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MARCH IN MONTGENEVRE - Jane Peel, Montgenèvre
Wednesday March 22, 2017 - Email this article to a friend

It's the oldest ski resort in France, has more sun than most and an abundance of snow. Yet Montgenèvre is often overlooked in favour of the bigger, more fashionable ski areas.

It lies in the southern French Alps, right on the Italian border. 

So close, in fact, that the majority of its skiers and snowboarders are Italian, not French.

The border is 2km from the centre of the village and Turin is 100 km away so it's not surprising that Montgenèvre is popular with day-trippers from the Italian city.

Once the weekenders have left, and outside the major holiday weeks, its slopes are quiet.

MontgenèvreQuiet slopes of Montgenèvre
















MontgenèvreEnjoying the quiet slopes of Montgenèvre
















The week before my visit had been sunny and very warm. 

Even so there was snow on the pistes all the way down to village at 1,850 metres.

















Locals tell me that now, in mid-March, there is less snow than there has been all season.

What, even less than during the drought of December?

Yes, they say.

The resort opened mid-November and has had plenty of skiable terrain throughout the winter.  It will close this year on April 22nd. 

Not bad for a ski area without a glacier.

The sunny, mild spring weather continues as I take to the slopes. 

It's a balmy 12 degrees Celsius at lunchtime and feels much, much warmer in direct sun.

For some it's the encouragement they need to strip off and soak up the rays over a long lunch.

Les Terasses, MontgenevreLunch in the sun
















The snow is well groomed and nicely-soft in the morning.  There's none of the icy hardpack you often get first thing after the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle.

OK, by mid-afternoon that soft snow - especially on the south-facing slopes - resembles lumpy, wet sugar,  but that's the trade-off for skiing in the spring.

I am surprised to find that wherever I go I am in sun, even on the north-facing slopes. 

Montgenèvre is surrounded by big mountains and there are a lot of trees, but in spring when the daylight hours are long and the sun is high in the sky, it seems as if there are no shady areas.

Why are all the slopes so sunny, I wonder.

"It's the deal we have with God," ESF instructor Olivier Frassin jokes.

The truth, I am told, is that Montgenèvre is one of the few ski resorts to have an East-West orientation, so its pistes on both north and south sides of the valley get very little shade.

It also means that they soften early in the day at this time of year, so if you want to the get the best out of your skiing it's best to go out early and ski through lunch.

















Montgenèvre sits in the perfect position to benefit not just from the sun, but from good amounts of snow.

If the Italian resorts just to its east get snow,  Montgenèvre gets snow.  If the French resorts to the west get snow, Montgenèvre gets snow.

It's a snowy, sunny micro-climate.

MontgenèvreSunny, snowy Montgenèvre
















So it was a great location to establish France's first proper ski resort back in 1907.

Norwegian soldiers first demonstrated the art of skiing to French soldiers based in the area in 1895.

It soon became clear that the wooden planks the Norwegians were using were a far quicker way to get down the mountain than the snowshoes the French had. 

What's more, with a bit of improvisation, you could go uphill on them too. It made it easier for them to protect the French border during the winter.

For some time, however, the French couldn't work out how to stop on skis.

They used sticks to balance, then simply pushed their skis out in front of them before throwing themselves onto their backs. 

That's one way of doing it.

It was a primitive technique that became known as the Briançonnais stop, after the town of Briançon down in the valley where the first ski school in France was set up.

If only someone had invented the snowplough.

Early ski technique in MontgenèvreEarly ski technique in Montgenèvre














The military have always had a strong connection with Montgenèvre because of its proximity to the Italian border, patrolling and guarding it from foreign incursion.

There are numerous visible 19th Century mountain forts and a subterranean one added in the 1930s as part of the Maginot Line - the series of fortifications built by the French along its border to deter invasion by Germany.

Fort in MontgenevreMountain fort
















Olivier Frassin, my ski guide for the day, is a walking encyclopedia about the history and landscape of "Monty", as he calls Montgenèvre, using the nickname used by many British visitors:

The scenery is certainly spectacular and it's great that beginners can enjoy it too.  A green piste runs from the top of the Gondrans chairlift at 2,455 metres all the way down to the base.

The village itself is small and authentic. 

It might have been the first ski resort in France, but it's nothing like some of the purpose built monstrosities that followed.    
















































A short ski from Montgenèvre along a flattish track and you are in Claviere in Italy, though there's nothing to mark the border.

The slopes here are included on the Monte de la Luna lift pass.

Claviere, ItalyClaviere, Italy
















There are some pretty tree-lined runs and the Bar Baita La Coche is a good place to stop for a refreshing "mountain special".

At Baita La Coche, ClaviereMountain special














Together Montgenèvre and Claviere are not on the same scale as the mega resorts, but if you have a 6-day lift pass you can spend one day exploring the Italian resorts of the extensive Milky Way - the Via Lattea - with its 400km of runs.

We drove to Sestriere - it takes about 30 minutes - and spent the day skiing there, and in Sauze d'Oulx and Sansicario.

The Milky WayThe Milky Way















The runs here are generally more challenging. 

They include the men's and women's Olympic downhill courses in Sestriere and Sansicario that were used during the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.

Sestriere, ItalySestriere, Italy
















Sauze d'Oulx, ItalySauze d'Oulx, Italy
















The return on skis is a little tedious  It involves a gondola and 3 chairlifts to Claviere (on one of which we had to carry our skis and jog off at the top because of the lack of snow!) 

Then it's an easy and quick ski back into France.

It is well worth the day out. The joy of coming to this neck of the woods to ski is that there is so much choice, not to mention the fact that the prices are cheaper than in the bigger resorts, particulary on the Italian side.

But I have to say that, as a base to stay, little Montgenèvre with its traditional feel and friendly people, is hard to beat.

SignThis way home

















PlanetSKI stayed with Inghams at Chalet Rocher de L'Aigle. Inghams offers a seven night holiday on a chalet catering basis at  Chalet Rocher de L'Aigle  from £590 per person. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick to Turin and airport transfers (apx 1hr 20 mins from Turin). Ski and boot hire costs from £96 per adult, and a six-day Whole Area lift pass costs from £189 per adult, both of which can be pre-booked with Inghams.

For more information, see the Inghams website

See here for the main PlanetSKI news page with all the latest stories from the world of snowsports.

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