spanish pyrenees - Baqueira Beret
Written by Patrick Thorne Photography by Jimmy Peterson
When it comes to European ski destinations, most people think of the Alps. Baqueira Beret, in the Spanish Pyrenees, however is one of the continent’s big players – and it’s sunnier too.
The fact that there is any skiing in Spain comes as a surprise to many: “Surely Spain is a hot nation, famous for beach resorts, intense heat, and the quintessentially Spanish practice of ‘siesta’ – or, sleeping through it?”, they ask.
But like many hot countries, (including Cyprus, Algeria, Lebanon, and Morocco), Spain’s high mountains are beautifully snow-capped, year-round, and the country is home to 30 ski areas. Unlike Dubai, these do not need to be indoors – although Madrid is home to a similar facility, which was reported to be popular with the Beckhams when David Beckham played for Real Madrid.
Around half of Spain’s ski areas are located in the country’s biggest mountain chain, the Pyrenees, which stretches north for nearly 500 km, from a point close to Barcelona. They mark the country’s eastern border with France lying on the other side, and the duty-free principality of Andorra sandwiched between the two.
Most famous of all the resorts, complete with royal approval from Spain’s King Juan Carlos, whose family regularly holiday here, is Baqueira Beret.
Spanish skiing champion, Luis Arias, established Baqueira in 1964. He chose the resort’s location in order to take advantage of its exposure to heavy, snow-bearing clouds coming off the Atlantic. The base village was constructed with an eye to tasteful design in local wood and stone at a time when most European resorts were opting for Bauhaus-inspired rectangular concrete buildings. Since then, the resort has gone from strength to strength and has grown to become the country’s largest single ski resort, with 120 km of piste.
But it’s not the size that really matters; first-time skiers love Baqueira for its excellent nursery slopes. Once-a-year skiers can enjoy whizzing about on the sunny cruising slopes, stopping to relax with a coffee at one of the 20 or so mountain restaurants whenever the fancy takes them. Meanwhile, for expert skiers, Baqueira Beret’s off-piste terrain away from the groomed runs has a global fan base, with long powdery descents through the wild and beautiful Arán Valley. Unlike ski resorts based across the border in France, the well-heeled can also rent a helicopter to lift them to fresh powder fields for their exclusive use.
Even without a helicopter however, you can still access wonderful terrain on or off the piste. Try the 1.5 km-long Luis Arias black, named in honour of the great man, or head off to the challenging slopes between Baqueira and Bonaigua, including the imaginatively named couloirs Ecornacrabes which translates as ‘where goats fall.’
On the snow safari
When you’re in-resort, one of the best ways to get to know the slopes is to take one of the self-guided itineraries which you can find on Baqueira Beret’s website, www.baqueira.es – available in English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish. Newly created for the 2012–13 season, the safaris come in three varieties – easy, moderate, and difficult. Combining local knowledge with meticulously measured routes, you can estimate how long each should take you to complete, depending on how busy it is.
For example, the Red Safari – for good skiers – which begins at the Info Cafe in Baqueira 1800, has been measured at 37.13 km long, during which you will ski down 7,097 vertical metres. The trip should take four hours and eight minutes if there are no queues, but could take seven hours and eight minutes if there are an average of ten-minute queues (so make sure you set off early on busy days). The numbers are based on you skiing an average 525 metres every minute, with an average one-minute rest for every 570 metres skied. Simple!
Although few Spaniards take skiing siestas, the national norm of dining late is observed and while après ski is often boisterous at the base of the slopes in the Alps from around 3pm, it’s closer to 8pm in Baqueira Beret before the restaurants start to get busy.
Most resort guests head to one of Baqueira Beret’s many tapas bars, where good honest food is a way of life and staple ingredients of the local cuisine include lamb, rabbit, and game. The rustic Esquiro restaurant (+34 973 64 54 30), is a great choice for regional cuisine such as beef tenderloin with green pepper, prepared by owner and head chef, Manel Gil Fructuoso. Or you could try La Borda Lobato (+34 973 64 57 08) which specialises in roasting young animals, such as lamb and carving them whole at your table.
If you’re a caviar fan, then March is the time to visit when the Arán valley celebrates its annual Month of Caviar which is entirely dedicated to this famous fishy delicacy. Great seafood is the norm all season long, however, with crustaceans that have been brought up from the Galician coast being particularly sought after. None more so than a kind of large barnacle called percebes, a local delicacy. But in the end, those who visit love Baqueira Beret, not only for the skiing, the scenery, great food, or even its royal recommendation; the most remarked-upon aspect of the resort by visitors is usually how friendly the locals are, easily overcoming any language barriers that might present themselves. In this linguistic melting pot you’ll find that the local Aranes district dialect, the Catalan language, and French and Spanish influences all mingle together.
By Royal Approval
The Spanish Royal Family have long been fans of Baqueira Beret, so much so that the best sector of the resort is known as La Pleta del Rey, which means ‘the King´s Hamlet’. Originally, it was King Juan Carlos who was a frequent visitor to the royal chalet here, but these days you are more likely to share a chairlift with Crown Prince Felipe, next in line to the Spanish throne, or his sisters Princesses Elena and Cristina. Although you cannot rent the royal chalet, you can stay nearby in Baqueira Beret’s best hotel, the five-star La Pleta (+34 973 64 55 50; www.lapleta.com), part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, and order local seafood with royal connections like Galician king crab!
Better than the Alps?
Baqueira Beret’s southerly latitude means skiing here can last longer each day than in the Alps – by springtime there’s up to an hour’s difference in the daylight Baqueira receives. It’s usually warmer too. With slopes facing north or north-westerly and ski runs up to 2,510 metres above sea level however, snow cover is not normally a problem and the extensive slope network coupled with an ultra-modern, comfortable high-speed lift network makes getting around fast and easy.
By the numbers
While some ski resorts are criticised for being vague about exactly how much skiing they offer, Baqueira Beret is extremely precise, measuring to the nearest 10 cm.
Baqueira Beret’s impressive network of 33 lifts can carry more than 56,000 people up to the slopes every hour. This includes 10 high- speed chairs and gondolas for a fast, smooth ride.
The length of the Blue Safari, a self-guided itinerary route around the slopes. Travelling at the average 280 metres per minute, it takes 3 hours, 49 minutes to complete (excluding lift queues).