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Correction to This Article
The article misstated the amount of snow it receives each season and the size of the resort compared with those in North America. Baqueira-Beret receives 500 to 650 inches of snow and has fewer skiable acres than resorts at Whistler, B.C., and Vail, Colo.

A Spanish ski vacation with a change of pace

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By Charlie Leocha
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's 10 p.m. in Vielha, the largest town in the remote central Pyrenees' Val d'Aran. Restaurants are only now opening for dinner, filling with patrons pouring out of crowded tapas and wine bars. And don't expect any dance clubs to begin to percolate until midnight. That's just the way it's done in Spain, where there's an art to enjoying life. And a different rhythm.

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Here in the States, ski and snowboard vacations focus mainly on the sport and the snow. Everything else registers as secondary. In Spain, snow vacations provide a bit of skiing and snowboarding as something to do between meals and glasses of wine and cava. Good food, rich wines, long lunches and late-night dinners with friends rank just as high as racking up vertical feet, perhaps higher.

Let's admit that the reason to spend gobs of money, deal with language barriers and jet lag and then drive 4 1/2 hours to a remote mountain valley is not just to ski, search for the perfect chute or huck off a cliff on a snowboard. The quest for a change of place is the chief reason to venture across the Atlantic. I travel to discover a different frame of mind, to carve turns down a trail that curls around a small barn wafting the scent of real cows, to sip wine and nibble gambas ajillo at a slate bar where conversations fire in three or four languages, or to dine in a tiny restaurant where foie gras is followed by Spanish lamb chops cooked over coals.

Skiing or riding from strictly the snow point of view may be replicated at other resorts found in the Alps or American West, but the lifestyle, the tapas, the French/Spanish cuisine, the Aranese language, natural hot springs and the late night life can only be found in this unique valley hidden beneath rugged peaks: a snowy Shangri-La between Spain and France.

The Val d'Aran stretches from east to west, the only such valley in the Pyrenees. Its northern flank forms part of the modern Spanish border with France. This remote valley of harsh winters never fell under the strict feudal structures of either France or Spain and developed one of the first communal societies in Europe. Granted the right of self-rule, the Aranese formed a governing structure that provided for the sharing of precious pastures, woods and farmable acreage.

The valley's name reflects its role as a meeting point of the Mediterranean Catalan culture and the Atlantic Basque influence. "Val" is Catalan for valley, and "aran" is Basque for the same thing. So the perfect translation would be "the valley of the valley."

After the Spanish Civil War, the losing Republicans hid here for years until Francisco Franco's forces bored a tunnel through the mountains to reach this last outpost of resistance. The first automobile road slowly crept over the Bonaigua Pass in 1925, and the tunnel connecting the valley with the south was completed in 1948.

The modern valley showcases a mishmash of architecture. Construction cranes rise from end to end. Apartment complexes, old-world office buildings, small traditional wood, slate and stone villages and condo hamlets constructed to look like traditional villages are all connected along the valley floor by a road that follows the course of the Garona river.

At the valley's eastern end, ski lifts rise to a spreading series of runs, with ridges and spines traced by trails and off-piste opportunities. Baqueira, the original village, was built as a remote ski resort in 1964. It is starkly modern, but the newer developments echo the old Pyrenees stone architecture. In 1985, a new chairlift was installed in the Beret Valley, and Baqueira joined Beret to form Baqueira-Beret. Every year since that marriage of valleys, the resort has either expanded, added new lifts, modernized snowmaking or constructed more condos.

Find your rhythm

One of the benefits of the late hours the Spanish keep is a resort with thin crowds in the morning hours. Anyone who gets to the base area early can find plenty of parking. And because it takes time to get to the upper slopes, the trails are empty until the late morning.

With a proper Spanish lunch starting around 2 p.m., any avid skier or snowboarder will have plenty of time on the snow before beginning what amounts to an extended two-stage apres-ski. First comes a sit-down lunch on the slopes, layered with plenty of local wines from Spain and France, followed by the local version of grappa and a descent from the mountain. Next, after a short shower and (hopefully) a siesta, head into the streets of your village for tapas and more wine in bars packed shoulder to shoulder.

I normally make this tapas-hopping my dinner if I've had an opportunity for lunch. Though I've spent years traveling in Spain and love the late-night dinners, I'm reaching a point where dining at midnight and then heading right to bed often isn't the best prescription for a good night's sleep. Of course, if I'm headed out for more night life and a dance club and plan to get home around 2 a.m., there's plenty of time to digest the late-night dinners.

Everyone develops his or her own rhythm. There's a way to soak up the love of life and still get in plenty of time on the snow.

Skiing and snowboarding

As one ski resort owner proclaimed in his advertising years ago, "It's the snow, stupid." Of course it is. Without it, the resorts wouldn't be packed with visitors braving wintry conditions. Baqueira-Beret has snow by the meter. Even in low-snow years, the smooth pastures are easily covered with extensive snowmaking, and every lift can operate. A few feet of the natural fluff never hurts. These jagged Pyrenean peaks see prodigious powder falls that belie their Mediterranean latitude.

Thirty-two lifts now serve 4,749 acres; that's more acreage than any resort in North America, larger than the 2010 Olympic resort Whistler, larger than Vail or Killington. The snow falls often and deep, averaging 500 to 650 feet each winter, as much as at Utah's vaunted resorts. Add the Spanish sun that shines more than half of the time, and Baqueira-Beret provides perfect skiing conditions. Already this year, the upper reaches of the resort have a snow base of almost three feet.

The expansive terrain links three main sectors: Beret, to the far west; Baqueira, at the top of the hotel base area lifts; and Bonaigua, to the east at the crest of the mountain pass connecting the valley to Catalonia. Originally, the main access for the lift system rose from the resort base, surrounded by modern hotels and condos. Today, a new gondola serves this main hotel base alongside a high-speed, six-passenger chairlift.

The way to approach a day on these slopes is to make an early choice between staying in the Bosque sector, right where the gondola and high-speed chair unload passengers from the hotel base area, heading west to Beret by yo-yoing on a two-chair lift connection, or making the three-lift connection to Bonaigua.

Many beginners and intermediates choose to spend their day in the Bosque sector. Here, under the watchful eye of their instructors, toddling skiers and snowboarders glide uphill on carpet lifts and struggle to get up after tumbling in the snow. The craggy Cap de Baqueira towers over the ski school, cafeteria and restaurant, its ridges streaked with black-diamond chutes and punctuated with powder bowls.

To the west of Cap de Baqueira, the wide-open powder fields of Beret cover an expansive, sunny valley. To the east, steeper terrain zigzags to the mountain pass that connects the valley with neighboring Catalonia.

I would suggest that those planning to ski the Beret section of this resort drive up the access road to the parking area at the Beret base area. The traverse from the Bosque base to the Beret base can be challenging to novice skiers and a push for snowboarders.

Those heading to the east can choose from three high-speed lifts that rise to an altitude of 8,115 feet, then drop eastward into the Argulls valley. From this rocky crease, chairlifts connect with the lifts at the easternmost sector of the area, Bonaigua, where the mountain pass drops into Catalonia.

The runs descending along the eastern flank of Cap de Baqueira can be as challenging as any at this resort. Experts will want to take the Mirador lift for spectacular powder skiing. Less-confident intermediates should take the Pla de Baqueira that serves groomed trails down to Argulls.

Depending on your rhythm, the sporting day ends as you settle into an extended lunch or carve turns down the final trails to an appointment with friends for tapas and a late dinner. There is an elegant art to such decisions here in Spain. They define the vacation.

Leocha, the author of "Ski Snowboard Europe," runs the Web site http://www.skisnowboardeurope.com.


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