France's La Savoie has great slopes and friendly people but stay away until after the Winter Olympics

November 17, 1991|By Peter Shelton | Peter Shelton,Universal Press Syndicate

For skiers, the Olympic fortnight, Feb. 8-23, may not be the ideal introduction to La Savoie in the French Alps. Officials expect upward of 1 million spectators; lodging will be scarce and expensive.

Better, in fact, to go in late winter or spring when the season loosens its grip. Then you will be sure to find the natural Savoyard charms -- a gregarious people devoted to the land, hearty mountain food and drink and, arguably, the best skiing on the planet.

It's a vertical kingdom with a graceful genius for blending old and new.

Take Meribel, for instance, where the hockey tournament and all of the women's alpine events will be staged. It is a new (postwar) ski station -- "purpose-built," as the French call it -- but completely devoted to indigenous architecture. Chalet-style buildings of wood and stone with low-angle, slate-covered roofs dot the forested hillside like shepherds' huts. I stayed in one overlooking an ultramodern gondola terminal but took my meals at a series of restaurants and cafes that recall a time when the people of this parish spent snowy days baking bread in big communal ovens.

One such place, where Savoyard past and present mingle seamlessly, is the Cafe les Glaciers. Mornings the proprietress brought me two-handled bowls of cafe au lait with steamed milk in a separate pitcher; croissants and fresh, crusty bread from the bakery next door; sweet butter from Normandy; and two pots of jam, cherry and apricot, from Burgundy. At the bar local ski instructors, farmers in the summer, stood in their shiny burgundy official ski suits and drank small cups of strong, black coffee.

You will want one of these instructors to accompany you skiing if for no other reason than to learn your way around the daunting terrain. It's not so much the difficulty as the vastness. Meribel's is the middle valley of a resort complex known as Les 3 Vallees, with Courchevel on the east and Les Menuires/Val Thorens on the west. Together they constitute the biggest ski area in the world: more than 200 lifts, from drag lifts to gondolas to 180-passenger "telepheriques" -- an uphill capacity of 200,000 skiers per hour -- spread like a web over a grand domain of 100 square miles. The total lift-served acreage in Colorado doesn't add up to half that.

My ski school guide, Eric Boulanger, and I struck off on skis promptly one morning for Val Thorens and were only a little late arriving for lunch. On the way we had ridden three gondolas -- "bubbles," Eric calls them -- and three or four chairlifts, and skied about 15 miles of smooth snow that compared to the smoothness of "certain wines," as Eric said.

Lunch, as always in France, even on a mountainside, was an unhurried celebration of eating and drinking. And sunning: Couples picnicked on the rocks, every cafe had its deck and every deck was filled with lounging skiers, faces tilted to the sun.

Below us the land dropped away in giant treeless folds of rock and snow, awash in watercolor blues, shadows and pale, sunlit pinks. Far down, skiers milled in miniature, "comme les fourmis," said Eric -- like ants.

Another day, skiing at Courchevel with guide Michel Orlianges, I learned one of the central ironies of ski development here. "The joke," Michel said, "is that Courchevel was begun in 1947 by the government as a ski resort for socialist sport. Now the king of Spain and all the others fly in in their private planes."

Michel was a spirited, worldly young man (the patch on his baseball cap read Adrift Adventures, Moab, Utah), but when it came to skiing, he was a traditionalist. For a Savoyard, that means skiing as a kind of travel, walking out beyond the top lifts, gliding if you can, carrying your skis if you have to, looking for adventure and wild snow "off piste."

Accordingly, he led the way from village to village, from &r Courchevel 1850 to Courchevel 1650 (the numbers distinguish resort clusters by elevation, in meters) and up as high as we could ride on the side of the Aiguille du Fruit, the area's signature spire at 10,000 feet. Then we traversed out across the needle's north face, in the shadow of vertical cliffs and across the lumpy debris of past avalanches, until we found a patch of soft powder snow.

That afternoon I left Michel in Courchevel and drove the long way back around the mountain to Meribel. Down below in the valley town of Les Allues, I met a farmer, Alphonse Blanche.

He was 87, had never learned to write, but his eyes twinkled with life, and he loved to talk. I asked him about the changes he'd seen in the valley. "This is the richest commune in France," he said proudly, "with Meribel and Mottaret" (a satellite resort) farther up the valley contributing local taxes. "Maybe there will be chalets here," he indicated his garden with a crinkled hand. "But . . .," and his words trailed off in a shrug and a broad smile that transcended argument about change.

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