Saturday, May 10, 2008

French Skiing at Serre Chevalier

Few of the large French ski areas have traditional villages below them, but Serre Chevalier has 13. This is French skiing for Francophiles, with genuine French ambience in the restaurants and creperies. They know the area as 'Serre Che.'

Skiing at Serre Chevalier

The villages are spread out over 10km along the Briancon-Grenoble highway and are linked by regular and efficient ski buses in the valley, and by lifts on the mountain.

Serre Chevalier's skiing is paradise to the recreational skier who can enjoy seemingly endless kilometres of long cruising blue and red pistes, about two thirds of it below the tree line.

There is much less to interest more advanced skiers, and not a great deal to do when off the slopes - except for visiting Europe's highest town, medieval walled Briancon, which is now also lift-linked to Serre Chevalier's skiing by a modern 10 person gondola.

The Resort

If you drive to the area it is worth knowing the names of the main villages as they, and not Serre Chevalier (which is the mountain), are the ones which appear on the map. Once they were known by altitude, like Les Arcs or La Molina, but this is no longer fashionable.

There are three main centres and most of the resort's facilities and accommodation are in the lower two; Chantemerle (1350) - a sort of base station for skiers sleeping in accommodation scattered around the area , and Villeneuve (1400). There is much more mid-priced hotel accommodation than normal for France. There are plenty of ugly apartment blocks however, which spoil the overall impression of the larger villages but do at least have much better supermarkets nearby than usual.

The more discerning Francophile may well prefer the smaller and less spoilt Monetier-Les-Bains (1500). This is a quiet rural spa village with some lovely old buildings.

Because Serre Chevalier is made up of a series of small villages, there is no main centre for shopping or entertainment. All of the villages offer traditional gourmet dining in rustic settings. Chantemerle and Villeneuve have the lion's share of bars and a few night-spots. Even when you can find a bar it is unlikely to be anything other than 'quiet' as all the villages appear to operate under curfew. Shopping is limited and there are virtually no non-snow sports facilities, just one small swimming pool (open to non-residents) at the Sporting Hotel in Villeneuve.

A car is very useful for getting around off the slopes (and the road is usually the one busy place, being a major cross-border route); particularly for visits to Briancon which has a lovely 17th century upper quarter, including narrow cobbled streets full of patisseries and auberges.

The Skiing

The heart of Serre Chevalier's skiing is above Villeneuve and Chantemerle, accessed by cable cars and gondolas. This huge snow bowl offers innumerable opportunities for the skier looking for an easy day of feeling good about themselves, however mediocre their skiing! The relaxing experience isn't spoiled at the lifts where queues are rare (as in the bars). The only minor hassle might be finding a mountain restaurant - they're generally good but, like skiers, there aren't so many about.

Natural snow-cover is generally good despite Serre Che's southerly location which also gives it a reputation for sunshine. This is because the vast majority of the skiing is on Northerly facing slopes and above 2000 metres. The extensive larch tree cover is useful in bad weather for shelter from fog.

Monetier has the highest and most testing skiing in it's own smaller bowl, separate from the main area. From there, skiing easterly towards Briancon is much more interesting on the reds, than the flatter blues and reds for the return trip.

Beginners and children are each very well catered for in well regarded ski schools and non-ski kindergartens. They have easy sit-down access to one of the middle stations and then long flat trails to meander back down to village level.

What off-piste skiing there is generally through the trees close to the marked runs. Snowboarders have been welcome here since the early days of the sport in the mid '80s.

Lift passes of 6 days or more include a day each in nearby ski areas of Les Deux Alpes, Alpe d'Huez, Puy St Vincent and the Milky Way Resorts across the French/Italian border.

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