Somewhere in the Pyranees between Spain and France

8/3/98 Our first skiing trip.

Jonathan, Tracy and I were up at 2am Sunday morning (due to booking the cheapest trip available) to drive to Gatwick where the pre-booked parking was extraordinarily close to dad's house. The north terminal at Gatwick seemed deserted until we arrived at the Air2000 check-in desks where the queues filled half the hall. Here we were due to meet Bill and Martin who unwittingly managed to stand within feet of each other although they had never met.

The flight was unbelievably short at only 1.25 hours during which we managed to eat a full but small English breakfast. It's strange how my stomach expects breakfast just because I have woken up.

Following the flight we had a 4 hour bus ride to Arrinsal in Andorra. The scenery was nice if not spectacular as the bus labored up the eternal slopes with glimpses of snow capped mountains in the distance.

Just before we crossed the border from France to Andorra we were stopped at a check point where it was discovered that the bus's road tax had run out. We never found out exactly what happened but we had to leave the tour guide behind as a kind of hostage to the tax authorities.

The scenery improved dramatically as we followed the path of a river as it tumbled in white splashes down from the mountains. The road and a railway track criss crossed each other as the bus climbed laboriously onwards into the higher regions where the trees gave way to hardy shrubs and patches of snow peppered the grassy slopes and scree faces. It had been raining for some while but now the clouds clung moodily to the mountainside and nestled in the valleys.


After a while I dosed off on the bus and woke in Arinsal. In contrast to the white landscapes we had been traveling through this place was notable by it's absence of snow. Outside the air was warm and pleasant, something must be wrong!

We have an apartment booked in Roca Blanca Hotel-Residencia which turns out to be much better than we expect.

After another snooze to make up for traveling through the night, we took a look round the town. It's nothing special just a small town dedicated as a ski resort. We found a nice dinner by way of Lasagna in an Italian restaurant (3k pesetas) and ended the evening playing table football in an Irish bar. Not quite what you might expect from an Andorran ski resort but enjoyable none the less.

Monday 9/3/98. First ski.

We woke at 7am to find to our delight the whole of the town blanketed in a thick layer of snow. The place now seemed like a proper ski resort. The mountains changed from the dull gray slate to the sharp contrast between dark rocks and bright white snow.

After a breakfast of bacon and eggs by Bill the chef we all ventured out into the crisp white snow to catch the 8:30 bus to the chair-lift. This could be described as the most visually enjoyable part of the day as we were able to casually enjoy the sights of thick piles of snow balancing on tree branches, clear cold water flowing through snowy channels and the panoramic views of harsh cold mountains softened by a blizzard. All this accompanied by the peaceful silence that so often surrounds a chair-lift ride.

At the top we find out why the ski school does not start till noon as there are queues for everything. Eventually we have all the apparel that seems to be required for the day and have parted with all our pre-paid vouchers and cash where necessary and retire to the cafe to wait till school. Meanwhile Bill, Jonathan and Martin were off making the most of the fresh snow.

The first couple of hours of school seemed to contain a tedious amount of standing around watching other beginners taking a dive. We both managed to make only two 'dives' each in that time and only really started to make progress during the two 'free' hours before the next lesson. This was not to say that numerous innocent bystanders were not made victims of my inability to turn or stop. During the second lesson one of the instructors was subjected to rigorous interrogation as to what exactly 'just turn your left foot out to turn right' actually meant. By the time I had worked it out we had had two more attempts under the watchful eyes of the other beginners and the lesson was over. Not wanting to loose out on a good thing we managed to scramble up the slope a couple more times and practice what we had learnt before the slopes closed for the day.

Tracy's ski suit which was supposed to be snow proof turned out to be just that but not water proof. When you think about it a paper tissue is snow proof which is fine until the snow melts which it invariably does. As a result Tracy got very cold and wet when we had to stand in line and just watch the others.

Back down in Arinsal we dosed, bathed and dinned on a fine meal of crepes washed down with wine.

11/3/98. We can turn on skis!

Contrary to weather forecasts this day turned out to be clear and sunny. Arinsal is blessed with very light traffic most of which is busses to the chair lift. Once up at the nursery slopes we dashed in to the lockers to collect out boots and skis and rushed straight out to the slopes to practice what we had learned the day before. The first thing we noticed was how hot it was and how many people were skiing in 'T'-shirts. Only during class did I need my jacket on.

During the first class of the day we were tested for our abilities and split into two groups. Fortunately both of us managed to get into the top group. Tracy was the better skier but I managed to knock over more people.

Practicing was exhausting as we had to climb back up the slope after each run. After a while I managed to master the art of the 'herringbone walk' but I must have looked like a penguin with oversized feet trying to climb a rock.

Later we learned to use the drag lift which gave us more practice time from the top of the slope without the effort of side-stepping all the way up there. Bit by bit we learned the skills required to manage the planks of wood stuck to our feet and by the end of the day we could manage small turns.

After a hearty meal, which in Andorra seems to consist mainly of meat, we stopped at a bar to listen to a band and sample the Shnaps. The entertainment appeared to go on and on but due to our hard days play we could not manage to stay up much after 1am.

Wednesday. Take it to the top.

On the way to the slopes Jonathan and Martin tried to convince us to go with them to the top of a blue run but neither of us felt confident enough that we could make it down again. After a successful morning practicing turns on the nursery slopes and our 2 hour lesson we had gathered the courage to try the blue slope. At the bottom of the 4-man chair lift we met Jonathan, Martin and Bill who ended up coaching us down. The higher the lift went the colder it became. As luck would have it the wind picked up and the snowfall began to thicken so that sometimes we could not see the pistes (ground) in front of us but once there we had no option but to continue. The long slope was great, giving us lots of practice at snow plough turns so that we were much more proficient and confident by the time we reached the bottom. The afternoon lesson reinforced what we had learned and practiced in the morning. By the end of the lessonn the exhilaration of skiing faster under some sort of control was building so that we wanted to go back down the blue run straight away. Sadly the lift closed at 16:30.

It snowed all day again today and it was quite cold although the exertion required to side step back up the hill kept us quite warm.

The food is certainly very good here and also quite cheap so we dined and wined heartily at a restaurant called Michelou.

Thursday 12/3/98. Mastering the blue run.

After the successes of the previous day we took a single turn down the nursery slope then went straight for the blue run. The slopes here are mostly easy allowing lots of uninterrupted practice without having to queue for the drag lift. It snowed all day again but this did not deter us. The exertion of skiing keeps you warm but the relaxation of the chair lift allows you to cool down again. Without the side-stepping up hills we never broke into a sweat again.

The more we practiced the more speed we were able to attain and the more exhilarating it became. First there was slow snow plough turns which became faster as we learned to add pressure to the down-hill ski then came parallel turns that allowed a faster turn but were more difficult to accomplish. Much more control is possible if you lean and put weight onto the down-hill ski but this is a very unnatural thing to do as your instincts tell you to lean into the hill for safety. Many thrills and spills were experienced this day but we also learned and advanced a great deal.

On the last lesson we prepared for the slalom race on the last day where we all would compete for a 'gold' medal.

This evening we relaxed at a little restaurant on the corner of the road leading to out hotel where we indulged ourselves with a beef fondue. This is different from the well known cheese fondue where bread is dipped into cheese, in that small chunks of beef are cooked by the diners at the table in a pan of oil kept hot by a small burner. A side dish of fried potato, garlic and mushrooms and a smidgen of salad set the meal off but did not preclude a desert each.

Friday 13/3/98. Lucky for us.

Ski school did not start till 13:00 today so we managed two and a half hours on the slopes before the last 3 hour lesson started. This day was bright and clear with blue skies stretching from horizon to horizon without the brown stain of pollution that we see in London. The scenery is excellent with dark mountain peaks on all sides covered with pine trees and bright white snow. Practicing my parallel turns I can gather quite a speed especially when the gradient increases without me knowing. Stopping is where the problems start although I am mastering the parallel sideways stop. All I have to do now is achieve that nice spray of snow for the camera.

There are a number of little cafes beside the pistes so we stopped at one half way up the mountainside for lunch before heading down for our final lesson. The first item on the agenda was the slalom race although I did not realise that the first time down was not a practice but the actual race. The winner out of the 5 of us that were left in our class was Ray who managed to achieve the best time out of all 15 beginner classes. After that we went back up the blue run and from there all the way up to the top of the mountain. Looking over the top we could see the snow covered Pyranees stretching out in front of us and the neighboring ski resort of Pal in the next valley. It was a beautiful sight but also very cold to stand and look especially with a snowy slope behind us just waiting to be skied. This was classed as a blue run also but the cliff edge on the right hand side made it rather unnerving which stopped most of the class from attempting parallel turns. Instead we all snow ploughed most of it. Back down on the gentler slopes we learned a few more fun moves such as following, shadowing and carving. After the lesson there was an award ceremony with medals for the race winners and everyone received their certificates. There was just enough time to catch the chair lift for another slip down the slope but when we got back to where we had left our skis Tracy's were missing. We searched the area thoroughly but without success so while Tracy reported the loss to the hire shop I searched the lockers. We eventually found them in another ski locker so we moved them back to ours but by that time it was too late to catch the lift so we missed out and had to go back down the hill.

Tonight was the night of the 70's disco so we grabbed a quick pizza and spent the rest of the night drinking and boogying to a loop tape (?lazy DJ I guess) of old tunes.

In the dark of night the lower, snow-less mountains appear dark but the higher snow-capped mountains behind glow eerily by the light of the moon.

Saturday 14/3/98. Play day.

With ski school over we had the whole day to ourselves but sadly we had to take the morning off to settle our upset tumms.

In the afternoon we discovered that someone had again taken Tracy's skis and we had to cadge another pair from the hire shop.

Out on the slopes at last we get our 'legs back' on the gentler slopes before taking the second 4-man chair lift right to the top. Not being over-adventurous types we took the easier blue runs back down but these seemed steep enough to us.

Our last day was over too soon and as we took our equipment back to the hire shop Tracy found her original skis back in the same place she had originally lost them the day before.

After a few drinks, a last supper including all five of us for a change and a short nap, we were picked up at 2:30am by the bus bound for Toulouse airport and the long journey home.

Travelogues by Malcolm Weller

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