Snow problem – for SNCF, apparently…

Back from the French Alps [continued]

If many of the rail schedules were in shreds after speed restrictions were imposed to assure the security of travellers, SNCF’s staff were ready and waiting to help those stranded after missing onward services. As we rolled into the Gare de Lyon in Paris over 2hrs later than planned the train announcer informed us that anyone experiencing a ‘rupture de correspondence’ should present themselves to their welcome desk.

Doing so involved joining a queue, of course, but after checking our tickets we were given a new reservation for the following day, and an overnight reservation in a nearby hotel. Thank-you, SNCF – we really couldn’t have asked for more.

And now we’re back to planning our next visits, which will take us first to the Hautes-Pyrénées and then back to the French Alps.

First, though, there’s the little matter of Christmas and New Year to get out of the way, so I’ll take the opportunity of wishing you all a great time over the holiday break, wherever you are. And if you’re skiing, lay a powder track or two for me…

Roger Moss, Editor,

First Tracks… in the Trois Vallées

The 16th of December found us laying our first tracks of the ski season in the vast Trois-Vallées ski area of the French Alps.

On the previous day, after a long but painless rail journey across France we arrived in Albertville, boarded our waiting taxi and began the long climb towards our base in Les Menuires. Early indications were good; we passed through the snowline long below Saint-Martin de Belleville, one of our favourite corners of the 3V. By now temperatures were plummeting, giving us high hopes for the quality of the snow which might await us.  Sure enough, the mountains had retained a healthy covering of snow from the heavy falls which had kick-started so many ski areas early this season.

The following morning we snapped into our skis, schussed over to the nearest lift and headed up the mountain for what would turn out to be one of the finest starts to a season we can recall.  Despite glacial temperatures, the sky was for the most part clear blue, and the surrounding landscapes underlined the fact that we were in the one of the world’s truly great ski areas.

When the lifts finally closed and the mountains fell silent we simmered decadently for awhile in the Jacuzzi perched incongruously on the balcony of our apartment, before heading down to Saint-Martin de Belleville for a relaxed meal in the cosy surroundings of La Bouitte, which currently holds not one but two Michelin-stars. By the time we bade our host a reluctant farewell the first flakes of a fresh snowfall were dancing in the lights.

The forecast said to expect 8cm but we awoke to at least twice that figure.
Which slowed things down somewhat as snow was cleared from the ski-lift loading areas and avalanche teams ignited their scientifically-controlled charges to dislodge any potentially unstable accumulations of snow before the pistes could be opened for the first skiers of the day.

What a morning we had, floating around in near-silence on deep powder as visibility alternated between pretty good and not a lot. It was another ski-day we’ll long remember, rounded off with a memorable taxi descent among the snowplough teams doing their best to keep things moving while the snow continued to fall (right down to the valley floor).

As we reached the Gare SNCF in Albertville with 30 min or so in hand before our return train was due, we thought that we’d put the lid on a brief but uplifting experience.

How wrong could we be? The classic, loco-hauled TER train arrived pretty much on time, but was subject to speed restrictions owing to the snowfalls, and reached Lyon too late for us to transfer to our TGV service to Paris. With hoards of people in the same situation from other regional service delays, we were told to board the next Paris train. By now 50min behind schedule, we left Lyon and travelled a few hundred metres before being halted by news of a breakdown  in Macon paralysing the train ahead of us – our intended train? We may never know, but I can tell you that I’m writing these words from the top deck of a duplex TGV running (after cunning re-routing) around 1hr 45min late – way to late to allow us to get across Paris on the metro system and catch the return TGV which should have taken us safely back home tonight.

Stay tuned…

Girls! How to Go Skiing with Hand Luggage…

I’ve just been skiing, and travelling was a breeze – thanks to well-planned, minimal packing. I travelled by train, carrying only a small, lightweight holdall that would probably measure up to hand luggage on an airline, and which fitted easily into the overhead luggage racks on the train. I could nip into a café across the street while waiting for a connection, while others girls struggled with overstuffed bags, heaving them along breathlessly in and out of trains. And I felt very smug indeed.

So how did I do it while taking everything I needed? Here’s my formula….

1. Ski Gear

If you want to travel light don’t take your own ski gear, but hire in advance and collect when you arrive.
If like me you can’t do without your own boots then take them in a lightweight boot bag with a shoulder strap  – and stuff your goggles and gloves inside your boots.

The bulkiest item will be salopettes.  Pack them at the bottom of your bag, rolling rather than folding them, to make them as compact as possible – a couple of large elastic bands will help.
Put in two long-sleeve base layer tops and a lightweight fleece, again rolling them tightly into available space. If you feel the cold, try a thermal under-bonnet and glove liners, and make sure your base layers are of good quality, to keep your body really warm.  A good warm ski hat and as many pairs of socks as you can fit in will complete your ski wear.

2. Toiletries

Aim to take as few as possible. Buy mini-size deodorant and decant your favourite shampoo, shower gel and  moisturizer (essential) into small plastic bottles (available from chemists).  Some liquid handwash will be enough to refresh socks and undies – even a base-layer. A plastic bag is always handy, especially if you have damp clothes when you return home. If you can, keep make-up to a minimum, bringing mascara, a moisturising lipstick and a high factor sun screen.

3. Day wear and Après ski

Obviously, pack underwear, a spare pair of ordinary long socks and a pair of tights to wear under jeans (or leggings if cold) or under a skirt if you go somewhere nice.  Pack a smart top to wear in the evenings – I took a long-length knitted top with a plunge neck to wear over leggings, and teamed it with a featherweight shawl. The most adaptable footwear is a pair of leather boots – they can look smart for the evenings but are warm and snug for exploring the ski village. You’ll have to wear your ski jacket to travel but team it up with a scarf and accessories you’ll love wearing out in the evening. Pack a warm cardigan if you have room, otherwise wear it while travelling. It’s great if you need an extra layer for relaxing in your accommodation and can double up as a dressing gown.

For the journey I wore a polo neck jumper under a knitted bodywarmer, leggings and a short corduroy skirt teamed with black knee length boots. I found this combination gave enough flexibility to mix and match whatever activity I did.

4. Essentials

Wear a small shoulder bag or backpack (useful for the slopes) for your passport, cash, tickets and documentation for insurance, accommodation etc., plus your sunglasses and lip balm – you’ll need them as soon as you arrive. For holiday snaps, your smartphone will do it all but don’t forget to load ski resort piste maps and other useful apps before you go.

So that’s it. I didn’t feel that I’d forgotten anything essential, and if travelling light is important to you, then try it and see.