For those of us with busy work schedules, ski weekends – or mid-week short breaks – are a great way of squeezing extra slope time out of the ski season. Dan Fox, MD of specialist operator Skiweekends, enjoyed them so much that he created a company that organises them. The company now goes to 50 resorts in nine countries – and some of those resorts have interesting histories
I think there are so many interesting resorts which have around 100km of skiing, which you wouldn’t want to spend a week in but are fantastic for a few days: Les Houches in France, Galtur in Austria, most of the Pyrenees, Engelberg in Switzerland and Sierra Nevada in Spain to mention just a few.
So can you name the ski resort with a Picasso sculpture? Or the Austrian village where the Beatles played a secret gig? If not, then read on. Ever since winter sports rescued mountain communities from poverty, they’ve been bustling with activity and invention. Here are 20 weird and wonderful facts about some of my favourites – both big and small:
The Site of France’s First Drag-Lift
Alpe d’Huez was where Jean Pomagalski created the first drag-lift in France in 1935 when he watched the French team training – climbing up for each run. He went down the valley, found a tractor engine, wired it up with a rope and pulley…and voila…The Pomagalski lift empire was born!
Also, the longest lift-served run in the world (but this is disputable) goes from the top of the Pic Blanc down to l’Enversin d’Oz – a lengthy 2230m vertical.
Photo of Jean Pomagalski on his first poma lift in Alpe d’Huez.
Stay at Hotel Le Pic Blanc, which is in an excellent location.
The Resort with Shady Origins
Fresh from his success in the downhill at the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics in 1960, a local lad from Morzine was given the job of creating a new resort up the mountain at Avoriaz and linking the ski area to neighbouring villages in France and across the Swiss frontier. His name was Jean Vuarnet and he managed to create the largest linked ski area in world…..sad that Jean, still going strong, is remembered best for his sunglasses.
Photo: © OT Morzine-Avoriaz.
Stay in the quirky and luxurious Hotel Des Dromonts.
Picasso on the Piste
Flaine was built in the 1960s just as much as an art gallery as a ski resort. Geophysicist and banker, Eric Boissonas, had an optimistic idea that he could put culture into skiing. Depending on your viewpoint the central, diamond-shaped apartments built in the Bauhaus style are an eyesore or an architectural treasure. Weather-beaten sculptures by Picasso and Dubuffet adorn the ski school meeting place, and the whole resort in its magnificent mountain setting is listed as a national monument.
The resort also housed the first non-polluting gas heating plant in the mountains. Photo: © OT Flaine.
Stay in the unusual mountain-urban style three-star, Terminal Neige Totem.
Am I Seeing Things?
You’re standing in the middle of a snowy wasteland near the top of a cable-car, and suddenly an ancient tram glides across the horizon. Hallucination? Too much vin chaud can turn legs to spaghetti, but it shouldn’t affect your vision. Don’t worry – it’s real. The Mont Blanc Tramway plies between St Gervais, the Les Houches ski area and the Bioassonay glacier as it has done since 1914. The line is worked by three old trains, each painted a different color: blue, red and green. In 1957, the three rack-and-pinion trains were named after the daughters of the owner: Anne, Marie and Jeanne.
Stay at the hip new Rocky Pop Hotel, which has a free shuttle service to the slopes.
The 20th Century Bankers’ Retreat
Megeve became a ski resort in the early 1900s when the Rothschild family decided to find an alternative to St Moritz in Switzerland. It is also is the resort that features in the 1963 film, Charade, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.
Photo: © OT Megeve/Simon Garnier.
Stay in three-star hotel Au Vieux Moulin, one of the oldest and longest established hotels in Megeve.
French Resort Founded By a Brit
Meribel No wonder they don’t speak French here. Back in 1936 Scottish skier Peter Lindsay looked for an alternative to the Arlberg, where pro-Nazi sentiment was rising even two years before the Anschluss. With the help of French Olympic ski champion, Emile Allais, he found the perfect site and called it Meribel. The first lift opened in 1938, but then war intervened. Undaunted by service in Burma he returned in his colonel’s uniform in 1946 and got on with the job of raising money building chalets. Photo: © OT Meribel.
Stay at sophisticated Hotel Le Tremplin in the centre of the resort.
The Village That Disappeared Beneath the Waters
If you want to visit the original village of Tignes and don’t own a diving suit, you’ll have to wait until 2025. It lies 45m beneath the surface of the Lac de Chevril above the dam that you pass on your way up the resort or neighbouring Val d’Isere. Amid harrowing scenes, the villagers were forced to abandon their homes to the waters when the dam was built in 1952. It was intended to supply 10% of France’s electricity, but ironically it has never been used. Once every 10 years the lake is drained while maintenance work is carried out. On the muddy floor you can just about make out the remains of houses and roadways. The villagers were originally promised that one day they could return. Meanwhile their poignant sculpture, The Lady of Lac Chevril, keeps vigil.
Lady of the Lac. Photo: © Welove2ski.
Stay at Hotel Le Paquis, which looks across the lake to the Grande Motte glacier.
Health Centre With Thermal Properties…and a Horrible History
Some 23 million litres of curative waters bubble out of 17 springs in Bad Gastein every single day. The Medieval gold mining town has long been known for its cures, but there is also a more sinister 20th century history to the Gastein Valley. In a bid to replenish the Third Reich’s diminishing coffers, Hermann Goering used slave labour to sink fresh mine shafts into the mountains around the valley. He didn’t find much gold but stumbled across a curious phenomenon: the deeper they dug the hotter it became and the health of the half-starved victims did not deteriorate, it even improved. Research put this down to the inhalation of radon gas. The shaft is now called the Healing Galleries and recognised by (some) doctors as beneficial and cures everything from indigestion to arthritis – you can even get treatment on German health insurance. You travel by train on a weird 2km journey to the intensely hot chamber in the rock. Pictured here: the Healing Galleries. Photo: © TVB Gastein.
Stay in the good-value Panoramahotel Pawlik, a 10-minute walk from the centre of Bad Gastein.
Where Ernest Hemingway Wrote His Alpine Idyll
Galtur‘s Piz Buin hotel is set above a hut and high mountain lake used for ski-touring in the 1920s by Hemingway, who would ski the untracked Jamtal-Ferner down into the Jamtal Valley to Galtur and on to the village of Schruns. He wrote about the area in his short story called An Alpine Idyll.
Photo: © TVB Galtur.
Stay at historic Clubdorf Alpenrose, which dates back to 15th century.
First Winner of Kitzbuhel’s Hahnenkamm Was a Brit
Unlikely though it may seem, an English ski racer called Gordon Neil Spencer Clever won what is now the world’s most prestigious race back in 1931 long before the likes of Didier Cuche, Franz Klammer and even Karl Schranz were born. He came sixth in the Downhill and second in the Slalom, which made him the overall winner of the Combined. Old Harrovian ‘Mouse’ Cleaver from Stanmore in Middlesex went on to become a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, winning the DFC. The famous Streif racecourse on the Hahnenkamm remains the toughest downhill on the World Cup.
Photo: © Hahnenkamm.com
Stay in three-star Hotel Resch, 250m from the Hahnenkhamm gondola.
Landing With a Thump
It was a balloon crash, not skiing, that put sleepy little Obergurgl on the world map. In May 1931 Professor Auguste Piccard, the Swiss-born Belgian physicist, inventor and explorer, made an emergency landing on the Gurgler-Ferner glacier in his hot-air balloon after establishing a new high-altitude record. He was known for his exploration of both the upper stratosphere and the depths of the sea in ships of his own design. The professor had to spend a night in Obergurgl before the balloon could be rescued.
Stay in Hotel Riml in Hochgurgl, the highest-altitude hotel in the Tirol.
Do Appreciate You Being ‘Round
Obertauern is Austria’s only truly purpose-built resort (and the only one where you can ski to and from the door of most of its hotels). It has been known for its nightlife ever since the Beatles made part of their film HELP! here in 1965 with local ski instructors standing in as stunt-doubles. The Beatles performed a private – and secret – concert in a hotel here whilst they were filming.
Photo: © TVB Obertauern.
Stay at ski-in ski-out Hotel Marietta in the centre.
The 007 Resort
Solden has recently soared upmarket. It’s always been a good place for snow-sure skiing, with its two glaciers. But in 2015 it became the snowy location for the James Bond film, Spectre, which has placed the resort firmly into the public eye. In January and February 2015, Daniel Craig and 500 actors and film crew came to film here. The resort’s all-glass Ice Q mountain restaurant featured as the futuristic Hoffler Clinic where Bond first meets psychiatrist Madeleine Swann. Ice Q. Photo: © TVB Solden/Rudi-Wyhlidal.
Stay at Hotel Bergland, which first opened in 1949 but now has a completely modernised interior. The bathrooms all have glass walls.
The Cradle of Alpine Skiing
Hannes Schneider, credited as the father of modern skiing and who became the first skiing movie star, didn’t come from St Anton at all, but from neighbouring Stuben, linked by lift. He made his first skis at the aged on nine in 1899 from a sledge maker’s leftovers and an old sieve for bindings. In the winter of 1920-21 he started the first ski school and taught the revolutionary Arlberg technique which then spread across the world. Photo: © Skiarlberg.at
Stay in affordable family-run Hotel Freisleben.
Skiing is Elementary, My Dear Watson
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not only the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but the first ski journalist whose articles in Strand magazine in 1899 introduced the sport to the British public and indeed to the world. “Skis,” he wrote famously, “are the most capricious things on earth. One day you cannot go wrong with them. On another, with the same weather and the same snow, you cannot go right.” Davos – at 1560m it claims to be the highest town in Europe – was already a popular international health destination. The microclimate and pure mountain air were beneficial for TB sufferers and Conan Doyle spent considerable time there with his ailing wife.
Pictured here: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle skiing in Davos 1894.
Stay at three-star Hotel Strela, centrally located in town.
Where the Locals Curried Favour With Mumbai
The resort of Engelberg was founded around a Benedictine monastery in 1122, and until the turn of the century you would come across the occasional monk skiing here dressed in his habit complete with rope belt. Stranger still, if you return to Engelberg in summer, you may be forgiven for thinking you have been teleported to the Himalayas. The hills are alive with…Indians. Since conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan reared its head, some bright Swiss spark had the idea of offering Engelberg’s impressive mountain setting as a Bollywood location. In summer time, movie fans flock in their thousands to see where their heros and heroines danced in the spring flowers. Crafty restaurateurs swap fondue and Rosti
for curry and poppadoms. Photo: © Switzerland Tourism.
Stay in three-star Hotel Terrace, an Art Nouveau establishment, built over 100 years ago.
First Recorded Ski Run in The Alps
Well, it was probably more of a downhill stumble actually. But it did take place in 1849, 12 months before Norwegian woodcarvers came up with the first cambered Telemark ski. Parish priest Johann Imseng, so the story goes, was sitting in a Saas-Fee inn when he learned that one of his flock was seriously ill in a hamlet 8km down the mountain. He ripped a pair of staves from an old barrel conveniently positioned outside the pub, tied them to his feet, and glissaded down the pastures, arriving in time to minister the last rites. The resort also has the highest underground funicular railway in the world, taking people up to the skiing area, and the world’s highest revolving restaurant at 3500m.
Pictured here: Saas Fee’s Alpine Metro.
Stay at newly-renovated four-star Hotel Metropol.
The Resort With the World’s Most Recognisable Mountain
The triangular shape of Toblerone is said to have been modelled on Zermatt‘s iconic Matterhorn mountain, with the image of a bear hidden in the rock. However, some say that the triangular shape actually originates from a pyramid created by dancers at the Folies Bergeres in Paris at a show watched by Swiss chocolatier Theodor Tobler. What can’t be argued is that the mountain on the Caran d’Ache pencil box is the Matterhorn – and it’s also the star of countless chocolate boxes and Christmas cards. BBC’s adaption of John Le Carre’s novel, The Night Manager, was partly filmed on location at Riffelalp above Zermatt.
Stay in centrally-located Hotel Ambassador, where rooms have a balcony with views of the Matterhorn.
Ski in a Capital City
This must be the best way to combine a city break with skiing! The 9km ski area is a 20-minute tram ride from Oslo centre. The tiny ski area boasts Europe’s only Superpipe that is open to the public. Oslo in Norway may be the only capital city with skiing, but other ski areas in cities include Hungerberg in the centre of Innsbruck, Cypress Mountain in Vancouver, and there is skiing at Sapporo in Japan and Lahti in Finland too.
Photo: © Oslovinterpark.no
Stay at The Thief, a lovely boutique hotel on the waterfront.
On a Clear Day You Can See Africa
Who expects to find a major winter sports resort set inland from Costa del Sol hotspots Malaga and Marbella in Spain? You can quite feasibly ski or snowboard in the morning and drive down to the beach in the afternoon, since sand and snow are less than two hours apart.
The beautiful city of Granada is under an hour away, too. The views are stupendous – on a clear day you can spy Morocco’s Atlas Mountains across the Mediterranean. The snow sometimes turns yellow or red due to winds blowing in sand from the Sahara.
Stay at Hotel Vincci Rumaykiyya, set at 2400m it’s the highest hotel in Europe.
Perhaps these 20 resorts have whetted you appetite for finding out more interesting facts about the ski resort you have visited or are about to visit this winter? Maybe you’ve even discovered some facts you’d like to tell us about? We’d love to hear about them so please share them in the comments box below.