When the rain in Spain turns gloriously to snow

Email|Print| Text size + By Claire Walter
Travel Arts Syndicate / January 16, 2005

VIELHA, Spain -- If you're a carnivorous skier or snowboarder who craves sun-kissed, wide-open terrain and has a taste for nightlife, do I have a resort for you. If you're bilingual or have a smattering of high school Spanish, so much the better.

The resort is Baqueira-Beret in the Spanish Pyrnes, deep in the Val d'Arn in the northernmost corner of the province of Catalonia. Though it's the winter playground of the Spanish royal family, you don't need to spend a king's ransom to ski there. Plus, it's a cultural experience.

Straight-lining its history to the Romans who came over the Bonaigua Pass, steeped in centuries of rural isolation and oozing authentic charm, the valley became tenuously connected with the rest of Spain when the first road from the Spanish side reached the region in 1925.

Then came the civil war and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco and most of the Aranese were happy to be far from the situation. Only when a tunnel was completed through the formidable mountains in 1948 did the Val d'Arn turn from a tenuous connection with France toward a firmer one with Spain. The local Aranese language is closely related to what is spoken in equally isolated farming villages across the border in the French Pyrnes, though now, of course, everyone also speaks Spanish, too.

The past is a powerful force in the present here. Ancient stone houses line narrow lanes in rural villages. Farmers tend sheep, cattle, and horses, and try to coax crops from the earth on steep, stony hillsides. Austere Romanesque churches speak of a simple, enduring faith. Time seems to have stopped here -- until you reach Baqueira-Beret, the largest ski resort in Spain.

Skiing rocketed the valley into the 20th century. Founded nearly 40 years ago with just one lift and three runs, Baqueira-Beret now boasts 31 chairlifts including two high-speed, six-seat lifts and four quads (more than Breckenridge and almost as many as Vail, in Colorado) with an hourly lift capacity of more than 47,460 (more than double that of Snowmass in Colorado), accessing 4,747 skiable acres (more than Whistler in British Columbia or Big Sky in Montana and nearly as many as Vail), and a 3,282-foot vertical drop (nearly the same as Sun Valley's Baldy in Idaho).

One-third of the runs, including all the lower-mountain terrain and the most popular high slopes, are equipped with snowmaking, meaning machine-made snow covers roughly twice the acreage of all of Aspen Mountain. But you don't ski statistics. You ski the same sorts of wide-open, above-the-treeline slopes that skiers love in the Alps. You ski from those vast snowfields toward the treeline, but when it's snowing and visibility is low, or if you want a change of scenery from the world of white, you stay on the tree-lined lower runs. You can rock and roll throughout this three-mountain ski complex. And you do it all for roughly 40 percent less than mainstream ski resorts in Austria, France, or Switzerland.

From the lively downvalley city of Vielha, you reach the actual resort of Baqueira-Beret after an 8-mile drive on a curvy and narrow road. It snakes past intact old villages, mid-rise hotels, and apartments whose modernism shocks the eye, new resort developments completed after the local government began requiring all additional buildings to reflect the traditional Aranese building style of stone and wood, and finally to the crowded ski-resort base called Baqueira 1500, after its elevation in meters.

To a North American, the layout is curious. From Baqueira 1500, convenient but architecturally uninspiring, you trudge up the stairs to the central base area and the bottom of the Bosque chairlift. Every sign is in Spanish, and Spanish is virtually all you hear spoken around you. Did you pay attention in Spanish 101?

At the lift-loading area, an attendant sticks your skis or snowboard onto the back of your chair, and you and your liftmates ride up. At this latitude, adequate snow cover is not assured on the heavily trafficked lower mountain early or late in the season. When there is cover, you can ski all the way down at the end of the day. When not, you descend on the chairlift. Being farther south (and also farther west in the continent's main time zone) does have its advantages: Baqueira-Beret skiers enjoy longer days than those at Alpine resorts, not a trivial matter when a mountain lunch might last until 3 p.m.

The Bosque chair unloads on a busy plateau outfitted with mountain restaurants, a beginner area, a half-pipe, and more lifts climbing higher and fanning out in either direction. This is unquestionably the heart of Baqueira-Beret skiing. Here, you can ski your legs into stumps, especially with so many high-speed lifts and so few liftlines. What you don't want to do is enroll in ski classes if your Spanish is not good. Although savvy, thrifty Brits have discovered Baqueira-Beret for its moderate prices and great weather, little English is spoken by instructors.

So dust off your Spanish dictionary, and reset your body clock, because the Spanish, who probably make up 95 percent of Baqueira-Beret's clientele, don't ski like the rest of us. After a leisurely breakfast, they don their stylish ski clothes and head for the lifts at about 10 a.m. They ski until 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon, then break for a long lunch and perhaps a siesta on the sun terrace. At 3:30 or 4, they take a few more runs, then make their way down the mountain.

At the base, in any of the small villages that line the long access road, or in Vielha, it is tapas time. Bars put out luscious tidbits such as olives and foie gras, roasted peppers and small sausages, washed down with wine or beer. Then the Spanish saunter back to their lodgings, with or without shopping along the way. A two- or three-hour siesta follows, before freshening up for dinner.

Val d'Arn restaurants are virtually empty at 8 p.m., not because guests have finished dining, but because they haven't arrived yet. Sitting down to a correctly set table at 9 or 10 p.m. is common. Bottles of Rioja, the favorite red wine in Spain's ski country, accompany hearty, multi-course meals. Local specialties abound (rich soups and generous portions of lamb, veal, and duck), but international dishes are available too, notably at dessert, when European sweets are prepared.

Then, for those with energy left, which seems to include every Spanish skier save young children and grandparents, there are abundant nightspots. Noisy, smoky, crowded bars pack 'em in until the wee hours. Music thumps, lights play, and dance floors rock in many Val d'Arn clubs. The vibrant scene doesn't end till dawn.

You might adapt quickly to the Spanish way, or you can modify it. If you get to lifts before 9:30 a.m., there won't even be a wait at the bottom station. If you break for lunch at noon, you'll practically have the restaurant to yourself. If you quit at 3:30 or 4 p.m., the valley runs won't be mobbed and you'll be the first at the tapas bar. If you have dinner early, around 7 or 8, the restaurant is all yours. And if you turn in around midnight, you'll have the stamina for the next morning's 9 or 9:30 start.

But with that off-beat schedule, you probably won't run into King Juan-Carlos, who keeps more traditional Spanish skiing hours.

Claire Walter is a freelance writer in Colorado.

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