By Katy Dartford
The French ski resorts of Font Romeu and Les Angles offer an unusual mix of family friendly, sunshine skiing, history and culture, and a passion for food all in the heart of the Catalan Pyrenees..
Dazzling incongruous out of the early spring landscape of the valley of Odeillo, is a futuristic field of mirrors, multiplying the energy from the Sun. The Solar Furnace at Odeillo is a CNRS laboratory (National Scientific Research Centre) and apparently the only one of its kind in the world. But it’s really no surprise that the laboratory is located here in Languedoc’s Pyrenees; the air is so pure the panels never need cleaning and there are around 300 days a year of sunshine.
Scientists are not the only ones attracted to the region for its air and sunshine. British marathon runner, Paula Radcliff also has a house in Font Romeu “the sportiest town in France” There are miles of trails to run and an altitude training centre in the historic town. Font Romeu opened in 1921 and is the oldest and largest ski resort in the Languedoc Pyrenees, with over 3,000 hours of sunshine each year (more than the Rockies).
Whilst this is southern France, Font Romeu, or “fountain pilgrimage” was Spanish until 1659 when the Pyrenees treaty was signed and those lucky enough to be born here think of themselves as Catalan. The resort is just a three hour drive from Montpellier- or just a 40 minute drive from Gerona so you will find yourselves amongst many Spaniards popping over for the weekend.
So what does this mean for skiing? Well, it’s all about the laidback family lifestyle. Apres ski is relaxing in one of the nearby hot springs of Llo or Dorres. The popular spring of Llo has indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, a sauna and steam room and is very child friendly. The Llo laboratory comes here to use the sulphur from the warm springs for their beauty products. www.bains-de-llo.com. The resort is perfect for beginners, families and those tentatively beginning to push themselves down harder pistes. The 21km of runs at Font Romeu (1800) are shorter and are a bit of a soft touch, but are pleasant with great views. They are also well maintained with over 500 snow canons throughout the resort. If you want some variety, you can use your Font Romeu ski passes at nearby Puigmal, Les Angles, Pyrenees 2000, and Formigueres resorts. The most demanding run at Font Romeu ski resort is the ‘Competition’ on the north face. For boarders, the terrain park has plenty of features including tables, jumps and quarter pipe and there is a boarder cross slalom course. There is also plenty of off-piste to enjoy and the resort is well loved for its Nordic skiing, with 90km/56miles of well kept, signposted cross-country tracks, many leading through pine forests.
The ski resort, nestled in the vast Cerdagne plateau, is above 1500m, so skiing or boarding back to the resort is usually possible and the snow cover is generally reliable. There are 25 ski lifts but they are a little old fashioned with many button drags. It’s well worth trying the 7 minute ride in the cable car which goes from the village up to Les Airelles at 1900m/6235 feet, the main departure point for downhill skiing which has an information centre, a restaurant, lounge and bar as well as a large sun terrace.
Just a 30 minute drive away is the resort of Les Angles, the second largest of the Languedoc Pyrenees ski resorts and is probably better for more advanced skiers with half of its runs being red and four blacks. It’s slightly higher at 1900 with longer more sweeping runs and there is an excellent snow area for children and a snow parks to race and practice jumps.
Les Angles sits between its runs and a large lake which is used in summer for sailing. The setting is very picturesque, and the resort itself is quite attractive. Head to the top of the Roc D’aude cable car and just before setting off down the the splendid red run Grand Tetras, take in the view of the Pic Carlit (2921), the highest peak in the Languedoc-Roussillon and the highest point of the eastern part of the Pyrenees, a great area for off piste.
The resorts themselves have a different feel; Les Angles is more modern with faster, comfy chair lifts. It’s also unique as it’s a ‘village-station,’ built right next to the traditional village and not separated. The church, Saint Saveur in Les Angles was consecrated in 1106 and the town itself built in the 13th century, with the ski resort joining it in 1964. Although Les Angles feels bigger and more spread out than Font Remeo, it’s actually smaller with just 570 permanent residents, compared to Font Romeo’s 2000 residents and 20,000 tourists a year. Les Angles is however, the most expensive of the Pyrenees resorts.
Font Romeu, feels more intimate, with winding streets filled with artisan shops, delightful patisseries and mouth- watering charcuteries. Explore the finest terroirs of the area at the Le bistro des Lloses on avenue Joffre, where you can buy exquisite local cheeses, homemade Foie gras and charcuterie. Try the Jamon Iberico de Bellota, a cured ham produced only in Spain, made from an ancient breed of black-footed pigs who’s feed on acorns. The bistro is family run and they also have a farm where they produce many of the products found in the bistro. They also source local wines like the Maury, a Catalin red wine which tastes like Port but the grapes are grown in different soil. It’s produced near Collioure and makes a good aperitif or desert wine. They are also keen to promote new local wines like the fizzy white “Bubbles,” a modern version of Muscat – with bubbles- from Rivesaltes, a small area next to Perpignan. This new variety uses the same grapes and is very delicious. Tasting the Bubbles, it’s no surprise to learn that not far away is the home of the original champagne. In 1531, more than a century before champagne, in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire, the Benedictine monks discovered bubbles in a strange wine they have left to ferment in the bottle … the first sparkling wine in the world had just been born. However rumour has it the recipe was stolen. But now a successor to the first bubbles of the world has been produced in the area called Premier Bulle, tasting of toasted brioche….. You can stop off for dinner in the bistro or head to the Maison du Cassoulet, on impasse Emmanuel Brousse, which despite serving the traditional French hot pot, it very modern inside. Try it with Caramany, a rich red wine where you can taste the soil. www.maisonducassoulet.com,
In Les Angles, the family run Chez Antoine on avenue de Mont-Louis serves typically Catalan food. You can watch the chef prepares rabbit or other game in an open kitchen in the dining area. Try a mixed starter of cooked fois gras with a tangy orange sauce, grilled vegetables and anchovies, or fresh mussels with garlic aioli and Gruyere cheese. The Mussels are from Spain just two hours away. For a main course the mixed platter of plump King Prawns, langoustine and scampi, or paella are a welcome surprise on the menu, or try French favourites such as filet minion a hearty plate of pig’s cheek. Deserts are typical of the region; the toffee like Turron ice cream is a Catalan speciality, or a crème Catalan with a hint of lemon zest.
If staying in Les Angles, a unique option for families or couples is Chalet Ana, run by husband and wife, Laurent and Natalie, who had the building designed as they would have liked for a family holiday. The chalet is the first EU eco-labelled certified chalet of the Pyrenees and offers eight apartments with hotel services. Everything is washed with environmentally friendly products, the lights turn off as you leave the room, and its water and rooms are solar heated. There is a sauna, therapy room and Jacuzzi and they provide local organic products you can stock your fridge with. Visually it’s cosy and based on a traditional chalet but with a modern slant; each apartment is different, painted in bright pinks and blues, with modern soft furnishings, including lighting is from Italy, the pine from Finland and animal skins from France.
A visit to the area deserves trip to Mont-Louis. In 2008, the citadel and the city walls of Mont-Louis were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the “Fortifications of Vauban” group. The town’s fortress, built in the 17th century to protect the new frontier between France and Spain can only be visited with a guide from the tourist office on Rue Pruneta, They will show you the 28 meter deep well that once fulfilled the water needs of the military camp. In a recent excavation, old pots and other artefacts from the 17th century were found deep inside the well. After wondering around Mont Louis various Catalan shops, museums and churched, stop to try the local typical sweet bread- Les Bunyettes for a sugary, lemony doughy hit.
Nearest airports, From France: Montpellier, Perpignan / Rivesaltes , Carcassonne or Toulouse . Fron Spain: Girona and Barcelona.
Font Romeu: www.font-romeu.fr.
1 day 32,50 € / 7 days 180,50 €
Les Angles: www.lesangles.com
1 day. 33 € / 7 days 181.50 €
Les Neiges Catalan
8 ski resorts in the Eastern Pyrenees : Font-Romeu Pyrénées 2000, Cerdagne Puigmal 2900, Espace Cambre d’Aze, Formiguères, La Quillane, Les Angles, Porté-Puymorens, Puyvalador
7 days: 209 €
Where to Stay: Font Romeo
Le Grand Tetras hotel
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
36 comfortable rooms in the centre of the resort, cable car close by. Indoor, heated wimming pool,jacuzzi and sauna.
Rates Room 2 pers/ day
High season 93 € / 103 €
Low season 75 € / 87 €
Breakfast : 9,50 €
Les Angles: Chalet Ana: http://www.chalet-ana.com/en.html
La Cabana apartment for two adults and two children. Peak season: 1400€ a week.
4 Chemin du Soula, 66210. Les Angles.