The tramping boots (TBs) were a little bewildered at spending January in the fierce cold of a Northern Hemisphere winter. I caught them looking around for their usual tramping ground of golden tussock in a sun-scorched Central Otago, New Zealand summer, far from the silver white snow-scape of the French Alps winter.
But despite the topsy-turvy seasons, there was never a murmur of discontent.
The TBs proved they could foot it in sub-zero temperatures with frozen laces and snow up beyond their ankles, just as well as in the heat, dust and river crossings of the Southern Hemisphere summer hikes.
We spent a week in January in the exquisite little French alpine village of Sixt Fer à Cheval, staying at La Tibolire, a chalet I had found months earlier on the Love Home Swap website.
It did not suit our hosts Melissa and Mark to swap homes, so we agreed on a points arrangement whereby Love Home Swap members earn credits when they have guests to stay, a form of currency they can then “spend” at other members’ homes anywhere in the world at any time.
We had our own superbly well-equipped, two-bedroom self-contained apartment on the ground floor of the three-storey Savoie-style chalet Melissa and Mark built in 2013 when they moved to France from the UK. So we enjoyed the best of all worlds – privacy, company and the benefit of our hosts’ local knowledge.
Rated one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”, Sixt Fer à Cheval is named for the nearby Cirque du Fer à Cheval, a spectacular horseshoe-shaped natural amphitheatre 4km to 5km in length, with walls 500m to 700m high, crowned by majestic peaks — Tenneverge (2987m), the Cheval Blanc (2831m) and Grenier de Commune (2775m).
The cirque is a frozen silver-white chateau de glace (ice castle) in the winter but in the spring and summer thaw more than 30 waterfalls cascade from its steep cliffs and snowfields.
As we hiked the snowy pathways in this enchanted winter wonderland of jagged peaks, frozen lakes and foamy turquoise rivers, I blessed the day I packed the TBs and left my silly street boots behind.
By early afternoon the sun emerged, brilliant against the blue sky. It was a dazzling sight but there was no warmth in the sun and the temperature remained well below zero.
Another day, we climbed up the Gorges de Tines, a deep, narrow gash in the side of a mountain accessible only via a rocky pathway and a series of steep ladders. Quite an adventure for the TBs in a light blizzard.
Refusing to be thwarted by an icy track, the TBs also made it up to the Cascade du Rouget, the “Queen of the Alps”, a beautiful waterfall high in the mountains that tumbles 80 metres in two tiers. The frozen spray from the cascade turned common-place spider webs and ferns into works of art in sparkling silver filigree.
As the sun set over the mountains in a blaze of pink and gold, we drove back to La Tibolire to feast on raclette, a hearty alpine dish prepared by Melissa (see food story and recipe below).
The TBs thawed out by the roaring fire, gloating to their arch rivals the SBs (ski boots), who were in a corner sulking at being left behind for the day.
We shared many fun dinners with our hosts in their cosy dining room. My husband, Chris, and Mark discovered a common interest in curry so they cooked tandoori chicken one night, we did a Kiwi lamb casserole another night and on our last evening together, Melissa wowed us with a garlic chicken dish and a divine Galette de Roi, a dessert made with almonds, oranges and rum . . . not forgetting her delicious lemon drizzle cake. The galette is a special Epiphany dessert which traditionally has a bean hidden inside the filling – whoever gets the bean in their piece of pie is king for the day and wears a golden crown. Melissa substituted a little figurine of a character from the cartoon Asterix for the bean and I got to wear the crown.
Talking of yummy food, we stumbled across the world’s best bread at a tiny bakery called Tiffanie in Sixt. I’d like to say we ate it with divine French fromage and a fine vin rouge but we never managed to get home with it . . . just the paper bag.
Apart from wining and dining together most evenings, Melissa and Mark also provided us with an excellent information and mountain guide service. Being “locals” they knew the best ski rental shop, boulangerie, pâtisserie, hiking tracks, ski areas and restaurants to go to.
At Melissa’s suggestion, we hired skis from Lionel at Lionel Sports, a delightful, modest Frenchman with a tiny shop in Sixt. I could hardly believe my eyes when I found a brand new pair of my favourite Dynastar Neva skis in my size among the racks of skis there. Lionel looked a little nonplussed when I hugged him and tried to explain in my limited français how thrilled I was to find such excellent skis in his little shop having ended up with mediocre rental equipment from some large, rental establishments in big, posh resorts. I also fell in love with his labrador who rested his head on one of my SBs whenever I came into the shop. A brilliant sales’ ploy.
Melissa and Mark took us skiing, much to the delight of the SBs who had travelled all the way from New Zealand in their smart new zip-up carry bag.
Sixt Fer à Cheval is part of the vast ski domain of the Grand Massif and without our “guides”, we would have been quite bewildered as to where to find the best snow and runs. It was bliss for once not having to decipher piste maps, argue about where to ski or seek information, en français, about how to get back to access lifts if we had skied too far . . . always a worry on an unfamiliar field.
Consisting of five resorts – Samoëns, Morillon, Sixt, Les Carroz and the high altitude Flaine – the Grand Massif offers 265km of pistes, mostly north facing, so the slopes hold the snow well.
We mainly skied at the scenic, sunny Samoëns field accessed by the high-speed Grand Massif Express télécabine or bubble lift, an easy five-minute flat drive from La Tibolire.
The SBs fell in love with Samoëns’ uncrowded slopes, wide, well-prepared pistes, and lovely mountain restaurants like the Igloo at Morillon.
Sadly a lack of snow early in the season meant we were unable to ski the longest piste in the European Alps, the 14km “Piste des Cascades” which begins on the Grande Platières summit above Flaine and ends in a zigzag track alongside a frozen waterfall a few minutes from La Tibolire. I nearly cried when I saw Melissa’s photos of this extraordinarily-picturesque gentle run across meadowland, past iced waterfalls and through forests, where skiers even see chamois and alpine ibex. Next time, I thought . . . next time . . .
About two months before our arrival, knowing dog-sledding was an excursion we were keen to do, Melissa kindly made a booking for us with Espace Nordique du Haut-Giffre at the Col de Joux Plane. High above Samoëns, the col (mountain pass) is a base for cross-country skiing, raquettes (snow-shoeing) and sledding of the dog and human-propelled variety.
When we arrived after a 20-minute drive up a winding mountain road from the valley, our musher Fabrice Hazan and his team of huskies and other husky-ish canines, were awaiting us, barking mad to be under way. As soon as we tucked ourselves into the double sled, the musher kicked the spiked anchor/break out of the snow and we slid off, quite sedately at first, along a wide pathway.
It didn’t pay to think about what could have happened had the anchor come unstuck before the musher positioned himself behind us and took up the reins. After a few minutes, Fabrice whistled to the dogs and they gathered pace, happy to be running free.
Once out of earshot of the vociferous complaints of the other canines still tethered at the base, we were surprised at the silence. The only sounds were Fabrice’s whistles and voice commands – he never once said much – and the swish of the sled runners on the snow. The 44 padded paws in a blur ahead of us were noiseless.
Travelling at the speed of dog along a well-formed track between trees laden with snow was incredibly exciting. We wore our ski helmets to be on the safe side but there was only one anxious moment when our teams met rival teams coming in the opposite direction on a narrow part of the track. The dogs snarled and barked ferociously at each other but our musher made sure his animals gave the others a wide berth.
The day was clear and sunny with an awe-inspiring panorama of the valley and the mountain giants beyond. To make the most of a perfect afternoon, we rented cross-country skis and did a few clumsy circuits of the beginners’ course. Competent downhill skiers, we misguidedly assumed we would adjust effortlessly to the longer, skinnier version of skis but we were sadly mistaken. It was fantastic exercise though, especially dragging each other out of snowdrifts in fits of laughter.
We performed better on the raquettes – although the TBs did not approve of having things like tennis rackets strapped onto them.
While exploring the countryside, we noticed many signposts pointing to refuges and alpine huts in the mountains.
Melissa told us there are numerous staffed refuges in the French and Swiss Alps which enable trampers, cyclists or randonner (ski touring) skiers to hike, bike or ski high alpine tracks for days without ever descending to villages on the valley floor for accommodation. They offer basic dormitory-style sleeping arrangements with mattresses, duvets and pillows but also have hot showers, toilets, and – believe it or not – hearty food and wine! Hikers need only carry their clothing and a sleeping bag liner.
The standard is somewhere between New Zealand’s cold-water, no-showers, BYO-food and bedding DoC (Department of Conservation) huts and the expensive, upmarket, everything-supplied lodges on our Great Walks. And they are huge, some sleeping up to 70 people.
So the silly Kiwi (New Zealand) joke we often crack while tramping in remote areas in New Zealand — the one about a cafe being just around the corner or over the ridge — is actually true in the Alps.
We loved our time in Sixt Fer à Cheval with the pretty River Giffre flowing through the village, the 13th century church and abbey, and Chalet La Tibolire which means “the barn” in the ancient Mourmé dialect.
We also became good friends with our hosts. A highly-gregarious, amusing, food and wine-loving British couple who made the move from Northampton four years ago, Melissa and Mark now live and work in their lovely chalet a few minutes up the hill from the village. They occasionally commute to England to work but most of the time they manage their consultancy businesses from idyllic offices on the top floor of their chalet, looking directly at the jaw-dropping Pointe de Sales (2497m).
How can you possibly work with a view like that?
I asked Melissa.
“Not easy,” she replied. “I pull the curtains when I need to concentrate.”
She had obviously spent considerable time studying the massive craggy hunk of rock because she said it looked like an American Indian sleeping on his side . . . even after a week of gazing at it from all angles, I still could not see him.
The apartment is conveniently-located, spotlessly clean and extraordinarily well-equipped with a full kitchen including microwave, dishwasher, coffee-maker, washer/drier and every imaginable cooking utensil.
A bottle of local wine awaited us along with essential kitchen and laundry requirements.
The place sleeps six in two bedrooms, one queen, one twin, with a couch in the living room that converts to a comfortable double bed. It has stunning views of the mountains from the windows, doors and a large decking which would be a gorgeous spot in summer. The under-floor heating warmed the entire place, keeping it cosy even on the coldest days and nights.
Heart-themed curtains, bedspreads, cushions, aprons, tablecloths and towels, add a traditional Savoyade flavour to the place. Stunning photographs of local landscapes adorn the walls, all taken by Melissa, a talented amateur photographer.
For inside days and nights, there are three TV sets with hundreds of channels, a huge collection of DVDs and books and games of every description.
If you feel the urge to entertain, there’s glassware, crockery and cutlery for about 12. I even spied a good array of baby-phernalia in various cupboards.
We were never lonely with our hosts upstairs, and we often had furry and feathered company. Melissa and Mark’s two alpine “cattens” (overgrown kittens) appeared on our window ledges each day or snuck inside to snuggle behind the cushions on the couch, while their family of chooks (hens) used to watch us inquisitively through a small high window while we were showering. Definitely a first!
After a week of fantastic hospitality, I suggested Melissa and Mark rebrand themselves as M&M’s Sixt Services, offering ski guiding, tourist information, in-house chefs, entertainment, a pet farm and a showering-with-chooks option.
I casually mentioned that the only activity, or in this case non-activity, we had not managed to tick off while on our month-long ski tour of the alps, was soaking in a jacuzzi in the snow, sipping vin chaud or champagne . . . I wasn’t fussy.
“Pas de problème”, replied the resourceful Melissa who speaks impeccable français. She did a quick mental search of her contacts and came up with a friend down the road who would be only too happy to oblige . . . the only thing Melissa couldn’t arrange was the snow, although if asked to do so, I’m quite sure she would have found another friend with a snowcat, snow maker or front-end loader to deliver a load of the precious white stuff to suitably surround the jacuzzi.
Before we said our fond farewells, we invited Melissa, Mark, the cattens and the chooks to come and stay with us in New Zealand. If all goes according to the grand plan, we will host them next year using the Love Home Swap points system. We will take M&M hiking. The TBs would like that.
•Justine Tyerman flew Cathay Pacific from Auckland to Paris via Hong Kong, then travelled by train to Geneva and rental vehicle to Sixt Fer à Cheval. Love Home Swap assisted with accommodation.
To book accommodation: www.lovehomeswap.com
La Tibolire is also available on Love Home Swap to rent.
Lionel Sports: www.lionelsport.com
Dog-sledding:Traineaux Passion & Parc Nordique
Best bread: Tiffanie in Sixt Fer à Cheval
Ski wear: Mons Royale: www.monsroyale.com/ Nivose: nivosegear.com/products/
To fly Cathay Pacific: www.cathaypacific.com
- About Love Home Swap’s points system: London-based Love Home Swap co-founder Ben Wosskow says the company launched the points system to make it easier for Love Home Swap members to travel to destinations of their choice throughout the year.
“We have been delighted by how the points system has been received,” says Ben. “It has quickly overtaken traditional home swapping as our most popular way to travel as points allow you to stay at any member’s home around the world at any time without having to do a direct swap with them.”
“The benefits of travelling this way are clear – you can save a few thousand dollars on the cost of accommodation and enjoy a much more local holiday experience.”
“And you don’t need to have a mansion to be successful on our site – small and stylish properties in city locations are as much in demand as large and luxurious homes in the country.” www.lovehomeswap.com
- Fly Cathay Pacific voted the World’s Best Airline for the fourth time in the 2014 Skytrax Awards. Visit www.cathaypacific.com for the latest airfares from Auckland to Paris or Zurich via Hong Kong, and airfare/train combinations to Basel or Geneva.
Warning . . . this is not health food. Justine Tyerman greedily consumes far too much of a good thing in the wrong country.
Raclette is a cheese and potato dish traditionally associated with Switzerland but it wasn’t until we were in the tiny French alpine village of Sixt Fer à Cheval that we got to try the delicacy.
Hosts Melissa and Mark, at Chalet La Tibolire, said raclette was a popular meal on their side of the alps too, which seemed to make it OK.
So there we were… Kiwis eating a traditional Swiss dish cooked by Brits in the French Alps.
It was a treat well worth waiting for and all the tastier because it was prepared and served in a cosy private home by a roaring fire with fine company, rather than in a Swiss restaurant where we would have paid an arm and a leg, and possibly a few vital organs.
But be warned, raclette is a highly dangerous dish, possibly addictive.
I began the meal politely by taking a small cooked potato from a pot, melting my rectangle of smoked cheese under the grill until it was bubbly, then dribbling it over my little spud. I added cracked pepper and coarse sea salt, and ate it daintily with salad and charcuterie (cured meats).
Thereafter, the potatoes just kept jumping on to my plate, lathering themselves in melted cheese which I had left under the grill long enough to turn slightly crispy, and disappearing down my throat of their own accord.
The pot of potatoes, which I had conservatively estimated at the start of the meal would feed 10, was gone in no time, largely consumed by two greedy Kiwis with a little help from our hosts.
They were delicious in the extreme and I found myself thinking: “Who cares about calories. It’s minus-10 outside and we need a few extra to survive in this climate”.
That argument was not particularly valid as we were in T-shirts beside a red-hot fire.
Mark then brought out his home-made liqueurs.
Fortunately we did not have to drive through the raging blizzard to get home.
Raclette is a simple, hearty, sociable, and tummy-warming dish which is fun to eat because everyone sits around the table, helps themselves and cooks their own.
Raclette à la Tibolire
- A variety of cheeses — we had smoked, herb and plain
- Salad greens
- Small firm potatoes cooked with their skins on
- A variety of charcuterie (cold cooked meats), prosciutto or salami
- Melt a slice of cheese under the grill until it bubbles and starts to turn brown and a wee bit crispy
- Ladle it onto a cooked potato
- Season and eat with salad and cold meats
- Repeat… many times! :-)