Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up

Deep in the southern Alps, just a few miles from the Italian border, the ski resort of Serre Chevalier—Serre Che to the residents—includes the city of Briançon and a handful of small villages stretched out along the base of the Guisane Valley. Well known for its spectacular skiing, the sprawling territory still retains its authentic montagnard atmosphere.

Perched at an altitude of about 1,300 meters (4,265 ft) at the crossroads of the Guisane, Clarée and Durance valleys, Briançon is the highest city in the EU, and reputedly the sunniest city in all of Europe. Overlooked by an imposing 17th-century fortress, the old walled city is itself a fortress-like warren of cobbled streets dotted with brightly painted restaurants, cafes and shops.

If you start at the top near the Fort du Château, you can enter the city over one of its two drawbridges and explore the town the easy way, from top to bottom. Most of the streets are steep and narrow, but they share stunning views of the snowy Alps at either end. Two of them—the Rue de la Grande Gargouille, or Grand-Rue, and the Rue de la Petite Gargouille, or Rue de la Mercerie—are among the rare gargouille streets in France. The word means both gargoyle and gurgling, and also refers to a small gully flowing with water in the center of the road. Originally it would have been used for firefighting; today it’s purely decorative, running with clear mountain water.

Because of Briançon’s strategic location, it has been settled, and fortified, since Gallo-Roman times—the name comes from the Latin Brigantio, from the Celtic root brig, meaning high place. The city really began to flourish in the Middle Ages, until the plague ran rampant through its narrow streets in the 15th century, wiping out a third of the population. After the city was attacked by the Duke of Savoie in 1692, Louis XIV dispatched Sébastien Le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, to rebuild the region’s fortifications. Soldier, engineer and architect, Vauban built or restored a ring of forts around Briançon. Several of them, including the city’s own walls, are among the 14 major Vauban fortifications declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO in July 2008.

Outside the walls, at the base of the hill, the new city is a more utilitarian part of town but a pleasant place to sip a coffee and stock up on essentials if you’re renting a ski chalet. For fans of the Tour de France, the new town is also the place to immerse yourself in Briançon’s rich cycling history. Surrounded by some of bike racing’s legendary climbs, it’s been used as the beginning or end of a Tour de France stage more than 40 times. And it’s from here that the cableway runs up to the ski areas of Serre Che.

Traveling up the Guisane valley, you reach the prettily named Chantemerle at 1,350 m (4,429 ft). It is home to one of the many reminders of Serre Chevalier’s most famous son, world champion skier-turned-rallydriver Luc Alphand. The eponymous black ski run that hurtles down into the village center provides both a rollercoaster of a ride back to town, and a very public place to take a tumble. (European ski runs have four color classifications: green=very easy, blue=easy, red=intermediate, black=difficult, for advanced skiers.)

Chantemerle and the next village along, La Salle les Alpes, provide the bulk of skiers’ accommodation in the area. Over the past few years there has been a fair amount of development, with new apartments and hotels, but there are still no tower blocks here.

Big hostelry names such as MGM, Club Med and Space France have invested more rationally, building smaller hotels with stone and wood facades. Most of the new construction in Serre Chevalier has been awarded HQE (High Quality Environmental) certification.

At the far end of the valley, about 10 miles from the summit of the Col de Lauteret, is Monetier-les-Bains, the smallest and most traditional of the villages, extremely picturesque with wooden-balconied stone houses, narrow lanes, old chapels and a pink marble fountain in the Place de la Mairie.

Monetier is also renowned for its marvelous outdoor swimming complex, Les Grands Bains, where you can wallow in water at 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 F), and watch your breath steam as you contemplate the stars above the mountains. Not only a truly lovely experience, it’s an excellent way to relax your burning legs after a hard day on the slopes.

Supplied by natural hot springs, Les Grands Bains opened in 2008, replacing a smaller establishment. It has two outdoor pools, whirlpools, steam rooms, a sauna and a spa where you can indulge yourself with sybaritic health and beauty treatments.

The ski field at Serre Chevalier is one of the largest in France, with 155 miles of pistes (trails) at altitudes ranging from about 1,200 to 2,700 meters (4,000 to 9,000 ft). The terrain is quite varied, so you can ski through enchanted forests of larch trees, take calculated risks on steep and narrow technical descents, brush up on your mogul technique or cruise along tree-lined snowy motorways.

The huge Compagnie des Alpes bought Serre Chevalier’s lift system in 2004 and has invested heavily—some €40 million-since then. It has built four drag lifts, four chair lifts and extended the area covered by artificial snow cannons. Even so, Serre Chevalier is still some way from the high-performance 3,500-people-an-hour lifts in some of the mega-resorts. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Serre Chevalier’s weak spot—the relatively high proportion of drag lifts—might well be considered an advantage. You will get a lot more out of the resort if you are prepared to take drag lifts, something many skiers and even more snowboarders would rather avoid. But the slightly old-fashioned lift network does mean you can always get away from the crowds, especially outside of France’s principal school holiday periods.

Briançon—from the top of the ski field to the bottom—offers a 4,000 ft vertical descent, and for shorter but even more intense white-knuckle experiences check out the Casse du Boeuf and the Luc Alphand runs. For intermediates, the Cucumelle in Villeneuve is well worth a go. It is a long, fairly challenging red run which starts near the top of the distinctive Cucumelle peak. If you are feeling intrepid, you can hike up the slope to the summit and ski off-piste until you rejoin the marked run. (Obviously only expert skiers should try this, and safety precautions should be observed.)

Many of the blue runs are wide, rolling slopes, often tree-lined. Monetier has a long, very gentle blue run—the Eychauda—which has a hint of a half-pipe about it. Being higher than the rest of the resort, Monetier feels pleasantly remote, although it can get colder than elsewhere too, especially in January. Another nice blue run is Les Vallons in Chantemerle, which conveniently ends between two restaurants. One of my favorite blues is Les Bergers between Chantemerle and Briançon. It’s a beautiful run, but the highlight is drinking a frothy hot chocolate at the little café halfway down on the right, with a stunning view over the entire valley, and deckchairs.

It takes a good couple of hours to ski from one side of the resort to the other. Downhill, as in Monetier to Briançon, is recommended. Take a picnic or stop off at one of the many mountain restaurants (some of which double as refuge-style hotels) and it will add up to a great day out on the slopes. There’s a regular bus service that runs between the villages, so you won’t have to ski home.

Skiing is obviously the main draw of an Alpine winter holiday. But people for whom day-in-day-out flogging of the pistes is a bit too much like hard work will find that Serre Che allows you to take a day or two off and not just be stuck watching other skiers—there’s skating, climbing, swimming, rally driving around an ice circuit, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing right at hand. With its historic forts and architecture, Briançon is a great place to mix adrenaline with a dash of history and heritage. There are plenty of boutiques and galleries to browse, and shops selling regional specialties from comestibles to arts and crafts. And you can make a foray over the border to the Italian ski resort of Claviere.

Despite the size of the ski terrain, the feel of the entire Serre Chevalier area is delightfully small town. The old villages with their tin-roofed stone houses are home to old-fashioned restaurants tucked away in vaulted rooms. The fountains, the churches and graveyards confer an aura of authenticity, of permanence. A resident population of some 20,000 people live and work all year long in this vacation resort and heritage site they call home.

Serre Chevalier is served by three airports: Turin (108 km/67 mi), Grenoble (158 km/98 mi) and Lyon (200km/124 mi). All offer regular bus service to Serre Chevalier. There are also trains to Briançon from Paris and Lyon.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of France Today.

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