On the ski slopes in St Lary Soulan, French Pyrénées, 2013

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This season, we’re already feeling smug as we managed to ski in St Lary on the very first day of the season. There was plenty of snow, lying in huge fluffy heaps in the car park, and we had a great day out despite the freezing temperatures and heavy snow conditions.

Now, though, on the 11th January, the season had started in earnest and it hadn’t snowed for weeks.

It's January, and the snowline's much higher than it was before Christmas.

It’s January, and the snowline’s much higher than it was before Christmas.

After careful inspection of both the weather forecast and the webcam, however, we decided another day out was due. The decision was confirmed by the fact that the weather in our valley looked set to be decidedly mediocre, and St Lary looked clear and bright above the clouds.

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The from our house to St Lary takes about an hour and a quarter, but it’s a scenic route with plenty to see. Another point in St Lary’s favour is the access – they’ve recently opened a new gondola lift straight from the village to the slopes, and installed new facilities including a spacious car park. Unlike some other resorts, where you have to negotiate icy roads to reach the ski station, we can just leave the car in the village (700 metres up) and jump on the lift to travel the remaining 1,000 metres. For the third year in a row we’re using our Altiski passes – a discount pass scheme that offers reduced rates on a day-by-day basis. They’re easy to manage online and are also a great source of cheap ski insurance.

At St Lary 1700, at the top of the gondola.

At St Lary 1700, at the top of the gondola.

The snowline was much higher on this second visit, and there was none at all in the carpark, so as we emerged from the lift at Saint Lary 1700 (the resort consists of three small areas: 1700, 1900 and 2400) I was relieved to see that the pistes still looked reasonably well-covered. As we jumped on the Soum de Matte chair lift, however, to start the journey over to the best skiing area, St Lary 2400, a crocodile of children passed underneath us, their skis slipping and bouncing with a loud grating noise that showed just how icy it was.

On reaching the top of the lift, we started the journey across country along the blue piste Corniche, and I got to judge the conditions for myself. A light sprinkling of snow the day before seemed to have freshened things up considerably, and in spite of the hard, packed layer of ice there seemed to be enough powder to make the experience enjoyable. We started the day with a run down our favourite black, Terranère in the 1900 area, as it was currently in the sun and wouldn’t be for long. The surface was fast and exhilarating, although as I skied into a patch of shade my legs skittered away from underneath me on the ice and I almost lost my balance.

Most of the runs were open, despite it being a ‘cheap’ day, although our favourite red, Mirabelle, was closed for a competition.  The run was set up as a slalom course, as we were hovered overhead on a chair lift we watch several skiers streak past in little puffs of snow, turning at impossible speeds.

After a quick lunch at Les Merlans, the canteen-style restaurant at St Lary 2400, we headed for the Corneblanque drag lift behind the restaurant. As we waited, a helicopter hovered overhead then disappeared behind the ridge. The lift wasn’t running, and we waited for a few minutes, then I asked someone who’d just descended what was happening. He explained that a skier had fallen on some loose gravel and hurt himself, but had refused assistance and tried to continue skiing down. In the process, he’d hurt himself so badly that they were now having to airlift him off.

‘He’s broken his ‘col de fémur’, he explained, a phrase which I hadn’t heard before and mentally translated as ‘collar bone’, although when I checked it in the dictionary turned out to be the far more severe injury of a broken hip. No wonder it had given way when he’d tried to ski on  it!

Eventually the lift got going again, and as we skied back down Corneblanque we passed the fallen skier, surrounded by paramedics, being strapped onto a stretcher for the descent. The group was working out how to lift him, as the slightest movement seemed to cause the prone figure to yelp with pain. We skied quickly past, not wanting to get in the way.

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Over on the far right of the resort, we noticed the Aulon chairlift was running – we’d never seen it operational before. At the head of the Combes d’Aulon run a small handwritten sign warned that the snow at the bottom of the run was ‘pas damée’, another phrase I wasn’t familiar with and one that turned out to mean ‘not packed down’ but might as well have meant ‘non existent’. The run started promisingly, but petered out halfway into a mogul field and a narrow icy corridor with the bones of the mountain showing through; we picked our way through carefully and took ourselves back to 2400.

After a few more runs in the 2400 area, it was time to call it a day. Although only 3pm, we’d had the best of the weather and it was now getting cold and icy. We also wanted to head back to Monty – he loves coming with us, but if we bring him it means one of us can’t ski, so we’d left him at home on this occasion.

The town beneath us was completely bare of snow.

The town beneath us was completely bare of snow.

We headed back to 1700 via the Lita chairlift and blue run, and were back at the car half an hour later, in plenty of time to drive home and walk Monty – although we had to wake him up to do so!

Taking the new gondola back down to St Lary. The town's symbol is the Pyrennean Mountain Dog, known locally as the 'patou', and the image appears everywhere from signs to menus.

Taking the new gondola back down to St Lary. The town’s symbol is the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, known locally as the ‘patou’, and the image appears everywhere from signs to menus.

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The Spanish Grand Canyon, Ordesa Valley

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“I’m on the top of the world, looking down on Creation…”

I don’t normally break out in spontaneous Carpenters’ songs, but the Ordesa Valley is really something to shout about. Known as the ‘Spanish Grand Canyon’, it’s every bit as imposing as its larger namesake in Arizona, but considerably less crowded and touristy. We’re spending the day walking along the valley floor,  then climbing the cliff to complete a circular route and hopefully maximise the views.

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It’s towards the end of October, and the weather couldn’t be better. The sky’s a clear, sharp blue and there’s just the suggestion of a frosty nip to the early-morning air. Packing the sandwiches I’ve hastily assembled from provisions bought in the nearby town of Torla the night before, we leave the Hotel Ordesa and drive the short distance to the carpark to start the walk.

We’re surprised by the number of cars in the car park – this is supposed to be the off season – and there are quite a few people heading for the path. We haven’t been able to find out prior to the trip about the official attitude about dogs in the national park – in the French national parks they’re not allowed at all – and we’re relieved to see information boards showing that Monty’s welcome, as long as he stays on a lead.

We have a smallscale map of the route and a walk book with us, but we’re still relieved to see that the path is very well-defined and clearly signposted. In fact, for the first half a mile or so, the path is suitable for disabled access. The sun streams through the trees, highlighting the autumn colours.

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The first stage of the walk seems surprisingly crowded, and then we notice how many of our fellow hikers are slung around with professional-looking camera gear. Despite the polite little notices (translated into three languages) urging walkers to stay on the path, many of the photographers are diving into the woods to capture the light effects of the sunlight, or immortalising interesting fungi on tree trunks. We didn’t realise, but apparently this area of the national park is as rich a hunting ground for wildlife and landscape photographers as Yosemite is for Ansel Adams. Monty gets very excited and starts trying to dive into shot whenever someone points a camera vaguely in our direction. As we’re moving at a fair pace, we soon outdistance most of the crowds while I ponder on the correct collective noun for a pack of photographers – a paparazzi?

Although the path’s started to climb and turned more stony underfoot, it’s still easy to follow. We’re climbing up alongside a river, and pass a number of spectacular waterfalls. One in particular looks man-made, as though it’s coursing down concrete steps, but on closer inspection the steps turn out to be great shelves of naturally-carved rock. Monty’s far too interested in where the dull roaring noise is coming from, and I haul him back as he sticks his head through the protective railings.

DSC01764We’re seeing fewer and fewer fellow hikers now as we climb deeper into the forest. Up ahead, there’s just one group of three people, and they’re making slower progress than us so we’ll soon be past them. As we draw level, I see why they’ve set a slower pace – one of the hikers is swinging himself along happily and expertly on aluminium crutches, his wasted legs trailing beneath him. Considering we’re now pretty high up and covering some difficult terrain, this is  impressive and we both stop complaining about the steepness of the climb and move on feeling humbled.

Every so often, there’s a gap in the trees and we catch glimpses of the most incredible views. The slopes flame with autumnal colour, and distant waterfalls tumble like silver ribbons.

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After a couple of hours of climbing through the forest, with only the occasional snapshot of a view, we emerge into a natural amphitheatre, with a shallow river flanked by towering cliffs.

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So far, we’ve been following signposts to ‘La cola de caballo’, or Horse’s Tail, and it looks like we’re arrived – the waterfall really does look like a white horse’s tail flowing over the rocks. Just above us is the Brèche de Roland, a gap in the mountains marking the border between the two countries – we’re now only a few hundred yards from France. Legend has it that the brèche was made by Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, as he cleaved the mountains with his sword.

DSC01777After a brief stop for lunch, we cross the river on stepping stones. Monty leaps easily from one shallow stone pillar to the next, forcing me to hop awkwardly as I try to keep my balance, but we both reach the other side safely. The path’s starting to climb again now, round the shoulder of the hill, and we seem to be the only people left. Straddling the path is a sign warning us not to attempt this path after 1pm in the winter; a quick check of my watch shows 1.30pm but we decide to press ahead anyway. The extremely treacherous and steep descent needs to be attempted in the daylight, but with another seven hours to go before nightfall we feel we’ve got a good margin for error.

After a short, steep ascent the path flattens out again and winds through the forest. It’s getting cold now, and we’re glad of the thermos of coffee we brought from the hotel. Now we’ve got some height, there’s a fantastic view back down the valley we’ve just climbed.

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Birds of prey soar above us as we climb, breaking the splendid isolation with shrill cries.

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The drop to our right is completely sheer, plummeting straight down in an unbroken line for hundreds of yards. I keep a tight hold on Monty’s lead, but the surface we’re walking on is broad and safe and he’s getting tired now and happy to stay close to me. The path is deceptive, twisting and turning ahead of us – we can’t see how we’re going to get down such a sheer drop as we’re now almost directly above the carpark.

We reach a viewpoint, jutting out over the cliff and bordered by a sturdy wall – then, apruptly, the path turns downhill. It’s incredibly steep, like walking down a flight of stairs, and the recent wet weather has left a loose shale of stones and leaves. Mike and I look at each other in horror – according to our walk book, this section should take us an hour to descend, and an hour of this loose, uneven surface will be very hard work. In the event though, it’s not too bad – we soon find a rhythm, and the path soon loses the steps and descends by tight little zigzags instead, which are easier on the knees. After a brisk 45 minutes of descent, we emerge, slipping and sliding, into the woods above the carpark.

The whole walk has taken six and a half hours with a short break for lunch, and although the majority has been easy going, it’s been very hard work in places. We’re pleased to see that the visitors’ centre in the carpark is open, and we collapse gratefully on the picnic benches outside for hot drinks and pastries. Monty sags into a heap and is instantly snoring; we rouse him gently to get back in the car and cover the short distance back to Torla for dinner.

The Ordesa Valley, Spanish Pyrenees

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Our home in France is close to the Spanish border, so there’s a whole new country tantalisingly close on the other side of the mountains, around 70 miles away. Coming from an island nation, I’m still childishly delighted by the idea that we can just get in the car and casually drive into a foreign country – driving from England to Wales just doesn’t cut it, frankly. The trip takes around an hour and a half, and many of our friends and neighbours make frequent journeys to top up with Spanish essentials such as olive oil, or just to take in some different scenery.

Although Spain’s so accessible, we’ve been in France for two and a half years now and never made the trip. In October, we decided that it was time to take the plunge. The timing was mostly driven by the fact that we wanted to visit the beautiful Ordesa Valley, billed as ‘the Spanish Grand Canyon’. We’d carefully planned our visit so that it was after the main tourist season, but we’d still be able to catch the stunning autumn colours in the national park.

With the hotel booked and the hiking boots packed, we loaded Monty Spaniel into the car and set off from our home towards the ski resort of St Lary, a favourite haunt in the winter. Of the two tunnels through the Pyrenees, we’d decided to use the St Lary/Beilsa route rather than the Luchon/Veilha tunnel, as it brought us out closer to our destination of Ordesa.

The border crossing was very understated, with little to indicate that you were leaving the country, and no form of border control. The only person we saw was a bored-looking workman in a fluorescent jacket, leaning on his shovel in the internationally-recognised style and counting the seconds until midi. He barely looked up as we swept past, driving to a foreign land.

The drive through the tunnel took less than ten minutes, and we emerged, blinking, into….Spain! To my great excitement, the countryside on this side of the mountains did indeed look very different, the slopes far more thickly wooded and looking less stark than the French landscape we’d just left.

Ordesa is part of the national park, and we were hoping to drive through the park itself, a feat that’s only possible between October and March. Outside these times, visitors leave their cars at the nearby town of Torla and are loaded onto buses for the journey.

It was another hour’s drive to the turnoff for the park, and I amused myself by trying to make sense of the Spanish roadsigns. I failed. There’s no compromise here, no attempt at a gradual acclimatisation for newly-arrived visitors by listing instructions in both French and Spanish – the Spanish have simply said, “You wanted foreign. It starts now.”

When we eventually found it, the little windy road through the park had the most amazing views. In several places, the cliff above us overhung so sharply that it was like driving through a tunnel, and I had an unpleasant sensation that bits might be about to fall off.  Heavy drips of water fell splashily from the cliff edges above us onto the roof and through the open window; I wound it up hastily. The cliffs on either side were patterned in thick stripes of red, black and grey stone, reminding me of liquorice allsorts.

After an hour’s drive, during which we saw no other cars (fortunately, as the road was so narrow), we emerged back out onto the main road near Torla. A pretty, medieval town, Torla is the gateway to the National Park. We were staying in the Hotel Ordesa, half a kilometre outside the town, a modern building just outside the park, and dwarfed by its towering mountainous backdrop.

The hotel was clean and modern, but I was completely thrown by the fact that the receptionist spoke no French. As we were so close to the border, I assumed it would be a second language here, but the second language actually seemed to be English.

Weary from the journey, we ate a simple but excellent value meal in the hotel restaurant, which looked a little tired compared to the rest of the building. The staff were unfazed by my requests for a vegetarian meal, and cheerfully produced salad, cheese and local pancakes. The following day, we were planning an all-day hike through the national park and along the cliffs, so after a quick walk into Torla (which took around 15 minutes), we decided to call it a night.

Top tips to help your dog love car travel

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If you’re planning a long journey with your dog, perhaps to France or Spain, then help keep him relax with these tips from Jo Wriglesworth of pet behaviour and training company Pets in the City.

Accustom your dog to being in the car before setting off on a long journey.

Jo says:
“Usually it isn’t the longer car journeys that cause problems, as motorways cause little movement in the car, it’s the shorter street journeys that are the problem and it’s usually an issue that starts in the first months of the puppy’s life.
The main reason that dogs get anxious in the car is that they didn’t learn to enjoy car rides as a puppy. Often a puppy’s first experiences of car travel are a long trip from the breeders and then trips to the vet where they might find the vaccination process rather stressful, so they don’t have good associations with the car.
Sometimes the puppy might feel travel sick, and sometimes it is just anxiety, or a combination of both. Although travelling in a metal crate is the safest way to transport your dog, in the back of the car the puppy might feel the movement more vigorously and so an anxious dog might feel better in a harness towards the front of the car.
You can prevent a puppy from becoming anxious about car travel by driving slowly around corners and taking the puppy out in the car for a few minutes each day on a journey that ends somewhere nice, such as a relative’s house where the puppy is played with when he arrives, or a nice place to walk if the puppy has had his vaccinations.
If you know that your dog is not good at travel and you have a road trip coming up you will need to start preparing at least a month in advance by gradually desensitising your dog to car travel. This means you will need to teach new and positive associations with getting into the car.
You could use food or play to teach your dog to relax in the car when the engine is not turned on, progressing to having the engine on while the car is stationary, to driving a few meters while somebody feeds or plays with the dog. This should take a few weeks, you can’t rush this training or you won’t be able to progress.
Spraying some dog appeasing pheromone (ADAPTIL) onto the dogs bedding before you put him in while you are training these good associations will help when you eventually take your longer journey. Also a study by Dr Deborah Wells of Queens University Belfast found that lavender had a positive effect on the behaviour of dogs during long car journeys. Dogs that were exposed to 16 ounces of lavender oil on a flannel cloth in the car they were traveling in barked less, moved around less and appeared to be more relaxed (Sept. 15 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association).”
Happy travelling!

Photo courtesy of Pets in the City

About the author: Jo has a B.A in Psychology and an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at Edinburgh University, and is a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.