There, in a valley cut off from the rest of the world, Tom Robbins discovers first-rate slopes and a distinct, beguiling blend of cultures―both traditional and modern. Text By Tom Robbins; Photographs By Ériver Hijano
FOR AN HOUR OR MORE, we had been descending through a forest of black pine and fir, following a stream we could hear but not see. The snow lay deep, smothering the creek and turning tree stumps into giant white mushrooms. There were bears in these woods, said my guide, a young Spaniard named Peru Ortiz de Zarate, and bearded vultures that crunch on the bones of dead mountain goats. But we were making far too much noise to risk meeting these animals, laughing as we pushed past the trees that grabbed at our rucksacks and ski poles.
Finally, as if pulling back a theatre curtain, Ortiz de Zarate parted two branches to reveal our destination. Ahead was a clearing in the forest, where a wooden bridge straddled a burbling stream swelled by melting snow. Beyond it, looking like something from a fairy tale, lay a deserted hamlet named Montgarri—a place of pilgrimage since the 12th century and once a key staging post for travellers crossing the Pyrenees between Spain and France. Today just two buildings remain, cocooned in silence and slow time: a 16th-century church with rough stone walls and a dilapidated spire, and the former rectory alongside it.
Our heavy-booted footsteps rang out as we crossed the cobblestoned courtyard, swept clear of snow. Inside the rectory—now converted into a refuge for climbers and skiers—a Spanish pointer dozed beside the glowing logs of an open fire. A waiter brought us olives and glasses of cold beer, then raked the embers and fixed a grill above them, throwing on some vast beef ribs for a lunch that would last until 4 pm. Afterwards we drank patxaran, a rose-colored liqueur made with sloes and flavored with cinnamon. We walked over to the empty church so I could light a candle, then hurried out to catch the last ride back to the ski resort—a snowmobile that pulled us along on our skis. Hanging tipsily from the rope as we climbed a track through the darkening forest, I smiled into my scarf, happily exhausted by the most memorable day’s skiing I’d had in years.
If the joy of travel is threatened by the homogenisation of global culture—the fact that today’s Insta-ready hotels, restaurants, and stores can look the same, whether they’re in Brooklyn or Bangkok—then skiing is particularly challenged. As much as we love the sensations of the sport, most ski trips have an inherent similarity, no matter where in
the world they take place. Days pass in the familiar routine of going up lifts and down pistes. Evenings are spent surrounded by the usual mountain cliches: antlers and antique skis, glühwein and fondue.
After three decades on the slopes, I felt I had pretty much seen it all. I’d joined the powder hounds on the first morning tram in Jackson Hole and teetered down Chamonix’s couloirs. I’d eaten foie gras in Courchevel and ramen in Hokkaido, drunk Aspen Crud in the Rockies and bombardinos in the Dolomites. I was, truth be told, both a little smug and a little jaded. Then I found out about a remote valley in Catalonia that promised deep snow and an altogether different ski experience: a place where centuries of isolation have kept the culture distinct and the landscapes unspoiled. How could I be blasé about a community where—though less than 300 kilometres from the teeming streets of Barcelona—the people speak Aranese, a language I had never even heard of?
Hemmed in by high mountains, the Val d’Aran is a semi-autonomous community within the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia. The valley runs about 40 kilometres from the French border to the ski resort of Baqueira Beret. The main town, Vielha, and a few dozen small villages dot the valley floor, where stone-and-slate houses are clustered along the banks of the Garonne River and around the spires of medieval churches. Flat land is scarce—the valley walls rise steeply from the river, trapping the snow-laden storms that roll in from the Atlantic.
For most of the Val d’Aran’s history, the only way to get there from elsewhere in Spain was by mule or on foot. The name comes from the Basque word haran, meaning ‘valley’—Val d’Aran literally means ‘valley of the valley,’ a name that somehow speaks to the insularity that has long defined this place. The first road connecting the valley to the rest of Spain, which runs over the 2,070-metre Bonaigua pass, didn’t arrive until 1924. Even then, snow could close it for months. A tunnel opened in 1948—at the time, the world’s longest—giving year-round access, though it was judged Europe’s most dangerous until improvements were made in 2007. Today, the valley remains a place apart. The red Aranese flag flies high on public buildings, and the same four or five surnames crop up again and again. “I’ve lived here for 23 years,” one ski guide told me. “They still call me el madrileño—the guy from Madrid.”
I reached the valley at night and woke late the next morning in the Hotel Val de Neu, a swish five-star at the foot of the pistes in Baqueira Beret, the valley’s ski resort, 1,500 metres above sea level. I went downstairs in search of breakfast, expecting to find the hotel deserted, guests having rushed out to the slopes long ago, as they do in the Alps or the Rockies. Instead, I found the restaurant packed with Spanish and French families lingering over what seemed more like a banquet than breakfast. There were chefs in whites, ready to make doughnuts, churros, and pancakes. There was a whole honeycomb fresh from the hive, as well as cold hams, cheeses, cakes, brownies, a chocolate fountain, even sparkling wine in silver ice buckets.
When I finally made it up the mountain, long past 10 am, the slopes were still empty. Over the next few days, it became clear that in Spain, skiers adhere to a unique timetable: take breakfast late and long, ski for a few hours, then eat a leisurely lunch somewhere up on the mountain until the lifts close at 4.45 pm. An après-ski siesta perhaps, dinner at
10 pm, a bar at midnight, home in the wee hours. On weekends, when visitors drive in from Madrid, Barcelona, and Toulouse, France, Baqueira’s pistes, cafes, and lifts can get busy, but during the week visitors are gloriously scarce. When I skied down to the lift station at the far edge of the area, the attendant sitting at the window seemed
to stare straight through me. It turned out she was asleep behind her mirrored shades.
Later that morning, I took the chairlift up to the summit of the Cap de Baqueira, 2,500 metres above sea level. Far below me were the steeply raked slate roofs of the ski resort; beyond them, the valley snaked away, white at first, then gray and green where the snow gave out. It was late March, but a bitter wind still blasted across the peaks. From where I stood, pistes led off in every direction—the ski area straddles five mountains, giving it an expansive feel more reminiscent of Colorado than the neat valleys of the Alps.
Skiing came late to the Val d’Aran, another consequence of its isolation. The first lifts opened in 1964, a century after St Moritz began welcoming winter tourists to the Swiss Alps. Patronage from the Spanish royal family lent glamour, and Baqueira Beret soon established itself as the country’s top ski destination, though it remains little known internationally. In the past decade, the resort has grown significantly, and a new group of slopes this winter takes its total to more than 160 kilometres of skiable routes, 36 lifts, and 5,617 acres of skiing—slightly more than Vail. Baqueira’s hotels have moved swiftly upmarket, while on the mountain, skiers now linger over champagne and cigars at the Moët Winter Lounge or choose cuts of the finest acorn-fed jamón at Restaurante 5J.
I was beginning to think Baqueira was just a place for casual skiers and serious gluttons until I met Ortiz de Zarate. Just 20 years old, he works for Kabi by Edurne Pasaban, the valley’s leading guide outfit, and skis with a pace and enthusiasm befitting a former ski- mountaineering racer. I followed him as he schussed at warp speed, down gullies and across open powder fields, barely touching the established trails. Eventually he led me to the top of an infamous chute, or couloir, named Escornacrabes, which means ‘where the goats tumble.’ Peering in, I could see a snow-lined chasm bordered by sheer rock walls. The wind was blowing straight up it, sending flurries into my face and making it hard to see what lay in store. Thankfully Ortiz de Zarate didn’t give me too long to think. He shot down and, before he disappeared into the mist below, I followed, adrenaline pumping hard. Halfway down we paused so he could point out a variant route where his friend had fallen top to bottom a fortnight earlier, breaking his leg in two places. “The bone was sticking out!” he said, still smiling.
Back at the Hotel Val de Neu, I sat on the INR 12,82,000 polar-bear-shaped sofa in the lobby to pull off my boots, then headed for a glass of Tempranillo in the pine-scented lounge. Opened in 2008, the hotel is one of three that occupy a slick new development, with a covered shopping arcade and underground parking positioned so close to the slopes that you need barely step outside to reach the lifts. It could not be more convenient, and the Val de Neu’s low-key colour scheme, luxe rugs, and candles are a welcome cocoon after a day in the high mountains. The joy of the Val d’Aran, though, is that its recent drive upmarket hasn’t obscured its less polished side. So as night fell, I got the valet to bring around my car, and I headed down the valley in search of something more rustic.
I found it beneath the arched doorway of Eth Bot, a restaurant housed in a 400-year-old farmhouse in Salardú, the first village down the hill from Baqueira. “When I bought this place, there were sheep, cows, and horses living here—it was up to here in manure,” said the owner, François España Bozzani, gesturing up at the ceiling. He converted the building into a restaurant, with tables set in the cattle stall and the wine cooled in what was once the animals’ drinking trough. Bozzani pointed out a goatskin bag hanging from one of the rafters, once used for carrying wine, water, or honey through the mountains—known in Aranese as eth bot.
We ate the hearty food of the valley—olla Aranesa, a stew of beef, beans, noodles, and blood sausage, served in an earthenware pot, then baked apples with caramel and cassis—while Bozzani told me about growing up in the valley before tourism took hold, when farming and smuggling were the main industries. “Life was very, very hard,” he said. “In winter, no one cleared the snow. We’d walk around at the level of upstairs windows. Even fetching water for the animals every day was tough. The ski resort has helped a lot.” As Bozzani showed YouTube clips on his phone of Salardú’s new festival of country and western music—yes, really—surrounded by the jovial polyglot throng at the bar, it was hard to imagine what life was like back when he was a boy.
The next day, I drove farther down the valley to Vielha, my base for a morning of heli-skiing. After a quick safety briefing, a group of Belgian ski enthusiasts and I lifted off from a helipad carved into the hillside and ascended above the valley walls until the horizon unfurled to reveal ranks of snowy peaks stretching away, mile after mile. On a high ridge, I clambered out and my guide, Sergi Gasa, unloaded the skis. The helicopter dropped away into the valley, and the clattering of rotor blades was replaced by silence. Up above the trees there was snow, ice, and rock in every direction and no sign of a human hand: no farms, no ski lifts, no roads.
This lack of development makes the area perfect for heli-skiing. Elsewhere in Europe, the sport is strictly controlled, with limited drop-off points. Here, Gasa says, his outfit, Pyrenees Heliski, can move freely around a 390-square-kilometre area, able to land wherever the snow looks best.
We pushed off, carving sinuous tracks on wide, open faces of buttery spring snow, funneling down beside a waterfall, then tracing the stream until we arrived to see the helicopter waiting for us, a dot of yellow against the dark edge of the forest. We whipped off our skis and jumped in, eager to do it all again. We notched five runs that morning, each one taking us down a different peak or into another high, wild valley. We didn’t cross another ski track once.
Ravenous from all the skiing, it was time for pintxos—we were still in Spain, after all. At Tauèrna Urtau, a restaurant in the pretty village of Arties, the long bar was filled with trays of jamón, grilled octopus, croquetas, deep-fried baby squid, and salty, grilled Padrón peppers pinned together with long cocktail sticks, which the waiter counted at the end to calculate our bill. We filled our plates and sat in the square outside, soaking up the sun and watching the occasional tractor rumble past.
Close by was the Parador de Artíes, where I stayed for the last two nights of my trip, a hotel as characterful as the Val de Neu is slick. A tiny chapel in its garden has a stone lintel carved with the date of its construction, 1678. The hotel was once the home of the Spanish military officer Gaspar de Portolá, best known for ‘discovering’ San Francisco on a 1769 expedition. A portrait of the explorer—neat moustache and epaulettes—hung in the hotel bar, unnoticed by the couples drinking martinis and checking out their selfies from the slopes.
On my last night, I crossed the street for dinner at the Casa Irene, a small restaurant in a family-run hotel that has been serving some of the best food in the valley for more than
40 years. The place is known for its tasting menu, which that night ran to eight courses. There was smoked-sturgeon terrine with foie gras, green apple and spiced hummus ice cream; sautéed scallops with potato cream and mint sauce; gilthead bream; and young wild boar. Who would have thought that the best meal I’ve eaten on a ski trip would be not in Aspen or St Moritz but in tiny, humble Arties, cooked not by a celebrity chef but by Andrès Vidal, a fatherly type who looked nervous, then delighted, when he came out to see if I’d liked it.
Such surprises are part of the valley’s magic. Just a few days had been enough to slough away my ski-holiday cynicism and hook me with a beguiling mix of old and new—a modern resort connected to a string of authentic villages. Setting off from Baqueira to drive to the airport the next morning, I realised I still had half an hour to spare, so I stopped again in Salardú for a stroll around its narrow backstreets. Down one of them I found a church, Sant Andrèu de Salardú, its door left open.
Inside, the walls were covered with 500-year-old paintings, still brightly coloured. At the far end was a wooden sculpture, the Cristo de Salardú. Carved in the 12th century, it was decorated with almost childlike drawings of Adam, Mary, and various saints and angels. In a city museum you might remark at the rough wood, the naiveté of the painting, but alone in this dimly lit church, I found it deeply moving. It was, I realised, the most ancient painting I had ever seen, and I’d stumbled on it while dressed in Gore-Tex, killing time in a Spanish ski resort.
HOW TO VISIT THE VAL D’ARAN
Add five days’ skiing in the Spanish Pyrenees to a weekend in southern France or eastern Spain―both are an easy drive.
Getting There & Around
Fly either to Barcelona or Toulouse, France, then rent a car—you’ll need one to make
the most of the valley. Toulouse is closer, a three-hour drive from Baqueira Beret. Barcelona’s airport is about four hours away, whether you choose to go over the pass or through the tunnel (the safer option after dark). San Sebastián, four hours away in the Basque Country, is another good add-on. Parking in the ski resort and the villages is easy and usually free.
Where to Stay
Spain’s top ski resort, Baqueira Beret offers 5,617 acres of skiing, 36 lifts, and an array of high-altitude restaurants; a five-day lift pass costs INR 17,500. The resort’s most luxurious property is Hotel Val de Neu (doubles from INR 24,090), just 50 yards from the base of the ski area. As with everywhere in the valley, prices are much lower during the week. In the village of Arties, there’s also the Parador de Artíes (doubles from INR 14,450), which has a historic atmosphere and good-value rooms.
Exploring the Valley
Dotted along the valley below Baquiera Beret are a series of historic villages—it’s your choice whether to stay in a resort and drive down to explore them or stay down in a village and drive up to the lifts. In Salardú, the closest village to the resort, spend an evening at Eth Bot (prix fixe from INR 2,600). In Arties, the restaurant at Casa Irene (prix fixe from INR 6,000) is renowned as the best in the valley. In the same village, Tauèrna Urtau is ideal for a casual après-ski meal—help yourself from trays of 70 different pintxos, crammed onto the 30-foot bar.
Ski Guides & Tour Operators
Run by Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb all the world’s 8,000-metre peaks, Kabi by Edurne Pasaban is the region’s leading ski-guide outfitter. Pyrenees Heliski offers a range of heli-ski trips, starting with a half day for INR 25,860. Specialist ski-tour operator Kaluma Travel can tailor packages to the Val d’Aran.