There’s something magical about historic European cities in winter. A dusting of snow, twinkly lights, crisp chilly nights and the smell of glühwein and Christmas biscuits make everything seem extra special. So when Jet2Holidays asked me to try out one of their city break packages, I couldn’t resist a wintery weekend in Salzburg.
Skiers in brightly coloured jackets weighed down by boots and skis stagger along the pavement, overtaken by a horse and cart and watched by a group of old ladies chatting on a bench by the roadside. Not a sight you’d normally expect to see in a ski resort, but Bansko is a ski town with a twist. On one side you’ve got the Pirin Mountains with their towering peaks and modern ski resort.
For many people, skiing in Europe means the Alps. It’s where I learnt to ski and I’ve been back again and again. France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy are home to Europe’s best-known ski resorts, but they come with a premium price tag – which only seems to be getting higher. So it’s no surprise skiers are abandoning the usual resorts to their five-star clientele and €10 vin chauds and looking for better value in Eastern European destinations like Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Over the years I’ve become a dab hand at travelling with just a carry-on bag. Unless I’m heading off long-haul or long-term, I can easily manage a city break or a summer holiday week without having to check in a suitcase. But cold weather means bulkier clothes and that makes it more of a challenge to squeeze everything in. A
A thick layer of snow crunched underfoot and tiny snowflakes swirled above our heads around a skyline filled with Gothic church towers, turrets and stone fortresses. Arriving in Tallinn was like walking into a wintry fairytale. Europe’s best preserved medieval city is a beauty at any time of year, but in the short, cold days of winter, the snow adds an extra touch of magic. In summer you run the gauntlet of stag parties drawn in by cheap beer and budget flights. But in winter the narrow cobbled streets that take you past grand merchants houses, medieval walls and hidden courtyards are almost deserted.
I never thought I’d like skiing – I’m not hugely sporty and I can’t stand being cold – so it wasn’t until my late 20s that I was finally convinced to give it a go. And unexpectedly I loved it. The feeling of freedom as I finally mastered parallel turns and made it down to the bottom of the piste without falling over. The gorgeous mountain scenery, with log cabins fringed with icicles and fir trees laden with snow drifts.
I might not be able to fit a ski trip in this year, but each winter a part of my heart lies out on the slopes of the Three Valleys. This huge ski area in the French Alps, covering famous resorts like Méribel, Courcheval and Val Thorens, is where I learnt to ski and where I’ve been back again and again since. There are over 370 miles worth of pistes to ski or snowboard on, with pretty alpine villages and snow-dusted pine tree forests in between them.
When you think of ski resorts in the French Alps, it’s probably the big names that come to mind: Courcheval, Val D’Isere, Tignes, Chamonix. But there are hundreds of smaller resorts scattered across the Alps which don’t get the same amount of publicity, or visitors. I’d got the ski bug a few years ago and loved the whole experience – the gorgeous mountain scenery, the cosy log fires, not to mention the mulled wine and variety of cheese-based foods. I thought about spending a season in the snow but I didn’t fancy the hours of working as a chalet host.
In the French Alps last week, I took stacks of the classic blue sky, white snow photos, but thought I’d try something different and see how they look in black and white. They were taken just outside the small mountain town of Méribel-Mottaret. Just along from the busy ski lifts, a path takes you into a completely different silent, snowy world. Paths for walkers and cross-country skiers lead around the frozen lake, the Lac du Tueda (complete with its ‘No swimming’ sign still visible poking up out of the snow).