Staying in valley towns

29th January 2010, by Chris Gill

Bourg St Maurice, way down in the valley

Bourg St Maurice, way down in the valley

Most of us, most of the time, like to spend our skiing holidays in ski resorts – villages at the foot of the lifts and pistes, with snow on the streets and twinkling lights in the trees. But some of us, some of the time, like to do things differently. There are quite a few areas of the Alps where you have the alternative of staying in a town – it may be a village, but often it’s a town – at lower altitude. And there are good reasons to think of doing just that.

Reason one: Wherever you opt for a valley town rather than a high-altitude resort, you can expect appreciably lower prices for everything from hotel rooms to ski servicing. Obviously this doesn’t apply to valley towns that are in themselves proper resorts, reachable on skis – a common arrangement in Austria, in particular. But think of French places such as Brides-les-Bains, a gondola ride below Méribel. You could halve your costs by staying in the valley.

Reason two: Living in a real town can be quite a refreshing change from the artificial environment of your typical ski resort, or at least your typical purpose-built ski resort. If you like your holidays to have a cultural angle as well as a hedonistic one, valley towns can be more satisfying.

Reasons three and four: Finding accommodation for a non-standard period – three or four nights, say – can be easier; valley towns are more used to catering for travellers, as opposed to packaged holidaymakers. And self-caterers can normally count on a better range of shops for their supplies.

But the the valley town really comes into its own when you are thinking of using it as a base for a bit of a safari – perhaps to get a taste of several resorts to see which ones merit a longer visit. Not far away from Brides-les-Bains, although in a different valley, is the classic example: Bourg-St-Maurice.

BSM actually wants to be a ski resort, and markets itself as part of the Les Arcs ski area, and of course it is connected by a funicular railway, which conveniently departs from a point close to the terminus of the TGV line from Lyon and Paris. But it is also at the foot of the road up to La Rosière. Not far beyond that is the compelling little resort of Ste-Foy. Less than half an hour’s drive away are the linked resorts of Tignes and Val d’Isère. In the opposite direction is La Plagne, though in practice you would probably access that area by traversing the slopes of Les Arcs to the linking cable-car.

Further south in France, the railway town of Modane could be a base for visits to Val-Cenis, La Norma, Valloire/Valmeinier and Val Thorens as well as the local resort of Valfréjus. Further south still, Bourg d’OIsans sits neatly between Alpe d’Huez and Les Deux-Alpes, with La Grave and Serre-Chevalier a short drive to the east.

In Italy, the obvious candidate is Aosta, with its local slopes at Pila but a tremendous set of resorts within driving distance, from Courmayeur to Champoluc in the Monterosa area. In the Dolomites, staying in Trento or Bolzano would allow you to split your time between places like Madonna di Campiglio to the west and Selva/Val Gardena to the east.

In Switzerland, the great trench of the Valais has countless places to stay with access to places like Verbier, Crans-Montana and Zermatt. On the northern side of the Alps, lakeside Interlaken offers a cheaper base for Grindelwald and its neighbours, with easy access to Adelboden to the west and Meiringen to the east. While in the east of the country, the historic town of Chur makes a good base for outings to Laax, Arosa, Lenzerheide and Davos-Klosters.

I have to concede that all of the above is at present a bit theoretical. I have spent plenty of occasional nights at valley level, but I have never spent a week skiing from a valley town base. But early in February I shall be putting this right, skiing six resorts in six days from Bourg St Maurice. Watch this space.

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