Saturday 13 January 2024 – Happy new year!
January is not normally a time of year that people traditionally look forward to. However, this wasn’t the case for me, as I had a holiday to look forward to. These blog pages are usually dedicated to writings about Our Travels, which we (ironically and unseriously) differentiate from Going On Holiday. My January excursion, though, was definitely a holiday, and a skiing holiday, to boot. I was fortunate to be able to take up on a late-arising chance to revisit a skiing resort which has many memories for me, most of them fond – Sauze D’Oulx in Italy.
Sauze has a bit of a chequered past. When I first went there, it had a reputation of being somewhere between louche and hooligan. That, though, was 44 years ago, in 1980. Since then, it has moved a little way up market. It’s still a lively enough place, and one I was very interested to revisit. I have been to Sauze no fewer than seven times since that first skiing holiday; but the last visit was in 2003; furthermore, my last skiing holiday was in 2006, so, as you might imagine, I was rather wondering what a lacuna of 18 years was going to mean for my physical prowess generally and my skiing ability in particular. I was in my 50s for the last skiing holiday and now I’m in my 70s; a vintage, one might think, which is rarely in evidence on the slopes.
Time would tell – read on and you’ll find out.
Many things are the same as they were 44 years ago – the laws of physics, the gradients of the slopes and the depth of human nervousness at the conjunction of these. Many things have changed, too. I will write a separate post articulating the contrast between how things were then and how they are now. It’s pure self-indulgence on my part, of course, but I find the comparison fascinating.
One thing that emphatically has not changed is the likelihood of an inconvenient flight time for a package holday. My flight from Gatwick to Turin was at 0800 on 14 January. Back in 1980, being young – 27 – and not particularly well-off, this simply meant getting up at a ridiculous hour to drive to the airport, leave the car in the long term car park and stumble blearily through the check-in process before finding a bar to have a bracer before the flight. These days I’m lucky enough to be able to afford a taxi to the airport and a hotel stay the night before. I still had to get up at 0500, but at least I had no worries about potential problems getting to the airport.
The initial information I had was that my flight departed from Gatwick’s South Terminal – the cheaper of the two – so I booked in at the Hilton attached peripherally to that terminal. The Powers That Be then decided to arrange for the flight to depart from the North Terminal, possibly to give it an air of respectability, I don’t know. Fortunately, it’s very easy to get from one terminal to the other, so this was a minor annoyance, particuarly compared with having to get up at 0500.
Gatwick has changed beyond recognition since 1980, and the whole process of checking in, going through security and getting breakfast was amazingly swift and easy. You still have to go along a soulless corridor on a moving walkway to get to it, though – that much is the same.
I was up at 5am, checked in and through security by 6, outside a Full English by 7 (well, I was going to The Foreign, and they don’t do a proper breakfast there, do they?), and on the plane ready for departure at 8.
The radar at Turin airport, though, was not party to the same efficiency. Problems with it meant that we were nearly an hour late departing; but that, I guess, is par for the course these days. The flight was uneventful so I leavened its ordinariness with a couple of G&Ts (harking back to the holiday ethos of 1980, there) and we landed at Turin airport about as behind schedule as we had been taking off. No matter, it was still only lunchtime.
The process of getting from aeroplane to coach is another thing that has changed. In 1980, after passport checks, we were ushered into a smallish hall with a single carousel, which was a rotating disk to transfer bags from the arriving planes, which were few in number.
it’s clear that Turin airport has expanded hugely. One thing that hasn’t changed is my anxiety that my bags have gone astray. Carousel 3 was Our Carousel, and eventually its sign said that bags from our flight were being delivered. On they came for the crowd to pick them up.
After several minutes, many of the crowd had picked their bags
and so the assembled throng began to thin, and my worries to increase. I am still emotionally scarred by the time on a business trip that I was the last person standing by a carousel which only had two bags on it, neither of them mine; hence my anxiety.
That anxiety rose a notch when they then changed the sign for the carousel
implying that a complete delivery had failed to include my suitcase. However, I had only a few minutes of high anxiety before my bag came through and I was able to head out to the coach which would take me to Sauze. In a good example of a well-engineered process, I received a text message from Crystal Ski, the tour operator, telling me which coach to go to – a nice touch. Inevitably, though, we had to wait nearly an hour for a handful of people to arrive on a different flight before the coach could depart. A mild annoyance, but nothing new in the world of package holidays.
The drive to Sauze D’Oulx from Turin is a mere 90 minutes; it’s a very convenient resort in that respect. It’s slightly less convenient in that the coach drop-off point is by the tourist information office, which is below the town. And I do mean below. The distance to my hotel, inspiringly named the Hotel Sauze,
was some 500 metres and involved a 50-metre ascent. Those of you dear readers who followed our trek across northern Spain will know that I consider a 1-in-10 uphill slope to be non-trivial, and I was lugging a 15kg suitcase, to boot. I was pleased to note that the training in Spain meant that this was not too challenging, meaning I got to our hotel before anyone else from our coach, so check-in was swift. It was also efficient, and so I quickly got to my room so that I could unpack and consider my options for the rest of the afternoon.
One of those options was to buy some shirts, as I realised swiftly that I had left the ones I’d intended to pack hung up in my wardrobe, rather than usefully included in my suitcase. A trip to town was thus an obvious undertaking. I also, of course, needed to pick up the skis, boots and helmet whose hire I had pre-booked, otherwise the skiing component of the week was going to rely heavily on my imagination.
So I went for a walk. Obviously.
I pottered into town, noting, as I went, those establishments that had been there in 1980, of which there are a surprisingly large number. Most sadly missed is a bar called Andy Capp’s, which was head and shoulders the liveliest place in Sauze when I was first there, but is now an apartment block. I’d wondered if it had been shut down because of the arrival of Winter Olympics to Sauze, but this can’t be the case, as Andy’s was no longer extant when I was last here in 2003, and the Olympics were in 2006.
I got my boots and skis at Maison Clataud, which had survived since 1980 and which now boasted a very swish check-in and provisioning system. The boots I got were substantially similar to the concrete wellies that I remember (shuddering) from 1980, but the skis were fully a foot shorter, a testament to the improvement in ski materals and technology over the decades. The helmet was a new thing, too. I’m not sure when they became ubiquitous, but they certainly are now. I had reserved one only from an excess of caution, as I expected to fall over a lot, but I had thought mainly to wear a woolly hat during time on the piste. Time will tell.
Sauze has always been an attractive town, but I had never bothered to take photos of it during my previous visits. So I used the pottering around to capture some images in the late afternoon light.
including one rather endearing sequence of outdoor DJing, winter style.
Lampione, by the way, is one of the 1980 survivors. It has moved up market from a pub with a table football table (where I met some very entertaining BA pilots in 2003 with whom I went on to join for further skiing exploits) to a swish-looking wine bar.
The main square of Sauze is rather nice at this time on a Sunday late afternoon, too.
By the time I got back to the hotel, it was Time For The Bar, I Think.
The hotel has a decent bar, and shortly after this photo was taken and since it was near dinner time, it filled nicely. I had a chat with Gill and Steve from Bromsgrove and a bunch of Scots people from the Borders, which smoothly led into dinner time. The hotel had arranged a buffet, and very good it was, too.
After dinner, though, I decided to take it easy, rather than go out looking for alcohol-fuelled mischief (another, and major, change from 1980 – or even 2003, frankly), and retired for an early night, hoping that this would improve my chances of having fun on the slopes the next day.
Sunday 14 January 2024 – I awoke at 0730, having had a night’s somewhat sporadic attempts at sleep, punctuated by a couple of episodes of nearly falling out of bed – the room has two narrow single beds separated by a couple of feet and I’m not used to something that narrow. The room’s bathroom, though, has a great shower and so I presented myself to breakfast in a decent state and a reasonably timely manner, though not as enthusiastically as I would have during my pomp as a skier*, when I would be there for Earliest Breakfast and First Lift. This time, I’m more modest in my ambitions.
After a very fine breakfast, made even finer by my bringing to it a couple of bags of Twining’s Finest Earl Grey, I did the usual First Morning Faff – assembling the relevant clothing and trying to make sure that I had all the right things with me – gloves, tissues, lift pass, internet hotspot** that kind of thing, and headed down to get boots and skis.
The hotel has a very convenient location, right at the bottom of the slopes. One has a choice – walk for some 10 minutes (or take the bus) to the “main” lift up the mountain to Sportinia, or go up on the nearer lift, called Clotes, which is a short but telling uphill walk from the hotel. Or, rather, it used to be. They’ve put an escalator in!
This made things a lot less tiring to get to the Clotes lift (on the left above). It would have been entirely untiring had the thing kept working, but I had to walk up about the last third after it stopped; as I reached the top, a chap came along and restarted it, which was fine for everyone behind me.
I made the first slightly wrong decision of the day at this point, in that I decided to walk, rather than ski, the short distance across to Clotes, as in my memory it was a chair lift on which one had to carry, rather than wear, one’s skis.
This has changed. It’s now a grown-up chair lift and so one wears skis to ride it, and skis off the top.
The practical upshot of this was that of course the first experience I’d had for 18 years of the limiting characteristics of wearing skis on my boots was trying to get through the entry gate to the lift. This featured a very slight and short downhill stretch, which was enough to upset my already-fragile sense of balance.
So I fell over. Bollocks!
Apart from that major embarrassment, I got on the lift OK and even managed to ski off it without falling over. But, boy, did I feel unsteady!
From the top of the Clotes chair, it’s a short, 800-metre, descent (153 metres vertical) back to the town.
It’s an easy piste, and used as a standard by the local ski instructors to teach beginner classes. I remember that in 1980 the descent took our class two hours. It took me, uncertain and wobbling as I was, four and a half minutes. I didn’t feel particularly in control, I doubtless looked a mess stylistically, but I made it unscathed (and no other skiers were injured in the process, by the way). I was quite relieved that I wasn’t a liability on the slopes despite the intervening years. So I did it again, and could feel my confidence returning, if not any kind of stylishness.
The rest of the day was spent reacquainting myself with the main lifts of the Sauze system, and getting a greater degree of confidence back. That first run was at an average speed of just 13 km/h with a maximum speed of 18 kph. My pulse averaged over 150 beats per minute for that short time, a pulse rate that I would expect if I were going running.
As I did more runs, the confidence I had in my control increased, and long-dormant muscle memory started to emerge, so my speed increased. By the time I decided to call it a day, my average speed had increased to 20kph and I hit the heady heights of 48kph at one point – that’s 30 miles an hour. My pulse wasn’t particularly high at that point, but I think I nearly discovered that adrenaline is brown.
Anyway, as the day progressed, stats aside, I was enjoying myself – rediscovering some of the great views
and the lunchtime venues.
A huge part of enjoying myself was the discovery that I was, indeed, fit enough. Logically, I know I’m a great deal fitter – and lighter – than I used to be. Where I used to ski a couple of hundred metres and then stop to rest and work out where to go next, now I was able to ski for several kilometres wthout pause and without getting tired. Also, by the end of the day, I felt I was beginning to recapture some amount of stylishness (this is important, not just in how you look, but also how efficiently you cover distance and how quickly and effectively you can respond to emergencies like stupid bloody snowboarders hacking past with scant regard for mountain etiquette).
I stopped early – about 1430 – because it was, after all, my first day, and the vast majority of skiing accidents happen in late afternoon and to people who go for “just one last run”. I hightailed it back to the hotel and put skis and boots away (another advantage of stopping promptly is that you get the better choice of racks for skis and boots).
And so the evening awaits. Dinner is at 1900, so I shall partake of a pre-prandial bracer and see who’s in the bar for a chat. After dinner – who knows? Check back and see whether I was sociable or sensible…
* Were you a pompous skier, then? Ed
** Bloody Brexit – I’m still absolutely livid!