PLANETSKI IS BACK IN ANDORRA
9th February 2018 | Katie Bamber, Andorra
Last modified on September 10th, 2021
PlanetSKI’s Katie Bamber has just returned from the slopes of the Pyrenees. She blogged live and here is her piece in chronological order. NEW
I haven’t skied in Andorra or even been to the Pyrenees in a decade or so.
Coming back to these wilder mountains with the ragged rocks and impressive landscape has been – saying this just one day in – the best decision of 2018.
And given me a kick to not leave it nearly so long until next time.
But the feel of holiday ski life here came rushing back waiting at the bottom gondola station with a mass of people of all ages (that really is prominent here) and nationalities preparing for the ski day.
And the top plateau more so with skiers and snowboarders (at a 50:50 ratio!) disappearing over the piste edges.
I have spent three days in France’s Ax Les Thermes and the Ax3Domaines ski area, just 45km from where I am now in the Grandvalira ski zone.
In Ax there was an incredible number of onesies, a strong sun – the first I’ve seen in the mountains this season – and skiing I wasn’t expecting.
Ax’s skiing takes over every facet of the mountains as you twist and travel the vertical – it’s hard to get your bearings but makes for much more interesting views and adventure.
Read the PlanetSKI editor’s rolling blog:
Travel over the border and the atmosphere is very different.
Andorra’s Pas de la Casa – right by the border – and Soldeu, connected ski resorts (for now), have English, Dutch, Russian, Flemish and Spanish heard all around, as opposed to Ax’s purely French.
There are dozens of bars, all pretty full, live music, tapas and apres.
The ski area stretches much further but up high it’s more covering ground with some reds in between, than the up-down and around of earlier in the week.
And like the town of Soldeu, with its buzzing atmosphere, the slopes are busier too.
But not too busy to enjoy the 15cm of powder that covered the pistes.
Lunch spots on the mountain were packed, and the burger van and coffee station that was our second option and would have been very cool on a sunny outside day, were too much for the wind, cold and snow.
So heading down to the furthest end, Pas de la Casa, we found the perfect lunch: paella.
The best mountain meal, or what?
Back out into the wind and cold and heading back across the Grau Roig middle mountain area to Soldeu.
But then the sun came out and you could honestly feel the temperature rise 5 degrees.
So we checked out the impressive snow park (from the air by lift – not by jump) and scooped over the back to chase it.
In the last hour of the day we had to schlep across the Grandvalira, hamering it back to base in Soldeu at 16:30 lead by an expert Andorra ski guide.
I’m not sure it would be fair to blame my guide (also PlanetSKI’s editor, James Cove) whose bearings eventually came together very well when it came to crunch time…
In the snowy, cold, rather bleak (but no less beautiful) day on the slopes the sun came out for a brilliant 30 minutes and we – like sun-zombies – followed the big bright star until it disappeared and left us almost stranded…
So concerned were we after a chilled hour skiing in the sun, we could stop on a timer for a photo.
But we made it back with some of the best skiing of the day on the soft powder a little lower down in the ski area.
It’s where we’ll head tomorrow, for the trees for some fresh lines.
It’s a much wilder area than the Alps.
It would be easy to disappear into the further reaches of the mountain and miss your turn home to the right village.
So thank God for the lifties-turned-slope-marshals thst keep skiers and boarders safe and get ’em/us home.
And to top off a fantastic day’s skiing on a soft 15cm of powder on the slopes – a social media miracle.
Well not quite in the technological world we live in, but certainly the best of Facebook.
A great friend who lives in Barcelona saw a post and is first thing tomorrow hopping on the two-hour transfer to Soldeu.
And so tomorrow’s post will hopefully end in a more exciting way than this…
As it is the end of the day and I’ve come across waters, taken an overnight sleeper across a foreign land and up through the rugged mountains to the country of £2 beer, late night bars with both awesome apres and nightlife.
Which I’m listening to pound away.
I need some Catalan energy…
If yesterday was covering ground in the Pas de la Casa-Grau Roig area, then today, equally as snowy and lively, was the steeper skiing of El Tarter and over to Canillo.
I say lively, not crowded, because it really is fun to be skiing with the Grandvalira gang.
It’s fast, ballsy skiing.
There are a lot of Brits and Spaniards on the slopes.
The falls are often, and they’re impressive:
Slow signs taken out and skis are clipping off on the steeps and deeps, (mine included…)
There’s not a whole lot of deep but the steady, non-stop powder falling is making everything fun.
So off under a lift for some fresh lines me and my guide – James Cove, PlanetSKI editor and self-proclaimed-Andorra-expert – went.
Well, on he went…
For 30 minutes digging in the knee deep powder searching for my missing Atomic Redster as I took a tumble in the powder.
… Under the busiest chairlift, which is always good for the mood.
Another shout out to the lifties and patrol (who as I mentioned below do a sterling job of marshalling the hordes off the slopes at the end of the day instead of what could easily be heading deeper into the Pyrenees):
They are also experts at digging out AWOL skis.
Then it was time for apres, making it past 10pm, and all on a Saturday.
First mistake of the night; we didn’t book a restaurant.
Weekenders from the city had arrived and it was last night for the week holidayers.
The place for finer dining in a wooden chalet restaurant with roaring fires, Cort de Popaire, had been booked for days.
And we had no luck in La Caleta, just down the road.
Here was a completely different vibe and a tapas and beer joint; It was literally packed out, 100% Spanish and there was no chance of getting in.
So pizza and then The Harp for pool, drinks and live music.
The ski town man with a guitar and covers from 30 years ago til now – classic.
Exactly how I remembered it from 10 years ago now… Maybe even the same bar and singer, if you know what I mean.
You could be anywhere in the world (it’s an Irish bar), so familiar is the music, crowd, interior and atmosphere.
But catching up with a buddy from home, casually up for the evening and a Sunday ski from Barcelona, taking on drunk challengers at pool and resisting the club beat next door from The Aspen on the way home at midnight to make it up for a decent last ski in the morning.
It felt like the right kind of Soldeu Saturday night.
A third snow day:
An hour of sun to start the day right before the heaviest snow yet came in, and down.
With all the fresh snow I opted to change skis at the local Calbo ski shop in the Soldeu lift station.
It was going to be a powder day.
Into the powder.
And we had a third member of our party, a pal up from Barcelona for the weekend.
As the snow came down hard she mentioned a ski cafe that served ridiculous Irish coffees.
Seemed rude not to go.
Ridiculously strong; a spanish pour.
Then the powder and pistes of Pas de la Casa.
And it was certainly a food and drink kind of day.
Now Andorra is known for its very reasonable booze, but not so much for its food.
But here, in the Grau Roig area hidden around the back and overlooking a frozen lake is one of the best mountain restaurants out there.
Private, rustic and delicious:
The Llac de Pessons had the cosiest fire and was packed with people wining and dining.
Barbecue was certainly a speciality, and we had to start with a Spanish classic:
That need in the morning to travel as far as possible from your start point kept biting us…
The twisting and winding of lower pistes, especially down to Soldeu, meant better visibility as well as fresh lines on perfect powder through trees.
The consensus has been the same at the day’s ski low-down for three running…
If you’re lucky enough to be there now, or any time soon, don’t leave the best til too late!
So, Sunday afternoon; the resort’s been packed with weekenders, French and Spanish so leaving town in the heavy snow might be problematic.
But we’re relaxed after those last turns in that pillowy snow.
The long road home:
We didn’t know how good we had it, taking the sleeper to the French Pyrenees and arriving right on time in Ax les Thermes for a day of sunny skiing last week.
Our departure proved the exact oppoiste.
The train might be old-school but it’s hardy – essential with the recent snowfall.
So, after the powder day skiing the plan was to transfer-taxi it back to Ax Les Thermes in France to catch the sleeper.
The weekend atmosphere in Grandvalira – being a local ski resort to Barcelona and regions in Andorra, France and Spain – is a cool one.
Groups of city snowboarders and skiers (yes, in this order) come up to enjoy the snow and setting and it made me jealous to see how they do so with such ease and no-fuss, not to mention that it’s all without breaking the bank.
But come 6pm, and adding in the beautiful amount of snow falling, it was crunch time.
A train at 8pm in Ax, which took a chilled 40 minutes on the way to Andorra, suddenly seemed very unlikely.
Up to the border we snailed, crawled through the tunnel towards France, passing snow-chainless cars, in a long snake down.
Long story short, we missed the sleeper… Lesson learned: Sunday night traffic exists in the mountains too.
Especially when there is heavy snow.
So another night in Ax, not such a hardship.
And a crack of dawn train to Toulouse for a flight home at 11am.
Walking the half-mile to the station at 5.23am in rural France was quite fun.
Making my own way through France…
But arriving at the station the train was cancelled, as was the one an hour later due to snow.
The 7.23am train took me halfway, but I woke up (knackered after a day’s skiing and seat clenching ride down the night before) on a deserted train and a rainy platform.
I found a bus that would visit every French train station en route to Toulouse and (quite unsuccessfully) tried to be cool with the fact that it was just one of those journeys.
If we’re going to ride the mountains, wish for snow, we gotta take the throw backs… (is what I told myself a real mountain person would think).
Onto another train, a frantic taxi ride, a sprint and queue push I made the airport and back to London.
After all this, what can I say I’ve learned?
The overnight train will take you home with the chill a holiday is meant to leave you with, not with frantic airport dashes, heavy luggage-lugging and the stress airports create.
Oh, and don’t underestimate end-of-weekend jams and traffic on the continent…
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
PlanetSKI is staying in the Piolets Hotel in Soldeu with Neilson Holidays.
It also offers holidays in Pas de La Casa, Arinsal and El Tartar.
In El Tartar it has its own dedicated chalet hotel, the Del Clos.
See here for further deals about Andorra from Neilson. https://www.neilson.co.uk/ski/andorra
Our editor, James Cove, stayed in the Del Clos in El Tartar last year with Neilson – see here for what he got up to on his Andorran Adventures in a 3-part blog.
And Neilson also offers its unique Mountain Experts programme across the resorts – free guiding and instruction.
See here for the main PlanetSKI news page with all the latest stories from the mountains.
For the Spirit of the Mountains – PlanetSKI: No1 for ski news