Come with me to Bagnères-de-Luchon, in the heart of the French Pyrenees, to find ten reasons to go snowshoeing instead of skiing
In the mountain range that separates France and Spain is the town of Bagnères-de-Luchon. It sits mid-way between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, where the Spanish border kicks north thereby covering the town on two sides. This might be why the town has such flair about it as the routes from Spain bring in the different flavours of another culture. This includes the pilgrim's route through the hospice de France, an old staging post established by the Knights of St John in the 14th century.
It is a town of winter festivals and sporting events. The main street, allée d'Etigny, is tree-lined and peppered with restaurants, cafés and bars, made more colourful by people in their winter attire of down jackets and bobble hats; try the hot chocolate with marshmallows at Le Bellevue. There are two ski resorts, Superbagnères and Peyragudes (www.lespyrenees.net), which provide all the resources of any alpine resort. The bonus of being in the Pyrenees is that most people gravitate to the Alps, leaving room to breath on the Pyrenean slopes.
The town is also a spa with thermal baths and massage treatment; the ultimate treat after a hard day of activity. There are all the usual resort thrills of paragliding from mountain tops (one of the top places in France due to the topography), dog sledding (so much fun), ice climbing and cross country skiing. Bargains are to be had if you can go as a group. If that’s not your bag, then there’s roulette and blackjack at the casino or perhaps an afternoon at the flicks in the local cinema.
There’s everything accommodation wise. Hotel Panoramic is popular and provides a buffet style breakfast. You’ll be warmed by the hospitality of Rolfe and Hermione in their home at Papilio, with breakfast, lunch and dinner fit for kings.
Wintertime in any mountain town can be addictive, with its atmosphere of an electric buzz; the beauty of snow, cold air and warm clothes, exhilarating sports, one of which is snowshoeing. First thought to have been used 6,000 years ago, when they were made of bone and sinew and resembled oversized tennis racquets, the snowshoe enabled the ancestors of the North American Indian and Inuit to migrate from Asia into North America.
Known as racquette de neige in French, it is a popular sport throughout Europe, maybe because they have lots of fresh powder, and is a brilliant way to get about. And not just for a walk in the woods, with their tungsten points and an articulated metal claw, snowshoes will get you up mountain slopes, across ridges and on to summits.
To get the best out of exploring on snowshoes, it is worth going with a guide. An accompagnateur en montagne, or International Mountain Leader (www.baiml.org), will be able to show you where to go, what to see and how to observe nature at its best. They will usually provide the snowshoes and walking poles, speak the local language and have a good knowledge of the area. Get them to take you snowshoeing at night, to see those sparkling snow crystal in the moonlight or a night in a mountain hut to be the first to see the new day rising.
So, here are my ten top reasons for going snowshoeing this winter.
- Less expensive: snowshoe hire with walking poles is about €7 a day, and as many routes are easily accessible, you don’t need a ski pass.
- Family activity: local school kids do it as part of their lessons, so it's clearly for everyone.
- Cardio-vascular: especially in fresh powder, and the good thing is you can go at your own pace.
- Day one: we all know how to walk, so you can get straight into the sport.
- Seeing Nature: an opportunity to see wildlife in their winter habitat, and the signs and tracks they leave.
- No over-crowding: you’ll be off the busy ski slopes, and away from the people.
- Conversation: you can talk to your companions throughout the day not just when you both stop.
- Safe sport: there’s no being taken out by snowboarders or out-of-control beginners.
- Photographs: you’ll have more time to take those sensational winter mountain shots.
- Fun: hey, it’s playing in the snow!
Where to eat
L'Arbesquens (www.arbesquens.free.fr) great for fondues and steak.
La Paix (Tel: 00 33 (0)5 61 94 74 70) for their fish and seafood.
Le Bellevue (Tel: 00 33 (0)5 61 79 03 93) for hanging out, breakfast, lunch and après snowshoe.
How to get there from the UK
Flights to Toulouse from various UK destinations with Easyjet, bmi, British Airways and Air France. Ryanair fly to Pau and Tarbes. The taxi to Luchon is about €200 for four people (www.holidaytaxis.com), or take the SNCF train, which goes to Monttrejeau and then a bus, all on the same ticket, for the final part into the mountains.
Alternatively go with a snowshoe company or International Mountain Leader who will more than likely provide an airport transfer.
Rail Europe (www.raileurope.co.uk) run trains from London to Toulouse and then SNCF (www.sncf.co.uk) for the leg into Luchon. The train is a relaxing way to go and great views as you enter the area.