It’s question fit for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
This tiny village pivots on the 550km fulcrum of what is about to become the second biggest and what we believe is one of the finest ski areas in the world.
A) Valemount B) Stuben C) Frachey, or D) Sedrun?
You haven’t got a clue? Well, I wouldn’t bother asking a friend, Jeremy Clarkson, or the audience, because none of them is likely to have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting it right.
OK, take away two incorrect answers, and you’re left with: A) Valemount* C) Frachey
The correct answer is Frachey, a one-marmot hamlet in the Italian Aosta Valley with a population of 29 souls at the last count. At present it fields two tourist attractions: a quaint chapel dedicated to San Claudio, dating from 1653, and a 220-person funicular that carries skiers up to the summit of Colle Bettaforca at 2705m.
During the intervening 366 years, it’s fair to say that not much of note has happened in Frachey beyond the pastoral passage of the seasons, a flood in 1860 and a monster avalanche in 1888 that destroyed four buildings (but spared the chapel).
However, all that is about to change. The arrival of the funicular provided a convenient 21st-century back-door into Monte Rosa Ski, the 180km linked area that comprises Champoluc, Gressoney-La-Trinite and Alagna.
But now Frachey in the Val d’Ayas is poised to receive full millionaire status with a €65 million two-stage cable-car that will link skiers with the Plateau Rosa. The glacial plateau (rosa, by the way, in the local dialect means ‘glacier’ and not ‘pink’) is the gateway to Cervinia and Valtournenche, and across the Klein Matterhorn to Zermatt in Switzerland.
After a decade of discussion and heated international altercation between lift companies on both sides of the frontier, the necessary building permissions are in place, the money’s been raised and – barring any final green appeals – the project could be completed within a couple of years. But, hey, it’s Italy – you never quite know until the cable is on the pylons.
Zermatt and already linked Cervinia need little introduction. However, while Monte Rosa Ski is hugely popular among Italians, it’s relatively unknown elsewhere. If you haven’t yet discovered it (we first came here 30 years ago) you need to know what you’re missing. This is glorious snowsure intermediate piste skiing at rock-bottom prices , with the possibility to explore freeride terrain that rivals Chamonix. What’s more, if you avoid the Italian school holidays it’s wonderfully crowd-free.
Nearest point of access – 90 minutes from the Italian mouth of the Mont Blanc Tunnel lies the attractive and unspoilt village of Champoluc with its own new high-speed gondola into the ski area. Frachey and the funicular are a five-minute drive away. So journey time from Geneva is about two hours and 30 minutes. Alternatively, Turin airport is only a 90-minute drive away, although flights here tend to be more expensive.
If you’ve already made your millions, with or without the aid of a TV games show, you might want to check out property prices. Around here, at the moment, you can buy a three/four-bedroom house for €350,000, a sum that might just get you a shoebox studio in Courchevel, Val d’Isere, or Verbier. Five bedrooms for €500,000…add a digit for its comparable rivals.
It won’t last, of course. When the lift is built, expect property prices to soar at a crazy rate as Zermatt skiers explore the potential of this extraordinarily good-value and delightfully challenging extension to their Matterhorn Paradise. A new gondola, the highest of its type in the world, from Zermatt’s Trockener Steg up to the Klein Matterhorn opened this winter as a primary stage.
The thought no doubt occurred to the financier behind CampZero, a magnificent new five-star hotel that opened here this winter on the four kilometre road between Champoluc and Frachey.
CampZero uses no plastic and much is recycled, such as ski-lift ‘parts’, ski pole baskets and old climbing gear decorating the walls. The food in the two restaurants – Summit for gourmet food and Cliffhanger is the brasserie – is all organic, locally-sourced and generally healthy. At Cliffhanger we ate Deer fillet cooked in hay with blueberries and Fumin wine; and Risotto with hay stock, chestnuts and smoked pumpkin. There’s an in-house spa, a lovely swimming-pool, and a large indoor climbing wall. The hotel even has its own helipad.
But there’s also a full range of accommodation in and around the resort. Hampshire-based operator Ski2 is an integral part of Champoluc, with accommodation available in 35 hotels. The company not only has its own ski shop – with an excellent choice of the latest equipment – but BASI trainer Simon Brown, who lives in Champoluc, runs its own British ski school and ski kindergarten for Ski2 guests.
Ski2 offers its own all-inclusive packages that include half-board and airport transfers, but not flights. Unusually, their prices include lunch vouchers that are redeemable in nine different restaurants scattered across the entire ski area. With the value of the pound on the floor, this is a glorious boon to a family ski holiday.
The voucher gives you a substantial main course such as pasta or a burger, plus a drink, and you can part-pay the bill in cash if needed. Back in the village, any leftover vouchers can be exchanged for apres-ski beers. The scheme saved our family of five at least €300 in a week. Ski2 should win an award for pioneering such a simple money-saving idea that takes the daily financial sting out of lunch on the mountain and contributes greatly to the overall enjoyment of the holiday.
What’s the skiing really like?
This is a happy family skiing, mostly at a blue-red level with occasional frissons of extra excitement. A brand new gondola takes you up from Champoluc, followed by a second one up to Sarezza at 2702m.
The first pitch of the first run of the day is…well…challenging. Naturally they call it red on the piste map, but in icy conditions the initial four turns are enough to deter anyone lacking in confidence.
But no worries. The second best thing about Ski2 is that it runs an efficient on demand shuttle service around the resort until 11pm every evening. If it’s less stressful for you, it’s just as easy to start your day by riding the funicular in Frachey (no little ‘steeps’ on the way home to Champoluc).
Once up the mountain, wide and beautifully groomed pistes take you across the Colle Bettaforca to Stafal, Gressoney-La-Trinite, and onwards to 2971m Passo Salati above Alagna.
Alagna is the archetypal sleepy Alpine village at a lowly 1212m, served by a gondola and a modern two-stage gondola that lift you a mighty 1759m. This puts the demanding run down (the first half is definitely black) into contention for one of the world’s longest lift-served pistes.
An even higher lift, up to Indren at 3275m gets you to the start point for some of the most exciting and scenic freeride opportunities in Europe, but you do need a local guide to steer you safely down.
One day, quite soon, a couple of competent skiers will set off from the 3102m summit of the Rothorn above Zermatt to ski to Alagna via Frachey. It will be the longest uninterrupted crossing of the Alps by skis and lift.
A word of warning to the pioneers: a trip from Zermatt to Cervinia needs to be thought out with Swiss chronometric precision. Miss the last lift home and the vulture taxi drivers at the bottom in Cervinia will be rubbing their hands in glee at the five- to six-hour hour journey time back to Zermatt. It’s best to stay the night in a local B&B and borrow some slippers. A trip home from Alagna is all the longer. Try to calculate on both the AA and Via Michelin websites and computer says ‘no’.
Indeed, even if staying in Champoluc, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can end your day in Gressoney over a couple of beers and grab a cab home – the journey time is the best part of a couple hours by road, and from Alagna it’s three hours 15 minutes.
Zermatt-Alagna is going to be the best on-piste itinerary in Europe…when it happens.
*Valemount is at the heart of a new ski area under construction in British Columbia. The world’s largest sensibly linked ski area is The Three Valleys in France.
Ski2 is based at Twyford in Hampshire. Holidays are from £297 per person, including catered chalet accommodation and a lift pass.