Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-IX (French Ski Resorts)

After having tasted the moveable feast of Hemingway for few days, I returned once again to Grenoble by train. Pierre Montaz wanted me to see some more ski resorts of France. His son Christian Montaz had come to receive me. This time I stayed with Pierre Montaz and not in a hotel. It was a loveable experience to stay with a French family. They had planned my visits to a number of ski resorts but most of these were daylong trips. We first visited Val D’isere which is a huge ski area. I was surprised to see thousands of people skiing in all directions.
There are dozens of lifts on every side. The three small ski lifts and just one Gondola of Gulmarg seem like a joke when one thinks of French ski resorts! On way to Val D’isere we visited Val Thorens and La Plagne. Val Thorens is a very attractive ski resort. It gives you a very good ambiance for pure skiing. In contrast, La Plagne is very monotonous with concrete blocks. Everything was inside these huge blocks. Even the Gondola starts from within the blocks! France has dozens of ski resorts. During my first trip I visited Chamonix. On my second trip I visited Tigne, Plagne, Val D’isere, Villar de lan, les Deux Alpes, Chartreuse, and Val Thorens. During my subsequent visits to France I had the opportunity of seeing more resorts like Avorriaz, Meribel, Les Arc, and Megeve. All these resorts are very well organised in regard to basic infrastructure and facilities for skiing. For me it was a totally new experience. We visited small resorts which reminded me of Gulmarg like the Villar de lan in Vercors and Chartreuse. The resorts of Les Arc were huge on different levels. Most of the resorts have maintained the traditional architecture.
However, the newer ones are on modern lines with multi-storey concrete buildings. In most cases they have tried to camouflage the concrete with wood panelling. Most of the resorts have elected mayors to oversee the development on planned lines. There is no question of haphazard construction as is the norm in our resorts. Apart from top class centrally heated accommodation, the resorts have ample opportunities for entertainment and recreation. Those days most of the resorts had sufficient snow. People would stay in the villages down in the valleys and only some ski lifts were taken up into high mountains.
However, over the years the snowline has been receding and people are now going up both for skiing as well as staying. Most of the new ski resorts have been built up in higher altitudes. In spite of this, the snow has been playing truant and the latest craze with these resorts is the provision of facilities for making artificial snow. We saw this in operation in 1986 in Meribel resort. There is a huge complex like a power station at the base of a few kilometre long slopes. From inside the complex resembles a power house with huge compressors and pumps. We were taken to the control room where an engineer was sitting in front of a computer. He explained that they have laid underground pipes on two sides of these kilometre long slopes with nozzles pointing out after every 10 metres or so. The water is cooled and compressed and then sprayed through these nozzles onto the slopes. It forms into snow flakes and the slopes get covered with real snow. The engineer told us that he inputs instructions into the computer such as 1 meter of snow of certain consistency covered on top with 2 to 3 centimetres of powder and goes to sleep. In the morning entire slope along with the trees on the side are covered with snow. The whole set up had cost the resort an enormous amount probably few million dollars. When I asked the engineer why they were spending so much money? He responded that if they do not have snow on December 1st when the ski season starts, they will lose millions of dollars. So they had ensured that even if God fails them, the machines will not fail! They are committed to their clients for starting the skiing season in the resort on December 1st, every year!
The most important aspect of these ski resorts which impressed me was the total participation of the private sector and involvement of the local population in most of the activities. I had quite a few encounters in this regard with the locals. In Deux Alpes the local mayor invited me for lunch. He informed me that most of the hotels and ski lifts were owned by the local villagers. Their involvement with skiing had an interesting background. There are two villages on two sides of a long meadow with high slopes on two sides. Some years back a team of British skiers had come here for cross country skiing. They surveyed the whole area and told the locals that they owned a gold mine as regards possibilities of skiing. The two villages joined and started with small chalets and a couple of ski lifts. Now the place is one of the most prestigious ski resorts! All due to the active participation of the local villagers.
The other instance was our lunch in Chartreuse. It is a very small resort deep in pine forests. There is a beautiful restaurant constructed in the form of a traditional chalet. My guide Bernard Colomb knew the lady who owns the restaurant. She was very happy to see us but before she could give us lunch, she had a rush of tourists. She was single handed catering to all. Seeing the rush, Bernard and I decided to extend a helping hand to her. We assisted her in serving over two dozen customers which took about an hour. After that we three had lunch. It was a delight to see how local people were totally involved in running tourist facilities. The same needs to be encouraged in our own resorts especially Gulmarg where most of the properties are owned by outsiders and local villagers had been mostly working as menial staff. In recent times there have been some changes and the locals have built some small hotels. They need to be facilitated and helped in setting up various facilities for the benefits to percolate locally!
After visiting these resorts I decided to move ahead to Austria and Poland where I had been invited by various people connected with skiing. I purchased a 15 day euro rail pass to go to Austria and Poland and finally to Paris.

No comments:

Post a Comment