After an invitation to try skiking last September, I thought why not! A nervous beginning then an hour on the trails at Westerfolds and by the time I'd arrived home had decided I needed a pair. Training on them proved invaluable when I headed to France in Jan with fellow skikers Chris and Peter. Waxing skis and packing down jackets etc seemed ridiculous during the first week of the heat wave but before long we were in the village of Bessans, a x-c skiers dream in the Haute Maurienne Vanoise region of the Rhone Alpes in south eastern France.
Bessans is a traditional French village with around 300 inhabitants, surrounded by 133 km's of mainly undulating x-c ski trails with one small beginners downhill slope, it's set in a narrow valley at 1740m surrounded by 3000m peaks and glaciers, so can always guarantee good snow. The scenery is spectacular and rugged, frozen waterfalls everywhere and the ice climbers often come out at the weekend. If you're lucky you'll see Chamois roaming on the slopes. It's home to the Marathon de Bessans, the French Euroloppet ski race held in early January each year.
The attraction isn't just the skiing but life in the village where cows, sheep, goats etc spend the winter in barns along the main street and in basements under houses. The village dogs placidly roam the streets not at all bothered about visitors. Most of the businesses are run by villagers whose families have lived there for generations. There are groomed walking trails, just as popular as the ski trails, some people wear snow shoes but most just boots and Nordic walking poles. This year a fascinating exhibition was held in the Mayor's office telling the story of the the invasions by the Italians and Germans during the 2nd world war, the Germans burned three quarters of the houses, those that survived are still standing and date back to the 1700's.
Most days/evenings there are events you can attend ranging from the 'Welcome' every Sunday, a short talk about the events for the week followed by generous tastings of 'chocolat verte' - hot chocolate with Chartreuse and the local cheese Beaufort to visits to a home to see the their animals wintering in the basement, waxing info sessions and an introduction to Biathlon both traditional and laser. Some of the villagers speak a little English and we get by with our small amount of French as everyone is very friendly and welcoming. The xmas decorations stay up for months so it's always looks pretty walking around the village in the evenings, shops are open till 7 as they all close for lunch.
I'm told the village is just as popular in summer for walking, mountaineering and cycling. There are trails for roller skiing and blading, so good for skiking too though I'm not sure how extensive they are. The Biathlon range is used year round including summer competitions.
Bessans is a very special place and well worth a visit.
As a result of Nola's and Paul and Sue Waller's enthusiasm for Bessans, skikers Peter O'Brien, Christine Roberts, Michelle Armstrong and James, Freya and Finlay Clark also visited Bessans this year. We have also recently met Benoit from France who is living in Melbourne and came skiking with us. Benoit told us " I would love to be from Bessans but I am not, that is fortunately my favourite holiday place in the world and I love to be there."