In search of a white Christmas in the French Alps.
We stood in line at the Gare de Lyon train station with butterflies in our stomachs. It was 6:15am on Dec 23, two days away from Christmas Day and 24 hours away from one of the countries busiest travel days of the year.
Our perfect result had us on an 8:45am train to Bourg St Maurice. We didn't want to think about the worst case scenarios. Train cancelations had the congested railway networked backed up. The recent derailment in southern France had southbound trains virtually halted. Our Christmas holiday in the Alps hung in the balance.
When we reached the front of the line we waved the people behind us through. We wanted ticket window 44 and were happy to wait. Our friend from the previous day had promised us seats so he was the man of the hour. No other ticket agent would do.
We approached the window with awkward, fearful smiles. "Is everything okay? Are we good to go?"
His body language told us that things weren't okay and that we weren't good to go.
"I can't give you a reservation", was his reply.
Not good. That was definitely not the response we were after.
Fortunately he had a solution that he was confident would work. Apparently the system was still unable to make reservations for southbound trains. The positive thing was that trains were still departing on schedule. We were optimistically skeptical.
His solution was to give us stamped and signed vouchers instead of an official reservation. He looked into the system and saw a cluster of unreserved seats. We were given seats 33 and 34, but had the uneasy feeling that 'officially' these seats were still open.
That said, nobody else had reservations either. We at least had a voucher with a stamp. It seemed legit and the agent seemed very sure that it would not be a problem. There was a catch though. The train departed in 20 minutes.
We thanked him and thanked him some more. He had saved the day - and our Christmas holiday plans!
The train journey was incredible. I can't say that we've ever been on a train that traveled through such dramatic snow capped landscapes. Our friend had hooked us up with first class seats, adding to the unusual experience. It was turning out to be a great day.
We arrived in Bourg St Maurice by noon and caught a coach up the mountain 30 minutes later. It was touch and go for a few days but we finally arrived in Tignes, the day's final destination. It was going to be a white Christmas in the French Alps after all!
We settled in to our cozy chalet in the snow covered alpine village of Les Brevieres. At 1,550 meters it was the lowest of several villages in the region. We strolled through the village that afternoon, killing time before our friend's arrival at 6:00pm. We met Matt and Emma on the motor yacht tour in the Galapagos Islands nine months earlier. They were joined by Sarah, Emma's sister who is currently living in Ireland.
Our team of five was later referred to as "Team Sweet As", a common Kiwi phrase that we picked up while touring the isolated islands in May.
We found it interesting to describe our meeting. Two Canadians met two New Zealanders in Ecuador on a 16-passenger boat in the Galapagos Islands. We later met in Cusco, Peru and then traveled to Bolivia together before parting ways. Now we were back together in the French Alps and later planned to meet again in London (there current home) before our final departure home. All of these encounters on the same trip!
Okay so here are the stats for Tignes - 47 ski lifts: 2 funiculaires, 1 cable car, 24 chairlifts, 19 drag lifts (rope tow) - an area of 50 square km's and 150 kilometres of ski runs, 67 ski trails, a maximum vertical distance of 1900 metres from the Grande Motte (3450 metres) to Les Brévières (1550 metres).
And that's just Tignes. Val D'Isere, which is much bigger, is on the other side of the mountain and connected by chairlifts (and our lift passes were also valid for Val D'Isere). Translation = GOOD TIMES!
You may be wondering how we were able to get ourselves geared up to snowboard, considering we were still using the same backpack and contents from South America. Well, we rented our boots and boards from the Intersport that was located in the small village. Our outerware was on loan from family and friends back in Germany and our first layers and fleece were purchased on the cheap at discount stores. We were sorted and ready to ride!
Although most visitors get the 6-day lift pass, we settled on three days. We were still on a budget and being in the Alps was already a big splurge.
Tignes is awesome. We never snowboarded at such high altitudes. It was weird being on terrain that had no trees, just steep pointy rock faces. And it is one massive playground! It felt like there was nobody on the mountain. We never waited in a chairlift line and rarely had other skiers around us on the slopes.
The only thing missing was a big snow dump…
Enter day two (also known as Christmas Day). The mountain received about a foot of snow overnight; and it wasn't stopping. We were still riding deep freshies at lunch! It was literally a white Christmas… almost too white (if that's even possible?). We were pushing through thick drifts with over 2 feet of fresh powder. The snow gods were happy that day.
We can sum up the three days of snowboarding sessions in two words - KICK ASS!
The chalet did have a small kitchen but Christmas dinner just wasn't going to happen. After a small gift exchange we bundled up and made our way to the village. It was the first Christmas dinner that consisted of escargots and roasted lamb, but French cuisine in France was something special. It was a Christmas we'll never forget!
When we borrowed the ski jackets and pants from family in Germany the plan was to pack it up and mail it back. This would be much cheaper than renting or purchasing gear from a retailer. We found a perfect sized box that fit everything and noticed a French Post office in the village. It was perfectly simple.
Although the hours of operation were very random, we dropped into the store during 'open' hours with our package in hand.
The women behind the counter looked at Cameron confused, "I'm sorry sir but we cannot take your package".
"Why not?" was the obvious reply.
"It's Sunday, we are only open for information", the women replied while looking at Cameron like he was from another planet. (This was when the conversation started to go bad).
"Okay, I'd like to know how much it's going to cost to send this box to Germany."
Not only could she not scale up the package, she couldn't even sell us a stamp. Now imagine this for a moment. A 'POST STORE' is 'OPEN' and paying an employee to sit around and tell customers that they are actually not even able to sell a stamp or an envelope. A post office?!
It was open for 'information' only - what information is needed other then 'can you mail my envelope or package'? It was so bizarre!
The following morning we left 'Team Sweet As' at 8:30am, the time that the post office was open and actually able to commence post office duties. Cameron waited outside because it was the same women working and they didn't leave on the best of terms.
We had one of those surreal moments when we said our goodbyes. Christmas in the French Alps was a big deal to us. It was a segment on the world tour that we really looked forward to - in fact, it was the primary reason that we were in Europe during winter. Our five days had come and gone too quickly. Unfortunately it was time to push on once again (we were getting alarmingly close to the end of our global adventure!).
We boarded a 45-minute bus back to Bourg St Maurice and caught the train to Chambery. Our connecting train in Chambery had us in the city of Lyon by lunch. This was not the most ideal or direct way to get back to Paris but it was the only option that we had.
We tried to get an earlier train out of Lyon but no luck - it seemed all of the trains across France were at capacity during the holiday season. Eventually we caught our evening train to Paris. Drinking English draft beer in a pub is a very effective way to kill time.
Fortunately we had another two days in Paris before we caught an evening flight to Glasgow, Scotland.
December 28th, 2009