Baqueira Beret en el New York Times
Baqueira Beret en el New York Times

It was 9:30 on a Sunday morning in the heart of ski season, yet not a single person waited at the ticket booth to buy a lift pass. The rental shop might as well have had a cartoon tumbleweed blowing through it. Outside, nobody was queued up to ride the gondola.

When we reached the mountaintop, our disorientation only deepened. A spoked Mediterranean sun shone overhead, but in every direction big, white, Switzerland-worthy mountains were stapled to the Windex-blue sky.

Where were we?

The answer: deep in the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain, a land of ragged beauty and surprisingly great skiing, a land where no self-respecting, night-loving Spaniard, we soon learned, climbs out of bed to make turns before 10 a.m.

Spain has a reputation, or should we say a few reputations — Pamplona and paella; beaches and bullfights. Most travelers don’t think of lugging their K2s here.

What few snow enthusiasts know is that the Pyrenees, which divide France from Spain, hide some three dozen ski resorts.

“ ‘The Pyrenees — is there skiing there?’ It’s like a stuck record for us,” said Dave Slattery of Baqueira British Ski School, which caters to English-speaking skiers who venture to the resort of Baqueira/Beret in the northwesternmost corner of Catalonia.

When I heard that Baqueira/Beret is Spain’s lower-key answer to Aspen, I was intrigued. When I heard that the Spanish here really know how to do skiing right — which is to say, they work the Spanish habit of great eating into almost every hour of their day — I booked a ticket.

The disorientation began almost immediately. Maybe it was the fact that I was flying into Barcelona with ski boots. Maybe it was the bright Spanish “Buenas!” that the lifties greeted me with the next morning.

HIGH on the mountain, my friend Tim and I took in the almost surreal surroundings. Though lower in elevation, the Pyrenees in winter do a decent imitation of the Alps. Frozen whitecaps of granite peaks surrounded us. Due south lay the high country of Aigüestortes i Estany De Sant Maurici National Park, dotted with icy lakes. In the distance, Aneto, at 11,168 feet the highest peak in the Pyrenees, scratched the horizon, a shrunken glacier hunkered on its shoulder. Wait — glaciers in Spain? Our disorientation was complete. We decided to just give in and savor the dizziness.

I’d been told the valley the ski resort inhabits, the Val d’Aran, is nearly as much an attraction as the skiing. Now it was spread out below us, 25 miles long, with the ski resort at one end, France at the other end and several villages anchored by 12th-century churches sprinkled in between. Distanced from the rest of Spain by the mountains and by winter snows (a road connecting the valley to the rest of Catalonia was built only in 1924), the region is in some ways nearly as French as it is Spanish, with duck and foie gras on local menus. But the valley is also very much its own place; those same menus feature Aranese dishes like olha Aranesa (a sort of hearty chicken noodle soup, spiked with a large pork meatball and blood sausage). And the menus are frequently written first in Aranese, a language that remains so vibrant here that a ski patroller’s radio is likely to crackle with it alongside Catalan and Spanish. Even the architecture here is distinct: thick-walled stone homes with steep slate roofs built to brave the long Pyrenean winters.

The geography of this place sets it apart as well. Unlike most other Spanish valleys in the Pyrenees, the Val d’Aran faces the Atlantic, catching more storms and thus tending to have more reliable snow. Or at least that’s the theory. While this winter the place is blanketed by snow, during my visit last January Baqueira/Beret, like much of the Alps, was in the midst of a snow drought. Luckily the resort has extensive artificial snow coverage and the best grooming I’ve seen in Europe. Sticking to these manicured slopes, we headed out to see the place.

Baqueira/Beret is the largest ski area in Spain and it is indeed big. Some 4,700 acres — around 1,000 acres larger than Big Sky, Mont. — sprawl over six peaks and ridges that are served by 33 lifts. The place isn’t just wide, it’s also tall, with a vertical drop to match Vail, Colo. When all the terrain is open, there are weeks of exploration to be done here. No wonder Spain’s royal family likes to ski here.

Geography divides the resort into three distinct base areas. We headed north first. Beret is the resort’s most family-friendly sector, with beginner and intermediate runs spilling off the 8,255-foot Tuc deth Dossau peak. With the runs broad and firm and fast under the fine grooming, we opened the throttle and smoked down them on our giant-slalom skis, grateful that everyone else had slept late and left the pistes open for us. Beret doesn’t keep the advanced skier entertained for long, however, so we eventually made our way southward to the heart of the resort, Baqueira. (Baqueira is also the name of the central base village.) Here, lingering intermediate runs and a few expert runs stripe the mountain’s broad, nearly treeless face.

Skiing here reminded Tim and me of the best aspects of skiing in the States: Runs like Mirador and Guineau had a consistent pitch and expert coiffing that was touched up nightly. “It’s like a slightly mellower Sun Valley,” said Tim, as we headed up for another thigh-burning bombing run back down.

Then lunch happened. I’d been warned about the Spanish ski lunch. Spanish skiers don’t wolf down a lukewarm burger and a Coke and run back out to the slopes. They dine late. They drink wine. They savor. A ski bum at heart, I wasn’t sure I could switch gears when, at the late hour of 1:30 we sat down at Restaurant 1,800, one of the resort’s on-mountain restaurants. The waitress set down a platillo of olives marinated in pimento chiles and oil. She popped the cork on a small bottle of crianza. She brought bowls of steaming olha Aranesa. And suddenly I understood. I was content to sit for hours. Which we did, finally staggering, stuffed, to the slopes in time to spin a few last, languid laps.

THE central problem of skiing in Spain began to materialize: How do you do it all? How do you enjoy life the way the Spaniards do and still ski like an American? The previous night we’d gone for an exceptional meal at Casa Irene in the village of Arties at 8 four courses accompanied by a 2005 Rioja. It ended with a homemade walnut liqueur from the valley. I thought our dinner hour was respectable, but a valley acquaintance chuckled afterward and called it “the foreigners’ hour.” Only as we paid and left did the dining room fill with the babble of French and Catalan.

I was determined to go native, at least a little bit. That next afternoon, after our large meal on the mountain, we returned from skiing at day’s end and did as the locals recommended: We headed back to our hotel for a siesta.


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