In the French Alps, little La Rosière dreams big
The lift was late to open and the queue was growing. It was the first day of the season, the sun was out and we could see the pristine powder up top, shimmering white against the blue sky, calling to us. At 10.30am, the chairlift began to turn; the crowd of skiers cheered; then it ground to a halt. They sighed. Again and again it started and stopped, teasing us. The operators made last-minute checks and adjustments while the skiers’ happy anticipation tipped towards angst. We had, after all, been waiting for our first turns not just since 9am but since the end of the last winter. Some of the locals, explained Georges Berenguer, my red-suited ski instructor, had been waiting more than 50 years. The little French resort of La Rosière has always been a late starter. It sits on the northern flank of the Tarentaise Valley — an area that is home to more lifts, pistes, hotels, restaurants and après-ski bars than any other similarly sized patch of mountains. Right across the valley is Les Arcs, which links to neighbouring La Plagne to make up the world’s second largest ski area. Just beyond that are Méribel, Courchevel and Val Thorens, whose combined ski area is the world’s largest. Further up the valley are Tignes and finally Val d’Isère, a pioneer since it got its first lift in 1936. Beside such big, celebrated resorts, La Rosière has long been the poor relation. It didn’t get its first ski lift until 1960 — a short cable tow which was carried up the mountain on the backs of local volunteers. While outside investors, hoteliers and property developers drove rapid expansion in the other Tarentaise resorts, they overlooked La Rosière. It was left in the hands of the local farming families and evolved slowly, gaining a reputation as a cheap and cheerful place, best suited to families and beginners. Today Courchevel alone has 45 hotels (19 of them five-star) — La Rosière has a total of five.
Ben Read Right from the start, though, the farmers of La Rosière had an ambitious plan — to push their lifts to the top of Mont Valaisan, at 2,891m the highest peak in the area. The project remained on paper from the mid-1960s until this winter — when, at about 10.45am on December 15, after a few false starts, the Mont Valaisan lift finally began to run. Georges and I were on the fourth or fifth chair, alongside four locals who chattered excitedly. Georges pointed out the 19th-century fort on the ridge at 2,390m, the arrival point of what had been La Rosière’s highest lift. In eight minutes the new, two-stage chairlift climbs to just below the summit of Mont Valaisan, raising La Rosière’s high point by more than 400 vertical metres, adding several new pistes, and, most importantly, providing access to a huge area of off piste. “I think it will change a lot,” said Georges. “We’ll always be known as a place for families, but now we’ll have something for the serious skiers too.” Robbins enjoys the fresh powder just below the summit of Mont Valaisan © Ben Read At the top, the release. We tightened boots then rushed to the waiting snow — the skiers fanning out across the mountainside but still bound in a shared moment of rhapsody. The snow was cold and light, just deep enough so the skis start to float and the skier is lost in the sensations of speed and weightlessness. We dropped 864 vertical metres in a couple of minutes; Georges was waiting at the bottom grinning: “Not bad for the first run of the season, eh?” La Rosière may not have Courchevel’s 12 Michelin stars, but it does have one gastronomic USP none of the other Tarentaise resorts can match — the chance to have lunch in Italy. After Mont Valaisan, we skied past the fort and over the Col du Petit St Bernard, in summer a popular route for cyclists but a white desert in winter. We paused at the signpost marking the border (the snow on one side will melt into the Mediterranean west of Marseille, the other into the Adriatic), then dropped down to the village of La Thuile for a lunch of local cheeses, dried meats and truffle pasta. Part of the reason the developers overlooked La Rosière is the lack of a village centre. In fact the community of 692 people is spread among 34 hamlets, scattered across the mountainside from the bottom of the valley up to what is now the ski resort, 1,000m higher. Traditionally families would have multiple houses at different levels and move between them with their livestock. “We moved five times every year,” Gisèle Gaide, a 66-year-old former ski instructor and local historian told me over dinner that night. “In the winter we’d be down in the valley, then when the hay ran out there, we’d move up.” There was no central village square or mairie, no main church — rather the villagers worshipped in 14 tiny chapels. “The priest used to say 600 masses per year, walking between the chapels — he used to need four or five pairs of shoes per year.” An elaborate system of irrigation channels and sluices brought water to the villagers’ small fields, with a strict timetable ensuring everyone got their share. “I remember getting up in the night with my father to water the crops,” she said. “The channels were built in 1374 — I was still working them in the 1960s”. Smuggling helped supplement the local economy — the villagers would bring back nylon tights, fine Italian fabrics, cigarettes, alcohol and, in the 1950s, accordions. “My grandmother was a smuggler,” said Gisèle enthusiastically. “My father was a customs man!” The start of the new two-stage chairlift that climbs Mont Valaisan. It carries skiers more than 2km and rises 864 vertical metres There is still an accordion night, every Tuesday, in the Relais du Petit St Bernard — the last hostelry before the pass — but the villagers’ itinerant lifestyle came to an end in the mid-1970s, when cars and mechanisation allowed the farmers to bring all their hay to one barn and to return home at the end of the day. The spare houses were sold to holidaymakers, but development remained small scale, the chalets and apartment buildings all in the local wood-and-stone vernacular. Now though, helped by the opening of the new lifts, change is in the air. This winter saw the opening of the 69-room Hyatt Centric, the first alpine property for the Chicago-based brand. The smart Alparena opened in January, overlooking the slopes, with 58 rooms and two restaurants. Next winter will bring the Alpen Lodge, a big MGM development, and December 2020 will see the launch of an 800-bed hotel from the Chinese-owned brand Club Med, set amid forest just outside the village. The laid-back, unassuming town of La Rosière sits on the northern flank of the Tarentaise Valley Belatedly the world is waking up to La Rosière, the poor relation no more. Perhaps a new-found confidence will erode the laid-back atmosphere and the warm welcome born of gratitude to visitors for resisting the bright lights of the neighbouring resorts. For now, the old ways remain, apparent in the bottle of homemade génépi proffered after lunch, the way the same few surnames echo wherever you go. The following day, as we skied through a stand of silver birch just below the village, my ski caught something. Clearing the snow, I saw it was the stone edge of one of those ancient water channels. We continued across fields to the hamlet of Le Châtelard, where we shouldered our skis to walk through the narrow cobbled alleys. Animals rustled behind wooden barn doors; the air smelt of warm hay and woodsmoke.