An invitation from friends to join them for a ski trip to La Toussuire set Gillian Thomas hunting for a map; she eventually located the village south-east of Grenoble in France’s Maurienne valley.
To my surprise I discovered that La Toussuire is part of France’s third largest ski ‘domaine’, the Sybelles. This is a network of lifts linking 300 kms of slopes above six villages in the mountains around La Toussuire - surely France’s best kept ski secret.
The villages were linked up in 2003. Four are traditional mountain villages which date back centuries while the other two, Le Corbier and La Toussuire, were purpose-built. Skiers can get lifts from each of them to L’Ouillon, a central plateau area, 2431 metres up, where a choice of easy or hard pistes leads you back down to any of them.
Long runs and extensive off-piste areas
Altogether they offer a wide choice of commendably long runs, mainly blues and reds as well as a few blacks. In addition there are extensive off-piste areas including some that are easily reached by lift for adventurous free skiing. Large expanses of less accessible back country also invite exploration, as one my friends reported after a challenging day out with a guide.
Despite these excellent credentials, prices for ski passes and accommodation work out at around 25% less than France’s other much more famous ski domaines, Paradis Ski (Les Arcs and La Plagne) and the Three Valleys (Val d’Isere and Tignes).
Peak Retreats feature the Sybelles villages
Peak Retreats is the only major British tour operator featuring the area to any degree, offering apartments in La Toussuire with travel by car. Chambery is the nearest airport, or trains take 3½ hours from Paris to St Jean de Maurienne, 20 kms away, where there are regular bus connections.
In general the Sybelles villages appeal most to families, particularly La Toussuire as it mainly offers self-catering accommodation in ‘residences’ and has easily accessible beginner slopes at village level and plenty of ‘blues’. Conveniently sunny terraces, ideal for pausing for a drink or lunch, are scattered around the slopes and a wide choice of tasty Alpine food is on offer for eating out in the evenings.
Tasty Alpine food
Not to be missed are specialities like pierre chaud - slices of duck, chicken, beef and vegetables which you cook yourself on a hot stone; also croziflette, a cheese and pasta flan - ideal for hungry skiiers - and tarte au Beaufort, the tasty local cheese.
And what better to finish any meal than a café gourmand - coffee accompanied by selection of mini desserts?
Six villages linked but different
As all six villages are linked, skiers can embark on a day’s ski touring and pay a visit to each of them. A trip by road, though equally scenic, involves many kilometres of driving as they are situated in the mountains up different valleys, so better to be on skis!
Each of the villages has a different feel. La Toussuire where I stayed is the largest, having a row of large slope-side ‘residences’ developed in the ‘60s and a single main street lined with shops, including a small supermarket, bars and restaurants. The village is growing with chalet-style apartments developments being built, but don’t expect to find a wide choice of noisy après-ski there.
Alternatives to skiing
As alternatives to skiing, there are activities like dog-sledding with huskies, ‘jorring’ - being pulled along by horse - and trails for snowshoeing. One of these is along a mountain ridge which leads to Saint Sorlin d’Arves and is served by lifts at each end.
Le Corbier a ski-in, ski-out resort, centres on a long functional block of apartments with a corridor of shops and restaurants on the ground and basement floors. Its redeeming feature is a community spa with steam room, sauna, two whirlpools and a large open-air swimming pool with warm enough water to tempt even a reluctant swimmer like me into it.
Picturesque villages with a warm welcome
The most picturesque of the Sybelles villages are the oldest, Saint Sorlin and Saint Jean d’Arves. Each has chalets clustered around a small grey stone chapel in its original baroque style. In the distance the Aguilles d’Arves, three distinctive needle-like peaks, rising to 3514 metres, dominate spectacular mountain views.
Both villages struggled to survive before all the lifts were linked up but today they attract visitors for skiing and walking as some of the lifts stay open throughout the year. All around are lush pastures grazed in summer by brown cows which produce the famous hard round Beaufort cheese.
At the Saint Sorlin Cooperative Dairy you can watch it being made and visit the cellars where row upon row of it is matured. Tours to local farms are also on offer. No wonder the area welcomed the idea of the new domaine when it was proposed by a local business man, Gaston Maulin.
Now in his eighties, he was persuaded by his wife to invest the proceeds from the sale of his chocolate factory to an American company to build the lift network.
Today the lifts as well as most of the accommodation, ski hire shops and restaurants in Les Sybelles remain locally-owned and run. And as a visitor you feel their welcome.
Les Hauts de Comborciere apartments at La Toussuire featured by Peak Retreats sleep from two to 12. A 2-bedroom one costs from £648 to £1049, or from £828 to £2029 including Eurotunnel crossing with a car. http://www.peakretreats.co.uk/winter/ski-resorts/maurienne-valley/la-toussuire
Les Sybelles: www.sybelles.com