Irish Independent, February 2nd 2013
Perhaps I should have focussed on form over velocity. After making my skiing debut in Austria the previous year, I’d come to the intermediate-friendly slopes of Arinsal to build on my raring rookie foundation. However, after confidently ploughing down the green-run for my ski-grade assessment, I soon found myself sympathetically corralled towards to the lower group of Advanced Beginners who need “work on technique”. It seemed pride would come and go before any Andorran fall.
It was hard to take myself too seriously however, surrounded by a mass of skiers in animal themed winter woollies, lending Arinsal’s slopes the air of a Mad Hatter’s extravaganza on ice. What could I do, but grab my ski-poles and join the piste-party.
The woman tasked with restoring my ski skillset was Floppi (née Florenica), a zestful native of Patagonia who enjoys an almost yearlong winter between the Andes and Andorra. “Ah you’re from Cork?” she exclaimed, as we engaged in rapid-fire group intros. “I know Munster!” she added, before revealing she shares the same Irish schooling pedigree as Felipe Contepomi. This was the woman to nurse me out of the nursery slopes alright.
Arinsal is best known as a ski-resort for English speakers and my group was a merry British and Irish gathering which included Galwegian Deb, a marketing guru for Rimmel and Londoner Zara, a PA who moonlights as world champion rower. You never know who you’re dealing with underneath all those snow goggles.
While our first session of snowploughs proved a back-on-the-bike breeze, Floppi predicted the next day would prove more challenging. True to her forecast, I awoke to a snowfall so dense Arinsal had been blanketed into a serene dusk. As I huddled on the chair-lift into the heights of the Pyrenees, my skis dangled beneath me in eternal cotton clouds, my beard developing an impressive Shackleton frosting in the -20˚C chill. “It’s the biggest snowfall in seven years”, Floppi informed us, the boom of avalanche bombs in the distance adding to the dramatic extremities.
After aligning on the mountainside like a nervous band of lemmings, we eventually took the piste-plunge, concertinaing down the run as a blizzard howled into rapturous swing. Soon, slopes and skies were all married in a shroud of white, impairing all visibility and drawing us to a rather calamitous halt. “If you can ski in this, you can ski in anything!” Floppi shouted, in a motivational salvo. The conditions did nothing but conjure a sense of adventure however and I employed a general strategy of staying to the fore, be it dutifully following Floppi’s speedy slipstream or dramatically tumbling ahead of her while pushing the boundaries of my noviced technique. No risk, no fun.
Our three-hour sessions typically amounted to a series of mountain runs, split by the ritual 11’s of green tea in a postcard mountain chalet. This also afforded the group chance to bond, discuss technique and catch up on the raucous antics of the night before: “I drank hot-chocolate in the bar and played board games with my mates”, Zara confessed, to my equally rock star admission of reading in the hotel lounge next to the resident Michael Bublé impersonator. “I think the whole Après-ski scene is a bit of myth” Zara revealed and it seemed we were both on the same ski-trail of thought. After all, after releasing the feel-good endorphins from conquering the Pyrenees by day, I think I’d lost my verve for Gangnam Style and Sambuca.
That afternoon I joined Zara and her mates (a group of avid cyclists, rowers and mountains climbers) who were busy refuelling for their afternoon ski-session. Rather than eating on the touristy mountains, Team GB had already earmarked the village haunt of “Déja Vu”, a largely abandoned cozy café offering piping pots of nachos, chilli and patatas bravas for €5. “It’s immense” they chorused. Cuisine in Androrra (much like its culture), is largely Catalan based and makes a welcome change to stodgier Alpine fare. Highlights of my own hotel buffet included traditional lamb with spinach with pine nuts and raisin, while Floppi’s hotspot, the Argentinian steakhouse La Pampa, served me a bounteous entraña for €12, washed down with cheaper-than-agua Riojo.
For some off-piste downtime, I ventured into state capital Andorra La Vella, to visit the city’s famous, (and indeed Europe’s largest) thermal spa, Caldea. Mineral-rich hot springs gurgled up to feed a complex of pools, hamams, and Icelandic baths where snow, fresh from a sky-chute filtered into the waters before me. Perhaps most relaxing however, was the bubbling outdoor lagoon, where I laid cocooned by the Pyrenees as snow-flakes trickled from the heavens. Magnífic!
Andorra La Vella itself is a relatively staid affair. Though not without its sights (Europe’s highest parliament…), its streets are dotted with pocket-sized banks and Porsches, while its bourgeoisie residents embody a bizarre panache lost between Karl Lagerfeld and Dame Edna Everage. Leopard-skin leggings and offshore accounts aside, the big buzz in this town is shopping, all gratis to Andorra’s micro VAT rates. I perused eye-ogling price-tags for clothes, booze and electronics before finally treating myself to an Android tablet for just €99. Bargain!
Back in Arinsal, the atmosphere was far more convivial. The tiny village was perhaps the perfect getaway for a holidaying singleton and almost like a Pyrenean Emmerdale, offered a familiar face from the skiing fraternity around every corner of its hewn-granite chalets. There’s Gerry from Belfast with the news from his snowboarding class, that’ll be Craig from Topflight with the skiing forecast and here’s Val from Dublin revealing her latest shopping exploits from Mango.
With our final day on the slopes set to crescendo with an end of week speed trial, alas another untimely blizzard was to scupper my quest for slalom glory. I wouldn’t get the chance to battle for gold against hot-favourite Zara and we soon found ourselves aloft in the wilds as battering gales brought the mountain to a close. There was no other option but to put my week’s skills to the test and tack down to the base, while Floppi, like an exasperated mother duck, scaled back the mountain to usher some of the flock stragglers back to base.
After finally making it down to the refuge of the valley, we marked our week finale with an impromptu graduation ceremony. As Floppi proudly presented us with Catalan certificates from Arinsal’s Scuola d’Esqui, it was speeches, back-slapping and ski-clapping all round, as we lay poised for a skiing career on the intermediates and beyond. We’d even leap-frogged the progress of group A! There was one accolade to be awarded however: “Best Falls goes to…Tom”.
Meravellós! My slalom medal might have been put on ice but I’d still achieved my goal: I knew I wouldn’t leave Andorra without a title.
Need to Know
Thomas went to Andorra with Topflight, which flies from Dublin to Toulouse (01-240 1700; topflight.ie), from which it’s a three hour transfer to Andorra.
Seven-night self-catering packages with the operator start from €499pps – a good option considering Andorra’s high quality and affordable cuisine. Thomas stayed in the 4* St. Gothard Hotel which has half board rates from €639pps. Mid-term family deals (2 adults + 2 children) to Arinsal start from €2390 for a self-catering stay at the Residence Daina. Package includes all equipment hire and ski-school.
For some non-kitsch Après-ski action, Cisco’s Bar in Arinsal is a magnet for locals and offers vibey house music sets.
Five great things to do
Pick up the pace with a snowmobile excursion across the lofty Vallnord region. Skill races are available if you’re feeling competitive – just don’t forget your driver’s license. (€35; grandvalira.com)
Add ‘mushing’ to you list of snow skills by husky-sledding your way deep into the forests of Arinsal. After an evening on the reins, you’ll soon be leader of the pack. (€28; Topflight)
Soak up the mountain minerals at the Caldea spa in Andorra La Vella. Just the therapeutic way to follow an exhausting day of skiing – or shopping. (€30; Topflight)
Get animated at Andorra’s quirky comic museum in the village of La Massana. The expo also offers drawing workshops if the kids don’t take to the slopes. (free entry; arca.ad)
Heliski your way across the Pyrenees by catching a chopper to Andorra’s highest peaks, then skiing your way home. Who says Andorra’s just for beginners? (€210; andorraheliski.com;)