A beginners guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi

There’s something timeless about the south-west of France, where it feels like the narrow, winding streets of sleepy market towns have changed little in centuries, and the Canal du Midi snakes languorously through vineyards and fields sheltered from the heat by ancient plane trees.

At it’s heart you’ll find Carcassonne, a medieval fortified town that crowns a green hill perched above the river Aude.  With it’s soaring towers, imposing gateways and panoramic views there’s plenty to take your breath away.  But its fairytale appearance is just the start, as a labyrinth of ancient streets and warm stone houses lure you in and invite you to explore.

I first discovered Carcassonne as a eight-year old … a highlight of summer holiday adventures in the Languedoc.  A couple of summer’s ago I decided to head back, not quite sure what to expect, but curious to see if it had changed.

Returning to somewhere you loved as a child requires a bit of optimism and crossed fingers, and I’d had my doubts when we booked our trip. Would two twenty-somethings really love a city that had captured my imagination all those years ago?

Thankfully, the crossed fingers worked.  The delights of the castle – known as la cité – hadn’t diminished at all since I was half the height I am now.  Carcassonne today is just as awe-inspiring as it was twenty years ago – and the surrounding city and region is blooming.  Architecturally, it’s fascinating, but it’s also great fun. Whether you’re into vineyards, history or pretending you’re a medieval knight for the day, there’s something for everyone in this magical French town.

A potted history of Carcassonne

The area around Carcassonne has been inhabited since neolithic times.  But the first major construction in the region began under Roman rule, when a hilltop castle was built on the site of the current fortified town. A small settlement grew up around the castle, but things didn’t really get interesting until the Visigoths came along in the 5th century.

Building on the footings of the now decaying Roman stronghold, the Visigoths constructed a substantial and strategically-located fortress and thus, the medieval city of Carcassonne was born.  Despite the rise and fall of the Visigoths and many attempts to take the fortified cité, Carcassonne not only managed to survive but also sustain a community both inside and outside of it’s walls for almost a thousand years.

The fortified walls of the medieval city of Carcassonne, France

It wasn’t until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 that the state of Rousillion, of which Carcassonne and it’s surrounding lands were a part, was ceeded to France and much of the city’s military importance diminished. From this point onward, without a substantial military presence, the town fell into disrepair and was largely abandoned.

All wasn’t lost though. The Ville Basse, which had grown up around the foothills of the castle, began to flourish as a market town and a burgeoning industrial centre as the nineteenth century arrived. Two other arrivals were to prosperity to the city: the Canal du Midi in the late eighteenth century, and architect Viollet-le-Duc.

A nostaglic interest in medieval France and it’s architecture started to bloom in the early nineteenth century, and Viollet-le-Duc was hired to undertake restorations of some of the country’s most iconic buildings.  Alongside Notre-Dame de Paris, Mont St. Michel and Fougere, he tackled the crumbling remains of Carcassonne, bringing la cité back to life (and embellishing slightly as he went, die-hards will tell you the pointed turrets are not original – but I rather like them).

In the last hundred years or so the Ville Basse has continued to grow into a lively, vibrant city, and the castle on the hill has flourished.

La Cité

There’s more than enough to keep even an intrepid visitor occupied for a day in the fortified cité.

Medieval towers in the fortified city of Carcassonne, France

My best advice is to follow your feet and happily explore.  If you have the chance, come back at different times of day to experience atmospheric evenings and enjoy cool, quiet mornings.  To get you started, here a few of my favourite things to do;

  • Get lost in the labyrinthine streets.  Explore beyond the main street and find hidden alleyways, cosy squares, beautiful houses as well as monumental gates and doorways.
  • Walk the walls.  In parts, you can walk between the two outer walls of la cité (between the Porte Narbonnais and the smaller gate near Place Saint-Nazaire) looking up at the imposing towers and fortifications.  Or, to escape to a part of the medieval city without any crowds, head out the Porte de l’Aude to the west and wander the rugged little footpaths that hug the outer walls, clinging on between the castle and vegetable gardens below.
  • Discover the Château Comtal.  Or rather the outside of the château.  Confession: I’ve never actually been inside (it’s worth noting you’ll need to buy tickets if you want to look around the interior).  But the building is one of the most impressive you’ll see within the fortifications, and if you take a little side street to the right of the entrance, you can stroll around the little ornamental garden at the foot of the castle walls.
  • Find stunning stained glass in the Basilique Saint-Nazaire.  The extraordinarily colourful windows in this medieval church are believed to be the oldest in southern France.
  • Soak up a panorama or two.  Head out towards the walls and you’ll find spectacular views opening up.  To the south, look out over a vista of vineyards as far as the eye can see, and to the north take in the town centre with it’s own city walls.
  • Eat.  Yes, I’m predictable.  But you might think that somewhere this popular isn’t the best place to find delicious local food.  However, I’m happy to report that with a little judicious decision making there are some great restaurants to be found in la cité.  Plus, the atmosphere on a summer’s evening can’t be beaten – grab yourself a table on a terrace and a glass of delicious local wine.

The fortified walls of Carcassonne, France

Whilst during the summer months you might have to negotiate the winding streets with crowds during the day, don’t be fooled into thinking Carcassonne is just for show.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 356 days a year the town is alive.  Beyond the château, shops and restaurants, real people live here too and one of the charms of the place is spotting to the signs of everyday life that pepper the streets.  And for more local flavour, head towards the Ville Basse beyond.

The Ville Basse

Whilst most visitors stay within the walls of the castle, you’re missing a trick if you don’t explore the rest of the city.

Step away from the entrance of the Porte Narbonnais and you’ll find a few winding streets weaving their way down to the river Aude.  Here you’ll find the old bridge, now pedestrianised, that invites you to explore the other side to this remarkable city.

The Ville Basse (also known as the Bastide Saint-Louis) is the living, breathing heart of the modern city of Carcassonne – but it’s all relative. The town grew up in the middle ages and the majority of buildings now occupying this space date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thanks to flourishing industry over the past few centuries and a location at the centre of a prosperous winemaking region, the town has thrived.

City gate in Carcassonne, France

The old centre is loosely ringed by old city walls – not in the same league as the castle on the hill, but reminiscent of the bastide towns you find in this part of the world. Enter through one of the old city gates and you’ll find yourself in a warren of cool, shady streets that criss-cross and intersect with one another. Whilst you’ll find a few local cars here, it’s best explored on foot.

At the geographic and metaphorical centre you’ll find the main square – Place Carnot, home to the Saturday morning market that explodes weekly in a riot of colour, scent and sound. Any other day, you’ll find it a quieter spot to enjoy coffee under the shade of the plane trees or an early evening aperitif. There’s a nice selection of shops to explore and a fantastic old-fashioned covered market building just off the main square is home to the traditional butchers, cheesemongers and fishmongers of the city.

Old shop signage in the bastide town of Carcassonne, France

I love the streets of the Ville Basse best early in the morning, on my way to pick up fresh bread and pastries for breakfast from the boulangerie on Place Carnot.

Beyond the centre

Carcassonne might be a city, but that doesn’t mean green spaces don’t abound. Aside from the rolling countryside and farmland of the regions, two of my favourite places to walk are alongside the river Aude and the Canal du Midi which weave their ways through the city centre.

The river crashes it’s way down through Carcassonne from its source in the Pyrenees en route to the Mediterranean coast. In summer, it’s quite gentile, and it’s river banks are a cool and shady spot to stroll and escape the heat of the day. You’ll also find some great campsites along its banks as you head out of town.

Canal du Midi in Carcassonne, France

The canal may be more sedate but it’s no less beautiful. Join the towpath near the railway station and walk in either direction. We hired mountain bikes and headed out discover the countryside, and followed the canal as far as Trebes – about 10km out of town – before heading off into the vineyards and sun-soaked farmland beyond. Cycling alongside the canal is glorious, and the shade of the plane trees offers a little relief from the sun on a hot day.

Although the Mediterranean coast is only an hour or so away by car or train (and that’s a story for another day), there’s a refreshing alternative nearer to town. Lac de la Cavayere is where the locals go to cool down.  A short bus ride or drive from town brings you to this pretty little lake – set in a midst of a Mediterranean pine forest.

Lac de la Cavayere started life as a reservoir before becoming a beach and the spot where Carcassonne locals come to escape the heat and crowds and make the most of the summer (it’s surprisingly common in south-west France even if it feels a little alien to us Brits).  It’s somewhere you can swim, sunbathe and stroll to your hearts content.  Family-friendly, it’s also great for active folks with trails all around the lake and nearby woodland, watersports and picnic-spots galore.

The city of Carcassonne in the south of France

Have you visited Carcassonne, and found any hidden treasures I’m yet to uncover?


The practical bit

We flew direct to Carcassonne from Bournemouth with Ryanair. From the airport, it’s a short bus ride (services run regularly) or taxi to the city centre.

We booked a fantastic apartment (Apartment Massena to be precise) right in the centre of things from the incredibly nice people at Carcassonne Apartments. Beautifully restored and comfortably furnished, it was the perfect base for a week’s stay and only a few minutes walk from the highlights of this small city. It’s located on Rue du Pont Vieux, halfway between la cité and the Ville Basse, and only a minute or two from the river Aude.

A beginners guide to Carcassonne: Medieval magic in the Midi, France

Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border

The Milky Way – or Via Lattea as it’s known in Italy – hugs the French-Italian alpine border, taking in the resorts of Montgenevre, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx in one easily navigable ski area.  Not only is it perfect for more experienced skiers and boarders looking for a huge number and diversity of pistes, some of the prettier villages that dot the Milky Way offer beginner and family friendly slopes set in a stunning landscape.

Confession: I’ve fallen a bit in love with the Milky Way.

I’ve just returned from my second trip within a year, and keep finding reasons to recommend it.  Basing ourselves at opposite ends of the Via Lattea on each visit, we’ve explored the vast majority of this surprisingly budget-friendly ski area.  But I’m still looking for excuses to return.

So, if you’re a lover of mountains, snowsports, perfect pistes and plenty of cheese, read on for my guide to making the most of the Milky Way;

The resorts

The Via Lattea comprises seven resorts, six in Italy and one in France.  But don’t let the border worry you – you can ski and board back and forth between the two countries to your heart’s content, with several routes to choose from.

Starting on the French border – Montgenevre

This purpose-built French resort delivers everything you’d expect and more.  It’s situated high up meaning that good snow conditions are almost guaranteed for most of the winter.  The large ESF-run ski school is great for beginners and improvers, there’s a good selection of restaurants and cafes (it is France after all) as well as a smattering of useful shops, plus it’s easy to access the piste from anywhere in town.

Montgenevre is a fabulous location for mixed ability groups.  You’ve got a huge range of pistes on your doorstep, from pretty tree-lined green runs that everyone can enjoy to challenging reds and blacks that’ll get the blood pumping and help you explore every inch of the mountain.  And at the end of the day, you can warm up on the way home with a vin chaud at one of the many bars along the main street.

Looking down over the French resort of Montgenevre

 The best bits: The pistes up at Les Gondrans are a dream.  They’re varied and easy to access from four lifts, making it perfect for those who want to spend some time finding their ski legs, practising their technique or having some fun.  There’s something for everyone here – and Cafe Les Anges is ready and waiting once the hot chocolates are a’calling.

 Be aware: If you’re hoping to explore the whole Milky Way, it can take a long time to get across from Montgenevre.  You’re best off taking a bus – or heading to nearby Serre Chevalier (separate lift pass required) if you’re after some variety.

Claviere

This traditional little village sits on the Italian border just 3km from Montgenevre, with easy ski links between the two.  Smaller than its French neighbour, it’s a great spot for families and those who want the pistes to themselves.  We based ourselves here at the Grande Albergo Hotel Claviere, a budget friendly hotel that was great for groups.

Claviere is quiet, but well-served with a small Italian supermarket, bakery, the recommendable Gallo’s bar and a couple of delightful pizzerias and restaurants both in town and on the piste at La Coche.

The small ski resort of Claviere in Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Claviere is well located for exploring the whole of the Via Lattea and we could get across to Sansicario, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx from here if we moved fast enough.  This makes it a good strategic base for more experienced skiers.

Be aware: It’s not a party town, so if you’re hoping to hit the après or aperitivos you’re better off considering Sauze d’Oulx or Montgenevre.

Sansicario and Cesana

A venue for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, Sansicario is largely purpose-built and one of the smaller towns on the Milky Way.  It’s close to the valley town of Cesana, a functional hub in the centre of the ski area that’s home to more locals than tourists.

What Sansicario lacks in size it more than makes up for in enjoyable piste, with sweeping reds and blacks that are the perfect playground for boarders and experienced skiers.  Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere are only a few lifts and pistes away if you want cover as much snow as possible.

Views of the Monti della Luna from Sansicario on the Milky Way

The best bits: Sansicario is a sun trap on a clear day, so slap on some suncream and head over to make the most of the open upper pistes and cafe terraces (because when in Italy, have your fill of Italian hot chocolate. It’d be rude not to).

Be aware: The lower slopes were in relatively poor condition this winter (2017), so I wouldn’t recommend as a ski-in/ski-out location – you’ll be spending a lot of time carrying boards and skis if you base yourself here.

Sestriere and Pragelato

Synonymous with world-class skiing, Sestriere – and nearby Pragelato – sit in a bowl towards the southern edge of the Via Lattea.  This upmarket resort might not be the prettiest you’ve ever visited but it’s heritage as a host of world cup skiing tells you everything you need to know.  You’ll find spectacular, challenging pistes right on your doorstep as well as mountain restaurants galore.  A gondola offers a speedy link to Sauze and Sansicario, giving you the opportunity to ski a massive area each day.

The best bits: The central location and wide variety of accommodation and eating options.   As with Montgenevre, you’ll also find the elevation here (2,000m) means that Sestriere is pretty snowsure throughout the season.

Be aware:  Sestriere isn’t a great recommendation for budget travellers – base yourself in Sauze d’Oulx instead and head across early in the morning.

Sauze d’Oulx

Sauze has a bit of a split personality – part traditional Italian alpine village, part party town.  Whichever side you’re most interested in, it’ll be outshone by the meandering tree-lined pistes that make Sauze a joy to visit in its own right.

It’s one of the larger resorts on the Milky Way, meaning you’ll find a good variety of accommodation and eating options on and off the slopes.  It also offers the best value for money I’ve come across in this area for both – especially when it comes to enjoying food up on the mountain.

Pistes in Sauze d'Oulx, Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Take a little time to stroll around the old town without your boots on – the narrow cobbled streets, overhanging eaves of hundred year old chalets and arched stone doorways make you feel more like a visitor to an Italian village on the plains than a ski resort.  There are some great budget eats too – try the fantastic Famelica Pizzeria in the old town for the best takeaway you’ve ever eaten (bonus points for enjoying it out in the snow), and the cafe at the top of Col Basset offers fantastic paninis made fresh in front of you for a little over €5.

Be aware:  As with Sansicario, the lower pistes can struggle with snow cover if conditions are warm.  Unseasonable weather in 2016, when we based ourselves in Sauze, required some serious efforts from the piste-bashers and snow cannons to keep the returns into town open.

Lift passes

Depending on where you base yourself, and how much of the Milky Way you intend to explore, there are several options when it comes to lift passes.

The international pass covers you for all resorts on both the Italian and French sides of the border. Given the size of the ski area and the amount of time taken to get from one end of the Milky Way, this represents good value for money only if you’re a very experienced (and ambitious) snowsports enthusiast, or if you’ve got your own transport to move from one resort to the other.

For most skiers or boarders, the Via Lattea or Montiluna Montgenevre passes are a better fit.

The Via Lattea pass gives you full access to all Italian resorts, and one day in Montgenevre (if you go for the 6 day pass).

Alternatively, if your base is in Montgenevre or Claviere, you can opt for the Montiluna Montgenevre pass that allows you to explore these two resorts to your heart’s content, and spend one day in six in the other Italian resorts.

The Via Lattea and Montiluna Montgenevre passes offer great value for money as they cover substantial areas.  Take the opportunity to make the most of a day’s skiing elsewhere in the area by taking a coach transfer – usually easy to arrange through your reps in resort – to Montgenevre, Sauze or Sestriere (this should get you there for lift opening, and return once the pistes have closed).  It is possible to take lifts all the way across, but expect to need a little bit of patience and ability to shuffle in ski boots if you go for this option.

You can find out more about lift passes on the Via Lattea website.

Skis on the Via Lattea. Italy

The practical bit

The Milky Way is just over an hours drive from Turin airport, making coach transfers and fly-drive options a breeze.  Sauze d’Oulx is closest to the fast motorway links, with Montgenevre and Sestriere taking a little longer to reach.

If you’re travelling from the UK you’ll find a wide range of tour operators offering good value packages to this area – we’ve travelled here most recently with Crystal and Neilson.

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation with hotels, catered chalets and apartments in abundance, although pick your resort carefully if you plan to self-cater and shop in town.  Some of the Italian resorts including Sauze d’Oulx have a real lack of any good food shopping, however Montgenevre and Claviere have much greater choice.

We opted for the Neilson Hotel Edelweiss in Sauze d’Oulx in 2016, which gave us easy access to the Jouvenceaux lift to get onto the mountain, generous food and stylish rooms.  For contrast, we headed to the opposite end of the resort in 2017, staying at the Grande Hotel Albergo Claviere in the centre of the village.  This hotel is run by Crystal and pitches itself as family-friendly, but it’s a good choice for all budget travellers.  It’s got fantastic ski links, a friendly bar and a plentiful – if not gourmet – menu.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely. There’s something for everyone here, and with another eight weeks left of this ski season there’s still time to book a quick getaway. The Milky Way has been blessed with great snow conditions so far in 2017, and coupled with it’s sunny slopes it should be perfect this coming Easter.

And don’t forget, if you’re looking for some more Alpine inspiration, try  Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season for my favourite European resorts you’ve not yet heard of.

Feeling inspired to plan a trip?  Tell me about it in the comments below or on the Girl with a saddle bag Facebook page.

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Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border

Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season

Europe boasts an incredible variety of ski areas, from delightfully cosy alpine villages to packed, crowd-pleasing purpose-built resorts.  All of them offer the opportunity to explore a beautiful winter wonderland, and are a playground for skiers and boarders.

Growing up, I was enthralled by the charmingly British ‘Ski Sunday’ (yep, I bet you can hear the theme song in your head already) that was compulsory TV-viewing in my family, and I couldn’t wait to one day venture onto the pistes myself.  As soon as I hit my twenties I made it my aim to learn to ski – and opened up a world of new travel experiences.

The most difficult thing about skiing however, other than the hangovers and the tired legs, is choosing where to go.  With a wealth of places to choose from, here’s my picks for this winter from some of my favourite trips.

For beginners and confidence builders | Chamrousse, France

Nope, we’d not heard of it either.  But this French resort perched just above the city of Grenoble deserves more attention than it gets.  The town is split into two parts, a skiable distance apart, with Chamrousse 1750 the resort centre and Chamrousse 1600 the older village.  Chamrousse 1750 is home to pretty, low rise apartment blocks centred around a sports centre that offers free access to the snow-rimmed outdoor pool, saunas and hot tubs to lift pass holders.  We had a lift quite literally on our doorstep, and a smattering of bars and shops within a five minute walk.

Snowy pistes in Chamrousse, France

What Chamrousse lacks in size, it makes up for in charming views and easy to ski, well-maintained pistes.  It was our first trip without ski school and we found the gentle blue and red runs (Olympique Dames a latterly amusing exception!) to be great confidence builders and largely empty even in January.  Our lift pass was thrown in with our apartment package (This still appears to be the case for the 2016/2017 season – shop around for tour operators offer this deal), and the nearest bar – Doudou’s – offered mulled wine and crepes for a ludicrous €1 in the evening.  We were smitten.

Pros: Great value, easy skiing, ski-in/ski-out accommodation

Cons: Experienced skiers may want more piste, quiet nightlife, the weather – lower pistes notoriously sit in cloud much of the time so you’ll need to head up high for good vision and views

For those who want to Après | Mayrhofen, Austria

Tucked away at the head of the Zillertal valley in the Austrian Tyrol is the town of Mayrhofen.  Better known to some as the home of Snowbombing festival, it’s a great choice all season long with fantastic skiing and a lively, party atmosphere.  Although the snow has been drawing crowds here for decades, the legendary après scene also guarantees you’ll have as much (if not more) fun off the pistes as on.

Penken Mountain Mayrhofen Austria

The Zillertal valley is a huge ski area, so there’s plenty to explore whether you’re an experienced skier or boarder, or a complete beginner.  I learned to ski here, and found the ski schools not only great value for money but also good at getting us out exploring whilst we found our ski legs.  You won’t be stuck on a green run for long.

Up on the mountain you’ll find lots of restaurants offering hearty and affordable food, as well as cold beers and hot chocolates as the afternoon wears on.  The Schneekarhütte at the top of the Horberg offers something a bit more special and has fabulous views from its terrace.  Just don’t fill up too much, there’s a challenging red run back down from here into the valley!  At the end of a day on the mountain, the bars and restaurants at the top of Penken gondola are a great stopping point with good views of the pistes behind.

Back in town is where the party starts.  For cheap beers and the best crowds, Ice Bar (at the foot of the Penken Gondola) is where the crowds go.  By 5pm you might not be able to get through the door, so stop off on your way home for a Europop party and the best of Austrian hospitality.  It’s early doors, so make the most of it – you’ll have to be out at 8pm.

For later nights, there’s a huge variety of places to choose from along the pretty main street.  Basement bars make a cosy spot for drinks and catching up with friends, and there are a couple of clubs if you fancy making it a late one.  Our favourite evenings were spent in the Sports Lounge at the SportHotel Strass, where you’ll find live music most nights – and White Lounge.

Ice Bar Apres Ski in Mayrhofen Austria

If there’s one thing you need to do in Mayrhofen, you need to go to the weekly party at White Lounge.  2,000m high on the Ahorn mountain, it’s a hotel and bar igloo complex, built from fresh snow each season.  A gondola packed full of partygoers heads up the mountain early in the evening, to be greeted by a torch-lit procession.  Flaming torch in hand, you’ll head to the igloos, where you’ll find a packed dancefloor, chillout rooms and the sort of fun that’ll have you dancing on tables before you know it.  Yes it’s raucous, but it’s also one of the coolest things you can do on snow.

Pros: Good value accommodation and eating/drinking out, big ski area, great nightlife

Cons: You’re not going to get a quiet night, comparatively expensive lift pass

For budget travellers | Bardonnechia, Italy

Relatively unheard of compared to its more popular neighbour, Sauze d’Oulx, Bardonnechia ticked all the boxes for us as a group of moderately experienced skiers and boarders looking for somewhere with a bit of life to it.

The ski area is big enough to keep you entertained all week, with a variety of pistes and some notably pretty tree-lined ones.   We booked ski-in/ski-out accommodation at the Campo Smith apartments which made for a great base for the week.  It’s a minute from the nearest lift and a less than a minute from our favourite après-bar, Cipo’s, notable for its retro taste in music (good) and free antipasti between 5pm and 6pm each evening (even better).

Empty pistes in Bardonnechia Italy

The town itself is a little more unusual as most of the properties are owned by Torino families who visit on weekends and holidays, meaning it can feel pretty quiet much of the time.  That said, we found a good selection of restaurants (serving authentic Italian food) and bars, although the supermarket was a little on the small side for adventurous self-caterers looking to dip into Italian cuisine.

There’s also lots to keep you entertained when you’re not racing down slopes: We found great cafes on the mountain with the most incredibly delicious hot chocolate (our favourite was Birichini at the top of the Les Arnauds lift), and spent an afternoon snow-shoeing through the most beautiful countryside further up the valley.  It’s also less than an hour by train from the town’s rail station to Turin city centre if you fancy exploring without skis strapped on.

Pros: Lovely pistes, Cipo’s bar, fabulous snow-shoeing

Cons: Not the prettiest of towns, busy on weekends

For the best snow | Val Thorens, France

Val Thorens is the jewel in the crown of the Trois Vallées.  Perched at the top of this famous ski area, it’s the highest altitude resort in Europe.  This means one very important thing – fabulous snow.  Whether you’re hoping to ski early or late in the season, or just want to be confident you can make the most of every daylight hour on the pistes, this friendly, purpose-built town is the perfect base.

You have access to a vast ski area – with Courchevel and Meribel accessible on piste for confident skiers and borders – and it’s diverse.  The huge bowl shaped valley offers lots of gentle slopes perfect for beginners, whilst more experienced skiers can venture further afield or tackle more challenging reds and blacks close to home.  It’s also a perfect sun trap – and a great spot to people watch from balconies overlooking the piste.  We visited in January and were hugely impressed with the proportion of pistes that were open, and even as relative newbies could comfortably ski new ground every day.

Apres ski at the Folie Douce in Val Thorens France

When you’re done exploring for the day, head to the Folie Douce on the Plein Sud piste for some of the most outrageous après you’ll find in France.  The party gets started around 3pm, with a live DJ every day and live music too if you’re lucky.  Grab a beer, find a spot in the snow and enjoy one of the most surreal and fun experiences to be found with your skis on.  And try and keep hold of you ski legs on the way back down – not everyone does!

Pros: Breathtaking views, vast snowsure area, fantastic accommodation, the Folie Douce

Cons: Pricey lift passes, pistes near to town can get icy quick when in the sun

Feeling inspired?  Or have your own off-the-beaten path suggestions for frolicking in the snow this winter?  I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

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Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season