glasses of red wine, and equally small portions (pinchos) of tapas, we would relax until dinner, normally eaten anywhere from 9.30 to 11 PM . Late dinners, combined with afternoon siestas, is a Spanish tradition that refuses to die, even in 21 st century Spain and, once you get used to it, seems like a logical and enjoyable way live.
If you go…..
Vielha is a year-round destination for those who want someplace different, enjoyable, and safe. Skiing is 10 minutes away, with free shuttle buses for visitors without cars. In spring and summer the mountains are alive with wildflowers and hiking paths bring walkers into remote Aranese villages and along rushing rivers. Stay in the old town, near the tapas bars and Catalan restaurants. The Hotel Ribaeta, located on Plaza Coto Marco,
offers rooms with breakfast for $ 45-75. Sauna and ski storage available. Eat at Restaurant Era Bruisha, with its fresh trout ($12), Catalan specialties, and apple cider, and Restaurant All I Oli , a tiny, upscale eatery with grilled meats, fish, and escargot ($15-22). Contact the Val d’Aran tourist office at email@example.com
Baqueira-Beret is the largest Pyrenees ski area, although dozens of smaller areas nestle in the large Pyrenees range. Baqueira has 54 pistes (trails) and 28 lifts. It encompasses three mountains, Baqueira, Beret, and Bonaigua, for a total of 3,800 acres. Snow guns provide snow to the lower trails when necessary, and the season runs until mid-April. One day adult lift ticket $33.00; ski rental equipment $20. 00. Website: www.baqueira.es
The Tourist Offices of Spain can provide brochures and travel information for visits to
Barcelona and the rest of Catalunya. Web s ite: www.okspain.org .)
Iberia Airlines, the national airline of Spain , flies to Barcelona from New York , Chicago , and Miami . Call 800-772-4642, or your local travel agent, for current airfare and reservations.
© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.