Thursday, 22 February 2024

Hidden Gems: France's Enigmatic Timewarped Villages Guarded by Ski Enthusiasts

Hidden Gems: France's Enigmatic Timewarped Villages Guarded by Ski Enthusiasts
Friday, 08 December 2023 02:22

"Ascending Tradition: Skiing Elegance in the Time-Warped Enclave of St-Nicolas de Véroce"

Gliding effortlessly off a chairlift with skis is an art mastered by many skiers, but what about navigating the descent without them? As I ascended the mountain, the prospect of an awkward descent in ski boots occupied my thoughts, diverting my attention from the enchanting Alpine panorama. Below, a toy-size painted church nestled in white pastures, the wild Chaîne de Fiz sawtooth ridge against a bluebird sky, and Mont Blanc peeking over Dômes du Miage to the east created a kaleidoscopic spectacle.

In an era where chairlifts in France typically spare skiers the hassle of removing their skis, the ski village of St-Nicolas de Véroce, hidden away at 1,180m in Haute-Savoie’s Val Montjoie ski arena, defies the ordinary. Only 30km from the bustling Chamonix, this vintage village traces its fortune back to the 16th century. During that time, the village's young men traversed the Alps on foot, journeying east to sell haberdashery purchased in Geneva. The proceeds from their travels funded the creation of St-Nicolas’ exquisite 18th-century baroque church, and a nearby museum showcases the sumptuous artistic treasures acquired on these journeys.

Local historian Caroline Duperthuy revealed that each valley specialized in trading different goods—fabric, buttons, thread, and more. St-Nicolas, with a population of 250 year-round inhabitants (doubling in winter), embodies a quieter, slower way of life. Further up the village's sole street, the retro two-seater chairlift connecting Route de Ste-Nicolas with the snowy Plateau de la Croix has retained its charm since opening in 1970. Skiers secure their skis in a metal quiver, relying on a lift attendant's helping hand to safely dismount at the top. While plans for a €6 million cable car in 2025 are in motion, the Télésiège du Chef-Lieu remains a whimsical symbol of this hidden Alpine village's commitment to tradition and a pace of life distinct from its more bustling neighbors.

"Alpine Tranquility: A Sojourn in St-Nicolas de Véroce"

As night falls in St-Nicolas, the only hotel in the village, Armancette, exudes a quiet charm. General manager Damien Bastiat, enjoying a locally distilled Gin du Mont Blanc, shared insights into the village's ethos. "Guests come here to ski and enjoy nature," he said. "From here they can dip into the festivities of Megève, but return to peace and quiet." Bastiat, who relocated from St-Barts in late 2022, oversees the Almae Collection, a luxury hotel group committed to community partnerships and regeneration.

Armancette, a five-star haven, prioritized community revival upon opening in 2019. The hotel's first act was to resurrect the village boulangerie, offering the scent of freshly baked baguettes as a morning delight. Chef Fabien Laprée crafts gastronomic wonders using lake fish, charcuterie, and seasonal produce meticulously sourced within a 90-minute radius of St-Nicolas.

From the Plateau de la Croix's beginners' area to the summit of Mont Joly at 2,525m, Domaine Évasion-Mont Blanc unfolds. With 400km of runs connecting St-Nicolas to Megève and St-Gervais-les-Bains, the ski area offers diverse adventures. The Grand Chamois run from Mont Joly and off-piste trails to Megève provide exhilarating challenges, complemented by the alpine cool of night skiing along the red Marmottes run.

For those savoring the intimacy of St-Nicolas, a micro ski pass costs €17 a day, a modest alternative to the €55 pass covering the entire Domaine Évasion-Mont Blanc. The village's authentic experiences beckon, such as witnessing cows being milked and discovering the art of crafting creamy Tomme de Savoie cheese at La Ferme de Véroce.

Leaving St-Nicolas the next day, a contrast awaits on the Mont Blanc Express train. A 30-minute journey north to Vallorcine unfolds with last-frontier charm, offering a reprieve from the turbo-charged pace of Chamonix. The cherry-red carriages in the snow become a storybook tableau, epitomizing the allure of this Alpine retreat.

"Skiing Splendor: Unveiling the Best-Kept Secrets of St-Nicolas de Véroce and Vallorcine"

Venturing beyond the confines of the resort, the Domaine de Balme–Le Tour area unfolds as a picturesque haven for skiers. Cruising through this region offers not only a leisurely experience but also breathtaking vistas of the Chamonix Valley and the Swiss Alps. In stark contrast to other sectors within Chamonix's renowned Mont Blanc Natural Resort domain, Balme warmly welcomes beginners and tentative intermediates. State-of-the-art cable cars in Vallorcine and La Tour's Charamillon gondola grant easy access to 21 gentle blue and red runs, some meandering charmingly between trees.

In Vallorcine, the racleur Gérard enthusiastically declares "Viva la Vida!" between skillful scrapes of warm raclette cheese, setting the tone for a delightful culinary experience. At Le Café Comptoir, nestled behind Vallorcine's quaint train station with its green wrought-iron canopy and mosaic signage, I indulged in a sun-drenched terrace lunch. The vibrant crowd, predominantly French, revealed the locale's charm, particularly as it hosts skiers donning vintage gear from the 1930s to the 70s during Vallorcine's captivating retro ski-race festival in March.

Delving into a delectable dish of gherkins and boiled potatoes immersed in a silky pool of sun-spangled cheese, I realized that while it might not boast the bright lights of Chamonix, I had unearthed Alpine gold and stumbled upon France's best-kept ski secret.

For those seeking luxurious accommodations, Armancette (almae-collection.com/armancette) in St-Nicolas de Véroce offers doubles starting from €750, with ski-in/ski-out chalets accommodating up to 14 people available from €1235 per night. In Vallorcine, Les Chalets du Plane by Le Café Comptoir (lecafecomptoir.com) provides doubles with half board from €120, and chalets accommodating up to eight people are available from €800 per week.

Travel from London to Geneva, and embark on a 60-90 minute journey by car or private transfer to St-Nicolas de Véroce and Vallorcine. Alternatively, take the Eurostar to Paris, followed by a direct high-speed SNCF train to Sallanches (five hours, then a 30-minute minibus transfer to St-Nicolas de Véroce) or St-Gervais-les-Bains (five hours, then the Mont Blanc Express in 90 minutes to Vallorcine).

In conclusion, the journey through the ski havens of St-Nicolas de Véroce and Vallorcine unveils an enchanting Alpine escape. Beyond the resort confines, the Domaine de Balme–Le Tour area offers not only scenic beauty but also a welcoming terrain for skiers of all levels. St-Nicolas de Véroce, with its vintage charm and commitment to tradition, emerges as a hidden gem, offering tranquility amid the exhilaration of skiing.

Culinary delights add another layer to the experience, with raclette feasts and sun-soaked terrace lunches becoming memorable highlights. Vallorcine, with its picturesque train station and vibrant Le Café Comptoir, captures the essence of Alpine living, drawing skiers and enthusiasts to revel in its timeless charm.

Luxurious accommodations such as Armancette and Les Chalets du Plane provide a fitting retreat after days filled with alpine adventures. The juxtaposition of serene moments in St-Nicolas de Véroce against the high-octane thrills of Chamonix underscores the appeal of these lesser-known destinations.

Whether indulging in the vintage atmosphere of Vallorcine's ski-race festival or savoring the simplicity of sun-spangled cheese on a terrace, the allure of these hidden gems is undeniable. With convenient travel options from London to Geneva and beyond, the journey to these Alpine retreats promises not only skiing splendor but also a genuine escape into the heart of the French Alps.

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