Friday, 26th February – Sunday, 6th March 2005 – Combloux and Megeve
We were catching a ridiculously early ferry from Dover – 5.00 or something ghastly – which meant we should be in Combloux by mid-afternoon all being well. It also meant we were staying in a hotel near Dover overnight on Friday, because I couldn’t see the point of getting up at 2am, just to get down there in time. Certainly we should have been in the resort in good time for dinner, comfortably settled in the Hotel au Coeur des Pres, which would make driving straight through without stopping for lunch worthwhile. Anyway, I like driving in France. The motorways are nice and quiet, and you can get along at a fair pace. A couple of years back we’d covered the 600 miles from the resort to Brussels in around 7 hours. You can’t do that in Britain – even if it weren’t for the fact that you’d run out of land before you could!
The start of the trip looked as if relaxation was going to be no part of it. On Friday the snow was still impressively deep in Kent, and the drive down to Ashford and our overnight hotel was complicated by the fact that the motorway was closed in places to act as a lorry park. Mostly this was due to problems at Calais (a collapsed jetty, so ferries were being badly delayed). In addition, the diversion for car drivers was incredibly badly signposted, and very, very icy. Anyway, we made it to the hotel, slithered our way inside, and had an early night.
Despite the fact that SeaFrance were saying delays to sailings could be anything between 1 and 7 hours, they still insisted that we arrived in time for the ferry we were booked on, so we hauled out of bed at 03.00, and completed the drive to Dover for 04.00, only to be told that the 05.00 ferry was now the 06.30… we could have had an extra hour and a half of sleep. It may, however, have been as well that we didn’t.
It started snowing again as we parked up to wait to embark, something of a forerunner of the conditions we hit in France. The ferry arrived at 9am, and fortified by a decent breakfast in the boat’s Brasserie, we set of across France. The drive would normally take about 7-and-a-half hours in good conditions. We didn’t get good conditions. We got snow in various quantities from a gentle flurry or two to blizzard conditions around Bourg-en-Bresse. In fact we seriously considered giving up for the day round about there. The fact that we knew we were only around 120 miles from our destination probably kept us going, but it wasn’t pleasant.
The snow was coming at us in those thick, fat flakes that almost hypnotise you as you drive, and despite the salt on the roads, it was coming down so fast it was settling. We pressed on, however, taking 3 hours longer than usual, and arriving around 5 hours later than scheduled. It was a long day and 10 hours at the wheel is too much for me these days. The end result was something close to jet-lag for both of us, with a hotel room that seemed to be very badly moored!
I think the only creatures sorrier than the two of us on Saturday evening were the roadside hawks. I’m not sure what species they are – in fact I think they may be a specialised sub-species of motorway falcon – but every mile or so there’d be another one, sitting forlornly on a fencepost, looking incredibly bedraggled and more than slightly cross! Unlike them, an excellent dinner and an early night more than cured our woes. The usual warm welcome in the hotel, and pre-dinner drinks in front of a log fire, also helped no end. We fell asleep early and didn’t bother to set an alarm.
Sunday, as a result of our epic drive, was a day in which not much at all was achieved. We missed breakfast, and didn’t start moving till gone 10. Pottering around and unpacking and generally getting organised took up most of the morning. Lunch was in a very fine creperie in Megeve, where a goats’ cheese salad, and crepes with mushrooms, cheese and cream more than substituted for breakfast, and we drank a local cider, made with pears as well as apples, that foamed insanely and was considerably stronger than a lot of beers.
A gentle lurch round town window shopping (all one can afford to do in Megeve usually), was followed by dessert at another creperie, the Grand Marnier, which as the name suggests specialises in crepes with Grand Marnier on them, drinks with Grand Marnier added, and in fact Grand Marnier in any form you can imagine. The pistachio and almond crepe (with the obligatory liquer) was pretty good, and the milk shake was amazing… Needless to say, we didn’t do a lot after that. A spot of supply shopping (fruit, dried fruit, chocolate, milk, that sort of thing) in the local supermarket was quite enough activity for one day. After that it was back to the hotel for a late afternoon drink and an early dinner.
On Monday I finally ventured out with my skis. It was reasonably sunny, though still very cold. Not knowing how my knee was going to stand up to skiing, I bought a one-day lift pass and headed off up the Princesse lifts, planning on revisiting some of the slopes I know especially well.
Of course, there are certain things about skiing that you tend to blank out of your memory and one of those is ski boots. My observations suggest that no matter how much you spend on a pair of ski boots, and no matter how tailored they are to your foot (and mine are seriously tailored to my feet, with handbuilt footbeds, and various tweaks, shavings and who knows what else having been inflicted on them) they are still hideously painful when you first put them on. One of the reasons for mine being painful is the material inside has a “memory” which allows it to mould to your feet. This has one slight snag. When you haven’t worn them for sometime the memory fades, and they revert to their original shape. They do eventually remember again, but it isn’t an instant process… Result? Numb toes for most of the morning…
Still, it was a lovely day, and I was pleased to note that I still remember how to ski (I ought to, after all the days I’ve spent on the slopes in the past – I worked out that in 1998 I spent something like 40 days out there) and the knee caused me no problems at all, until late afternoon when I whacked it on a chairlift barrier and couldn’t speak for a couple of minutes! By the time I made it back to the hotel, the offending joint was painfully swollen again.
On Tuesday morning the knee was very painful indeed, though walking was not too bad. So I opted to walk with Lynne instead of skiing, fetching up in the village of Combloux, at the pharmacy where I would buy some anti-inflammatory cream to see if I could take some of the heat out of the knee. The walk was beautiful, down one side of the valley and up the other, mostly along pathways and farm tracks. The sun was shining (I soon shoved my sweater into my backpack and settled for my t-shirt) and everything was pristine, covered in snow and glinting in the light as if someone had thrown handfuls of diamonds over the landscape.
We were out for a little under two hours, and saw crows chasing off a hawk, various mad farm dogs, and three of the most beautiful farm cats, tabbies with lovely spotted coats. They were hiding under a barn, but eventually curiosity overcame them, and they ventured out to take a look at us. They didn’t get close, and were startled back into cover when a lorry with snow chains on came rattling along the track. We found a sun terrace in the village and sat there enjoying the warmth for another hour or so, before going back to the hotel to relax. A good, easy sort of day.
By Wednesday my knee was responding well to the gel, so I decided it would be another day on skis. This time I meandered all over the place, including skiing down to the bottom of the Princesse lift, not something I’ve been able to do most years. Normally, there isn’t anywhere near enough snow on the lower slopes. Once again, the knee was no trouble, and I skied for the best part of three hours, before finally stopping for lunch at the Igloo, one of my favourite mountain restaurants in the resort.
I was entertained by a slightly mad St. Bernard dog at the Princesse lift mid-station. It was clearly scrounging for food, and became intensely interested in anyone who might have had anything to eat in their rusksacks or pockets. Now when you’re standing on a slope, on skis, having a dog come up behind you and put his paws on your shoulders while he buries his nose in your bag is really not conducive to good balance. He didn’t do that to me, but the man next to me got sent on his way rather earlier than he’d planned, it seemed.
Oh, and in addition to the boot observation, there are a couple of other skiing observations I feel I ought to share with you. The Rosays chairlift has a microclimate all its own, and is possibly the coldest place (outside Scandinavia) anywhere in Europe. Consequently, this is the one chair that inevitably grinds to a halt and leaves you sitting there freezing to death… Also, all ski runs, anywhere, contain at least one complete moron. It may even be proportional, with longer pistes containing more idiots… On Wednesday it was the teenage cretin at the top of the Ideal who managed to let go of her snowboard. The first I knew of it was when the damn thing whistled past me (halfway down) and vanished off the edge of the piste and onto the next run over. The last I saw of its hapless owner/renter, she was walking down the wrong piste looking for her lost equipment. I kind of hoped she didn’t find it…
On Thursday I decided I needed a change of scenery, so I drove up to the slopes on the Combloux side. I haven’t been out there for a couple of years, and was pleasantly surprised by how good (and relatively quiet) it all was. I got the third parking spot in the carpark right by the pistes, and that was after 10 o’clock.
I had a lovely day, skiing down to Megeve on the Pere Noel (Father Christmas) run, then trekked back up to the top of the Jaillet cable car, had lunch at a new (well, new to me) restaurant, and then spent a slightly frustrating time trying to get back to Combloux. I knew I could do a nice gentle green run after lunch, over to the chairlift that would get me back to the car park eventually. So I set off down les Sept Nains (Seven Dwarves). All I can say is damn dwarves! The turning to the chairlift didn’t exist, and I ended up back down at the resort level again, having had to take my skis off and walk the bit where the piste crossed the road and there was no longer snow on it. I’m very glad I’m not a beginner, because that would have scared a beginner… Anyway, I made it back in the end via a combination of blues and reds, including an absolutely super curving red run off the top of the lifts.
Oh, and I should possibly explain gradings too. I know they’re done differently elsewhere, but in European resorts the theory is green is for easy, blue is intermediate, red is difficult and black is very difficult – because I ski alone, I don’t touch black runs, and I don’t ski off piste. However, everything else is fair game. It was great to be able to ski all the way back to the car, too. Made a change from having to hike half a mile in ski boots with my skis over my shoulder (which is the usual thing at the end of the day).
We had a great dinner on Thursday too, having decided that we would prefer to have a pierrade as a change from the excellent five-course dinners that the chef regularly produces. This is a meal cooked on a hot stone, with pieces of fresh vegetables, and meat ready sliced for you to do what you want with. You just put them on the stone and decide for yourself when they are cooked enough for your liking. These days, it’s really a fake stone, kept hot by electricity… I’m sure it wasn’t in the past.
Oh, and for our amusement there were some very strange Dutch people in the hotel. I’m sure one of them was something in the Dutch media; her face was slightly familiar but I can’t think why – unless I saw her when I was living in Laren, the place a friend calls the Gold Coast of the Netherlands. She arrived, wearing knife-thin stiletto heels, and a coat that looked as if it needed a saucer of milk. She came down to dinner wearing more makeup than the rest of the female guests put together, and dressed to kill, with a mink collared suede jacket. I don’t think she was in the sort of hotel she thought she was in… She also trailed such a cloud of perfume behind her that I couldn’t stay in the bar once she walked in. Well, I could have done but I’d have had an asthma attack. On Friday evening, at the end of a very sunny day, she made the mistake of wearing a pink feather trimmed sweater, which clashed very badly with her sunburn…
Friday was yet another beautifully sunny day, and so I opted to ski over at Rochebrune, simply because again I hadn’t been over there and I wanted to try the Olympic run for the first time since about 1999. It’s not as terrifying as it sounds, though when I was first re-learning to ski, it frightened me half to death the first time I tried it. I should probably diverge here and explain my skiing life.
I first went skiing on a school trip in 1972, aged 13, and again the following year. I was a somewhat overweight teenager, and not especially keen on sport (apart from swimming), but I took to skiing, and so when the school organised a second trip the following year, I went again. And that was it, until I went to work in Edinburgh, in 1986, 14 years later. The company I was contracting at had a ski club, and proper flexi-time. What this meant was that the skiers all worked flat out, four days a week and took Wednesday off to go to the ski runs at Glenshee. Unless you’ve skied in Scotland it’s hard to imagine just how cold it can get. The air temperature isn’t the issue. It’s the wind chill factor that gets to you. I’ve known days when it was -25°C, and the fact that often you’re skiing over rocks, heather and ice rather than snow encourages a somewhat robust attitude, shall we say… Anyway, for an entire season, I skied every week, and often at weekends too. I ended the season with a trip to Austria, and decided that Scottish skiing was only for the insane… I got a gold medal in the ski school race that season too, but I still don’t know how…
Anyway, that was it till 1996, when I got my first European contract, and discovered that there are a number of resorts within an hour or so of Nice. There was no holding me the next two winters, and then I moved to Grenoble, and worked from home for quite a large part of the two and a half years that followed. So long as the work was completed by the deadline, when we did the work was of no interest to anyone. With 180 resorts within a one-hour drive, Winter days were used for work if the weather was bad, and for skiing if it was fine and sunny. I did a lot of skiing… it got me from a petrified beginner/intermediate to expert, and I’ve never really looked back.
Anyway, end of digression. Friday was yet another lovely skiing day, with perfect snow, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself whizzing up and down the mountain, and meeting lots of very pleasant people on the chairlifts. I didn’t do much though, as my legs were tired, and anyway I’d planned to meet Lynne in Megeve for a late lunch, and then we were going to go and do some shopping (stocking up on wine, and various foodstuffs like cassoulet, soups and other tasty goodies). We had a super lunch on a sunny terrace and then loaded up the car afterwards in the local supermarket.
Saturday was supposed to be an easy day. I didn’t intend to spend most of it on skis, but that was how it turned out. It was cold, in my defence, so keeping moving was important. I also had a decided surreal moment in the morning when I headed off to Bettex, and got to the top of the run that was going to take me there. It was empty. Not a soul in sight. No animals, no birds, no skiers. I whizzed down it quite happily, turned back to look at where I’d been, and there were hordes of skiers behind me. Where did they all come from? I have no idea… it was very strange. I staggered back by four o’clock, and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get too much stuff into my bags, because we knew we would have to leave early on Sunday.
And in the evening we finally made it to the restaurant we’ve been trying to get to for the last three years, les Flocons de Sel. And it was worth every minute of a three year wait. The scallops I had were perfection, and the lamb was even better. Lynne had what she said was the best pigeon she’s ever eaten. We couldn’t manage dessert, but we did manage some very fine local cheeses, and because we didn’t have dessert, we got instead a lovely selection of mint-flavoured sweets, including lollipops, made from a honey-flavoured disk, with stripes of mint painted across them, turquoise candy floss flavoured with mint, and sticks of seaside style rock, but only the width of a drinking straw. There were superbly flavoured, beautifully executed and I loved the sense of fun that went into them. On the way out, the maitre d’ hauled the chef, Emmanuel Renaut, out of the kitchen because she said we needed to meet him. It was very nice touch, and we will be eating there again next year. The actual restaurant is in a small, old-fashioned building with low beams, wood-burning stoves, and white-washed walls, and is cosy and comfortable. The tables are big, and not too close together, and the staff are amazingly professional, as well as very friendly. It’s pretty near perfect, or at least a perfect as we could get without really breaking the budget.
And on Sunday, we left at around 8.45, drove straight through and were back in the UK by 6pm… I love holidays!