The closest you can get to heaven on earth is Val d’Isère, some people will argue—and they are right—because it has one of the best bakeries in France, the family business of native son Patrick Chevallot, who holds a coveted medal as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France for pastry and confections.

Of course the resort village, snugly nestled in an Alpine valley at 6,000 feet in altitude, also has spectacular skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports for the adventuresome—like ice-wall climbing—along with great food, delightful bars, hotels for every taste and budget, and a surfeit of visual charm, thanks to local stonework and village architecture that dates back several centuries.

Skiers’ paradise

Val d’Isère is one of several well-known French stations de ski that fan out from the valley town of Albertville, the home of the 1992 Winter Olympics. In the French département of Savoie, near the glacial source of the Isère River and only a few miles from the Italian border, Val d’Isère is easily reached by car, only a 3-1/2 hour drive from Geneva, which has the closest international airport; Lyon, the closest major French hub, is slightly farther away. The Alpine drive is beautiful and relatively easy, but if you’re doing it in winter, snow tires are a must. (Chains are rarely needed but should be on hand just in case.)

The last 16 miles, all uphill from the town of Bourg Saint Maurice, offer a spectacular view of the Vanoise National Park and the Tarentaise Valley, with the road flattening out only when you reach the modern, 1960s ski-buff hamlet of Tignes. Together with Val d’Isère it makes up the vast Espace Killy ski area, named after famous local son Jean-Claude Killy—triple-crown winner of Olympic gold in downhill, slalom and grand slalom in 1968, with a series of World Championships and World Cup titles en plus confirming him as one of the world’s all-time great skiers.

Beyond their shared peaks and ski lifts, Tignes and Val d’Isère could not be more different. In the space of some two-and-a-half miles, the high-rises and noisy nightclubs of Tignes give way to beautiful Val d’Isère, with some 1,200 or more year-round residents and a true village life, despite the steady influx of tourists from December to early May. Traditional Savoyard architecture dominates, with local pale graystone facades, wood trim in abundance, giant beams and extended roofs that offer protection from the wild winter weather. A fine example is the new local history museum, well worth a visit, which opened in time for the holidays.

The village also has summer visitors, since there’s a high pass open to Italy and mountain trails for experienced hikers, but it lives off its winter sports business. The road to Italy is quickly invisible once the first big snowfall arrives, giving the impression that this is the last stop for humans—after this Mother Nature takes over the rugged peaks and animal life that are part of the Vanoise National Park and its nature reserves.

The ski area is simply magnificent, a perfect mix of exacting runs for the world’s best skiers—Val d’Isère is a regular World Cup host—and a manageable layout of three main ski sectors that hook up at the top, with plenty of opportunities for beginners and fair-weather skiers.

Serious sustenance

The first clue that this is serious ski country is the main street at 8:00 am, where corners are crowded with young guys and their gear waiting for the free shuttle bus to get them to the lifts when they open. This is also the moment when you realize that baker Chevallot’s cozy main-street shop is like no other in France. Business is booming, and while half the clients are buying bread for the family’s breakfast, the other half is stomping the snow off ski boots and stocking up on hearty salés, savory specialties that go straight into their backpacks—two-inch thick quiches, for example, spinach and salmon or maybe goat cheese and leek. A smiling couple is enjoying breakfast at a corner table of the bakery’s little tearoom.

“We make things for people going off to do sports, who need something to sustain them,” says Chevallot, who stops every two minutes to greet another old friend as people stream in the door. Some are returning skiers, but early in December, most are villagers talking weather and taxes.

The bakery produces extraordinary breads, including varieties made with potato puree and Beaufort cheese. But there are elegant delicacies too, as the pastry display in the window makes clear. “We do the classics,” says Chevallot, “lemon tarts, éclairs and gâteaux aux myrtilles, but our specialty is old recipes, traditional ones that many bakeries have abandoned, thinking people aren’t interested anymore. We rework them a bit,” he adds as he makes a sweeping gesture toward the bakery’s shelves, piled high with the kind of goodies that bring out the child in all of us.

Snug shops, funky cafés

Both exquisite French cuisine and traditional Savoyard dishes are easy to find in Val d’Isère too. The hotel Le Savoie, across the street from Chevallot, gave the reins of its restaurant Le Grain de Sel to 29-year-old chef Alexandre Fabris who, despite his youth, is noted for updated recipes from his grandmother and her generation.

The Chevallot bakery and the Wine Not wine bar at Le Savoie are just two of the many stops in Val d’Isère that are a distraction for those who are not hell-bent on getting to the ski runs. There are so many great little shops, and they aren’t all selling just sports gear, as in many resorts.

The narrow lanes of the old village are ideal for snug little boutiques, funky cafés and restaurants—and nearly a pedestrian’s dream. Cars are allowed, but there is virtually no parking on the streets. (Tip: drop off your bags at your hotel and leave the car in one of the parking lots.)

Glorious snow!

In 2008, the village also stopped using salt on the streets. The snow remains gloriously white and fresh-looking as a result, but also because it is constantly reworked by a fleet of snowplows whose drivers have an extraordinary job, re-creating village streets and spaces using snow, to guarantee that pedestrians remain kings. The plows churn up the snow every morning to keep it from getting icy underfoot, and they block off streets with new snowbanks. (Tip: if you’re nervous about icy patches, treat yourself to a pair of mini-chains for the bottom of your boots, available at sports shops.)

Snow is what Val d’Isère is all about, and the best place for it is on top of the mountain. The piste maps from the tourist office are easy to use (but if you have an iPhone, definitely get the piste-map app). The Solaise is the lift area at the center, just above the village, but the bus takes only 10 minutes to reach either end of the village, and from there you’re at the top in 10 to 15 minutes. North of the village the slopes are austere and covered in avalanche protection fences. The ski slopes are all on the village’s south side, meaning they are mostly north-facing and the snow lasts longer, but the valley is wide enough for skiers to be in the sun most of the time. Lifts are open until 4:45 pm, even in early December.

It’s fairly amazing, given its World Cup level skiing reputation, to discover that Val d’Isère is also a very family-friendly resort. The center of the village was cleared (and a pedestrian tunnel run under it) to create an open play space for kids and snowmen, where in midwinter little groups gather with ski teachers at the start of lessons. Just under the Olympic ski lift in the village center, the three-year-old sports center offers a swimming pool, fitness room, therapy pool and a kids’ play area.

VAL D’ISERE NOTEBOOK

WHERE TO STAY

Most hotels are open early December to mid-April.

Palatial

Les Barmes de l’Ours Hugging the Olympic run, Michelin one-star restaurant, balconies with great views, magical spa. Scandinavian, American or Savoyard-style rooms. Top floor suite is a honeymoon must! Chemin des Carats, 04.79.41.37.00. website

Le Savoie Recently renovated, spacious hotel rooms and suites for families, great play areas with toys and electronic games. Restaurant Le Grain de Sel (try the Bresse chicken), splendid dessert menu from top French pastry chef Philippe Rigollot. Avenue Olympique, 04.79.00.01.15. website

Reasonable

Avenue Lodge Chic, contemporary, warm and welcoming, great restaurant and bar, convenient, good service. Avenue Olympique, 04.79.00.67.67. website

 

Ormelune Two years old, best deal in town with range of prices, funky bright design, airy rooms. Rue Noël Machet, 04.79.06.12.93. website

Les Lauzes Basic, comfortable, cozy dark wood paneling. Place de l’Eglise,04.79.06.04.20. website

 

WHERE TO EAT

Other than hotel restaurants

Maison Chevallot The heavenly bakery. Val Village (main roundabout), 04.79.06.16.09. website

La Sana Quick but good hot lunch outdoors at foot of the central village chairlift. Résidence Le Grand Cocor, 04.79.07.04.54.

Le Coin des Amis Asian food, nibbles, beer, takeaway. Place Jacques Moufflier, Le Vieux Val.

La Corniche Fondue, raclette, stone-grilled meats and authentic Savoyard dishes. Vieux Village, 04.79.06.18.75.

Le Wine Not The wine bar at Hôtel Le Savoie. Light meals from noon on, works with one of France’s top sommeliers, tasting courses on offer. Avenue Olympique, 04.79.00.01.15.

La Casa Scara Inexpensive southern Italian food, sometimes a special open wine of the day. Place de l’Eglise, 04.79.06.26.21.

 

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of France Today

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