We picked up Aussie Pete from the bus station and threw his snowboarding gear into the back of the van.
As soon as the van door slammed shut, the banter began. For four hours the banter didn’t stop as the three of us were swapping stories, jeering and joking as we edged closer to the mountains.
The wives, girlfriends and children remained in the safety of Pamplona (i.e. out of earshot of our banter) whilst we headed closer towards Baqueira/Beret – a ski resort noted for her excellent snow, elaborate trails and substantial infrastructure. Baqueira was also known as being the preferred choice for celebrities, nobility and the upper echelons of Spanish and French society.
The banter van contained none of those finer gentry and the obscenities emanating from the van could only be matched by the miasmic smell of our room the following morning.
We pulled into Solardu – just a five minute drive from the main ski resort in Baqueira and we checked into a plain looking refuge.
We entered our room to find two bunk beds, a sink, large cupboard and – to the delight of some – a shower area with direct visibility from two of the beds. The refuge had no decor, few comforts but, importantly, plenty of warmth. Pete fatefully decided a have shower immediately and as soon as he whipped the curtain closed, it was whipped open again.
After we had settled in we took a short walk. Solardu is a small, stone-bricked village, walkable in about two minutes and has hostels, B&Bs, grocery stores, equipment shops and, despite its modest size, some very good restaurants.
First of all, we bought some new gear from a local shop, Mombisurf (their site) – which is a well-stocked shop run by a friendly and knowledgable Catalan. After stocking up we asked him to help us with our next requirement: food. Go to Taberna Eth Bot, he said. And don’t forget to tell them that you’re my friend. He also recommended the pigs trotters.
We followed his advice (both pieces of) and settled down into a cosy restaurant. The semi golden glow accentuated the natural stone, open fires, water fountains and low timber ceilings. And, with a large cast iron grill, this eatery was fit for any hunter, trekker, trapper or skier.
Kiwi Craig and I remarked on the exquisite ambiance of the restaurant.
“What’s ambiance?” Aussie Pete enquired.
“Why, it’s French for ambience”, we explained showing off not only our cultural knowledge but also our linguistic skills.
As we continued to wax lyrically, it wasn’t long till our first celebrity strolled in and sat right behind us. After recently winning countless awards for his role in Truman, it was no surprise Ricardo Darin wanted to revel in our high cultured company.
Baqueira/Beret is nestled at around 1500m; almost equidistant between the Basque and Catalan coastlines but lies in Cataluña. It is ideal for skiing in winter walking in summer and has also been the final stage of the Vuelta de España and Tour de France. This grander area around the Pyrenees is also one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe which adds to the adventurous appeal. Astonishingly, on our journey we encountered about twenty cars (only fifteen of them were driving like maniacs). Even the journey was worthwhile taking us through various landscapes, through gorges and tunnels and up into snow dusted forests.
The village of Baqueira is, however, quite clearly dominated by lock-up-and-leave flats which, admittedly, do look like great investments for skiers, hikers (or investors). But thus the village lacks the natural and down-to-earth appeal of Solardu.
There is extensive parking in Baqueira and, much to Pete and Craig’s delight, a red choo-choo train taking punters up to the gondolas directly from the car park.
There was plenty of fresh powder – often untouched, even on the pistes. I mainly kept to the pistes. Craig and Pete, however, both accomplished snowboarders, often went off piste, through wooded sections and sought potential jumps. Our first day, Wednesday, was snowboarding heaven. The look of delight on the boys faces when jumping on the choo-choo train, continued on our faces al day. We kept to the easterly pistes and often had the slopes to ourselves. The lack of queues and the fast gondola journeys meant we packed in dozens of descents even during a morning.
Lunch is provided at three refuges. The prices were reasonable: five euros for a hearty cooked baguette with chicken, salad and cheese. Three euros for a can of beer to wash it down.
Onwards and upwards to Beret
The second day in Beret (a short drive uphill from Baqueira) was equally good for skiing and the slopes were again practically empty but the day was cut short after lunch by heavy wet snow which, unfortunately, began just as we reached the peak of 2600m. The visibility dropped to about three metres, and it was like skiing inside a ping pong ball.
Although we were dismayed that our day was cut short, the extra snow was appreciated the following morning once the clouds had blown themselves away and revealed not only a blue sky but a breathtaking horizon with a visibility of about 50 km.
My favourite track was “Muntanyo”. The easy and smooth journey takes you down through some steep winding slopes and then opens up into a valley of soft snowy hills. As I cruised through the soundless valley I looked ahead at Pete and Craig smoothly making a curve up to the next crest and beyond them the vista of the full mountain range. Both of them were mere dots in a panorama of nature’s glory and immensity. An ecstatic and humbling sensation – and a view that my mind’s eye captured and will forever keep.
Good times and new friends
We settled down on the Friday evening to a dinner at the refuge. In good communal refuge style, it was the same menu for all and although nothing special, filled the grumbling void in our stomachs. Only the first course – a rice dish – was uncooked. ‘A bit al dente isn’t it!’, we remarked to our fellow diners showing off our culinary proficiency. ‘Er, just a bit’, they responded crunching on the uncooked rice.
The main course, thankfully, was a lot better: rabbit stew.
Evidently impressed by our cultural savoir-faire, our fellow Catalan diners were keen to converse with us. ‘Do you know where the word España comes from?’, one of them asked. No, we didn’t. ‘It means land of rabbits’. Catalunya was the land of castles. I conjectured about the word Iberia – a term referring to both this peninsular and the caucuses in Central Asia – as well as the coincidence of the St Georges Cross used in the flags of Georgia, England and Cataluña. Good questions they admitted with respect.
And where are you from, they asked?
“New Zealand, Australia and England”. We answered.
“New Zealand! Wow! Australia! Incredible, wow, welcome!”
England didn’t even garner a response. Not that I blame them. I was equally dismayed later on when we walked into the pub down the road to find that the entire length of the pub counter was hogged by English-folk. What are they doing here, we grumbled under our breath. And how did they find out about our place!
Desperate for a beer, we shamelessly added our elbows to the row of English speakers (or English drinkers?) and babbled away late into the evening such that the final morning was a struggle. When we awoke, our room was effectively a grand dutch oven and a karmic manifestation of what goes round comes round.
The next morning and back in the mountains, pendulating to and fro in a gondola at fifty feet above ground level (because a novice tripped over their own skis whilst alighting) was the last thing my patience or stomach could handle. But the fresh mountain air, the thrills and clean spring water sorted us out fairly quickly.
The slopes are open till 1645 and even on the last day we made the most of the all slopes and, in total, rode almost down every trail and up every gondola.
It was a Saturday evening and after un-clicking ourselves from our skies we hung around the ski slope bar which gave us a glimpse of some of Baqueira’s cachet: champagne branded gazebos, lively groups of young successful Catalans and French mingling in their fashionable ski wear and sipping G&Ts, beautiful waitresses and a famous DJ pumping out a mix of bootlegs and hard house. It was a great atmosphere and we wanted to stay another night … if only we could find a good excuse to tell our wives and girlfriends, explaining that we had to stay one more night.
The prospect of getting back into the choo-choo train back to the car park was simply insult to injury. So we walked to the van, packed up and glumly headed back down the mountainous chicanes.
Return journey and stop off in Ainsa
Half way home, we stopped off at Ainsa for a meal. The old medieval market town was deserted on this winter’s day even though it was a Satruday night.
I had been here previously for a weekend of walking. The youth hostel here is cosy and welcoming.
Craig had been previously to Ainsa to compete in the famous world series off road biking competition – which was last year voted as the best bike trail in the world. When you look around at the surrounding piedmont region with pine forests, abandoned villages, white water rivers and lakes, you can well understand why.
I thought back on the three days. At first, I had second thoughts about the potential cost of the three days. Skiing is by no means a cheap excursion. In fact, my budget was exceeded by the second day.
But only when you stand at the peak poised to descend and you overlook your trail ahead and the endless mountain range, do you forget about those issues.
Money is simply a medium of exchange and for the these opportunities, we should gladly work hard. Regardless of the situation, these are opportunities to remind ourselves of the important aspects of life: seeing and experiencing nature in all its glory; meeting new friends, speaking their languages and sharing new and great stories.
Well, we did all of those things and after the three days we had exhausted ourselves of energy and banter and sat comfortably in the van seats, listening to Kurt Vile’s albums as we cruised quietly and merrily along the empty roads of Northern Spain.