28 March 2010

Courchevel discovery

Since I returned to skiing several years ago after a 20-year hiatus, I'd been trying to avoid the obviously English parts of the French Alps. You know the sort: you'd be lucky to hear a word of French, and the people around you think they're in a snowy outpost of Fulham. I love France too much to have a lot of patience with an anglicised version of it. Then again, there is some fantastic skiing to be had, even by a skier as mediocre as I am. When the Association of British Travel Organisers to France (Abtof) invited me on a press trip to Courchevel last week, I decided to put my rampant francophilia to one side and have a go.

We were staying the Pierre & Vacances residences in the Hotel du Golf, which is right at the foot of the slopes in Courchevel 1650. You can walk out of the hotel, hop on the cable car and ski back down again. I know this kind of thing is old hat to more seasoned skiers, but it was a revelation to me. And if you were feeling too lazy to ski over to Courchevel 1850 (as I was), a quick bus ride gives you even more extended runs and more expensive coffees. I'd heard that the higher you go in Courchevel, the higher the prices. I'd heard correctly. Five euros for a coffee at the Café de la Poste. For that you get a view of the slopes and some seriously good people-watching under blue skies. Worth every centime.

The other journalists were real skiers, not rubbish ones like me, so they were off exploring the other parts of the Trois Vallées, mainly Les Menuires and Val Thorens. I was happy to pootle about Courchevel, with its large number of lovely wide cruising runs in shades of anything other than black. We'd meet up in time for a beer on the terrace of the hotel by the slopes and catch up on the day's news before heading off to another gastronomic experience. One evening was spent in La Tania, the neighbouring resort built for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. Sweet little place, with a Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Farçon tucked away in a corner. Unpretentious place, exceptional food. The meal ended with a hay sorbet. Yes, a sorbet with the distinct flavour of hay. It sort of worked.

The climax of the trip was a night at the Altitude Festival at Méribel, a comedy festival set up three years ago by the comedian Marcus Brigstocke. That deserves a blog to itself, which will come shortly.

02 March 2010

Coming soon ...

I've decided to relaunch my blog after neglecting it for many months, and I intend to keep it up on a regular basis. Since my last post I've had quite a few memorable trips, and I've also made great progress on my Balkan travelogue.

Last September I explored the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna for The Independent, taking in Bologna, Parma, Modena, Ferrara, Ravenna and Rimini, and the resulting article was runner-up for Best Newspaper Article at the Italian Travel Writing Awards in February 2010. I was so chuffed to get the award, especially as the trip was quite arduous and squeezed in a lot of regions in a comparatively short time. And I was given 3kg of pukka parmigiano reggiano from a local cheese-maker. Gorgeous.

I followed that up with a few idyllic days in Provence in late October, where the temperature reached 25C as we wandered through the Vaucluse, Bouches-du-Rhône and ended up at the quayside in Marseille. I'll be making a return visit to Provence in May.

A ski trip to St-Lary in the French Pyrenees rounded off 2009. You can read about it in greater depth in The Independent, but, briefly, it was a bit of a disappointment because of a distinct lack of snow and a surfeit of rain. Still, as I had the luck to celebrate New Year's Eve there, it was a fantastic time, and the village is incredibly pretty. The French do New Year's Eve so well – high spirits, partying in the streets all night and no public drunkenness. Astoundingly civilised.

I'll be able to make up for the lack of snow by squeezing in another ski trip to Courchevel and Méribel in mid-March in time for the Altitude comedy festival. I won't forget to blog this time.