Being Snowed On in Breuil-Cervinia

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31/03/19 – 06/04/19

After our couple of days in the warmth of the Aosta valley we were considering skiing again. This time we weren’t going to take any chances. With such spring like conditions we were heading straight for the highest ski resort in Europe. The combined Zermatt/Valtourenche/Breuil-Cervinia ski area now reaches the dizzy heights of 3899m; surely there would be some decent snow up here.

First of all we had to go and get some GPL (aka LPG) to fill up our gas tanks. Getting GPL in Italy always makes me slightly nervous, the pumps are always manned and strictly speaking you are not meant to buy GPL for domestic use from a fuel station, it should be for propulsion only. Stories abound of people being turned away. As we queued at the pump we could see the attendants discussing us, but in the end it was just because we were British and the English speaking pump attendant had come over to provide some assistance. In nearly five months of travelling Italy we haven’t been refused GPL but there is always a first time. Italy’s GPL prices are substantially lower than in France so it was worth the moments of suspense.

The road to Cervinia climbs slowly up the Valtourneche. It’s an easy enough drive, only a slightly narrow section in the town of Valtournenche providing an opportunity for Italian horn tooting. At the top of the valley, just before the purpose built resort of Cervinia, a Sosta (the Italian equivalent of an Aire) was waiting for us. As it was a Sunday there were plenty of motorhomes still in the sosta, waiting for their residents to return from their day’s skiing. By Monday morning they were gone and we were all alone.

Lovely views of the Matterhorn from the sosta.

It’s not the first time we’ve been to Cervinia, we used to ski here at Easter when Aaron was at school, we found it much cheaper than February half term and the snow was always good. We were also here in May 2018,  after the end of the skiing season. We were quite shocked to see how bare the mountains were when we arrived this year, almost the same levels of snow as May last year. It goes to show how much snow the Alps had last year and how little snow has fallen this year. Such a contrast.

We spent the Monday skiing, it was an opportunity to test our progress and we were pretty chuffed that we had improved significantly since last skiing here. Paul said he almost found it boring, but as we moved around all of the different parts of the resort we found ourselves enjoying the almost empty expanses of wide and well groomed red pistes. We could forgive the lack of challenging black runs. The snow conditions stayed great all day, only getting slushy on the lower levels later in the afternoon, the joy of being at a higher altitude.

 

On Red 47. Once one of our favourite runs. Now it seems short and boring.

When we checked the forecast for the following day we saw that it was due to start snowing. A look at the snow forecast website and we realised that there was a LOT of snow on it’s way. This was pretty exciting, we haven’t seen a big fall of snow since we first arrived in Vaujany in January.

We managed to ski on Tuesday morning before the cloud descended and snow started falling, we weren’t to ski again until Friday. The snow just kept falling. On the Wednesday morning we woke up to about 10cm on the ground around us, but the fat white flakes were still descending and by the end of the day we must have had at least 40cm more. We don’t have a generator so Paul was up on the roof on a regular basis, clearing off the solar panels to make sure that we could continue to generate electricity to run the heating.

Thursday morning. Maybe we should have covered the bikes.

The snow plough showing off while Paul shovels

The following morning the snow had reached above our door sill, covering our outside step. The snow plough came up and cleared away as much snow as possible. It seemed like overkill when it was just the one lonely van, but it turned out they were going to use the sosta as a lorry and bus park while they cleared the roads and carparks in town. When we walked to the shop later that day the car park was still waist deep in snow. This was our usual route to the shop, but as it hadn’t been cleared we had to walk through the road tunnel. Not a pleasant (or legal) experience, but luckily there was very little traffic.

On Friday morning the sun came out and we were up and raring to go, getting an early bus from the Sosta so that we could get on the fresh snow. Lots of runs were still closed and lots of people had turned up to ski a powder day so it was a busy morning with everyone crammed into a small space. As the day progressed the runs were slowly opened up and everyone spread out, the true powder chasers were climbing above the lifts and making fresh tracks from all sorts of vantage points. Amateurs like us were just venturing off to the side of the pistes, enjoying the silky soft snow but too inexperienced to venture far. On piste the soft snow started to build up into gentle moguls and our skis started throwing up clouds of powder as we turned.

Blue skies and good snow

We expected Saturday to be busy, but still we were never more than five or six deep in a queue. The piste conditions were excellent as the snow had been packed down a little firmer, these were probably the best conditions we have skied on all winter. It was a fantastic final day of skiing before we tore ourselves away to visit somewhere new.

Skiing the corduroy, we followed the piste bashers down the slope until the skiing police escort gave us permission to pass.

Breuil-Cervinia Sosta

The sosta in Cervinia is positioned slightly out of the town, just before the tunnel that takes traffic through to the resort. It’s 1.7km to either the bottom of the gondola or the Cretaz chairlift so it’s not the most convenient of situations. Certainly not ski-in, ski-out. In fact if there has been a significant dump of snow it’s not even walk-in, walk-out.

The sosta has water and waste disposal facilities but no electric and no toilets. It’s a sizeable space on rough tarmac and must take at least 50 vans.

Money is collected by an attendant who visits morning and evening. It’s €7.80 per night, which includes tourist tax. The attendant is far more vigilant during the weekends when the sosta is full of visiting Italians. Some weekdays you might get away without paying anything. If you are just using the services there is a notional charge of €5, but you are unlikely to have to pay unless you happen to arrive at the same time as the attendant.

There are a few other options for parking up if you are happy to forego any services for a few days. Probably the best of those options is the car park at the gondola station in Valtournenche where there are no restrictions. The main car park in Cervinia has signs forbidding motorhome parking, but during low season when the parking is practically empty you will get away with parking there. You are more likely to be moved on at the weekend when it gets very busy. You can also park under the gondola in Cervinia although the short section of road up to the gondola station is steep and twisty and hard on the clutch.

Getting to the Slopes

To get to the slopes there are several busses run by Savda. The timetables are online but the prices were a little confusing.

At the weekends there is a free ski bus, running every 15/20 minutes whose main purpose seems to be ferrying people between the sosta and the gondola station. It pulls into the sosta itself and waits for 5 minutes before moving on so you have plenty of time to pick up kit and lock up the van without having to stand outside waiting. We weren’t convinced that it would turn up at the gondola station to pick us up, but it did, so that was good news.

During the week there are a couple of services that leave from the bus stop just up the road in front of the police (carabinieri) station and opposite Hotel Lac Blu. They take you to the bus station which still leaves a short walk (600m) to the lifts. The Cervinio Bus costs €2 per person per journey, it’s a flat rate and not very good value for such a short journey. The other bus runs up and down the entire length of the valley from Cervinia to Chatillon and is €1.10 for the same journey so is much better value but is far less frequent. Once the bus driver just couldn’t be bothered to charge us for such a short journey, the bus was almost empty and no was watching as he let us on for free – happy days!

Up until the end of March there is another bus (the Cielo Alto bus) that does a circular route that can take you to the gondola station but I have no idea what it’s price would be, probably something different again.

There are ski lockers at the Plan Maison Gondola Station so if you prefer to save your bus money they are an option, however it is €3 for a boot locker and €3 for a ski locker (only fits one pair of skis) per day, so it’s not really a saving unless you still carry boots and skis and just use it so that you can wear comfy shoes for the walk.

Cervinia Town and Facilities

From the sosta, if you are unencumbered by skis, it’s an easy walk into town. There are three ways of walking into Cervinia, you can either cross the road to the fuel station and then walk through the car park, this bypasses the tunnel and is probably the quickest route. You can walk along the road that rises above the sosta, this takes you through a small group of hotels near the Cielo Alto lift and you eventually come out at the gondola station.  The third option is to follow the road above the sosta but branch off on the footpath signposted to the left, it parallel to the main road just above the tunnel. Any or all of these options may not be available if it has snowed a lot. Walking through the tunnel is not a good idea but if needs must then at least there are service walkways along each side so you are not actually on the road. Don’t do it though!

Cervinia is a purpose built resort town that is mostly hotels and apartments with the usual selection of restaurants, ski shops and gift shops. There is a supermarket which has a reasonable selection of food including a good bakery and deli counter. There are a couple of other bakeries too, including a nice cake shop below the supermarket.

There is no swimming pool in town, the nearest is in Valtournenche and you could catch the bus down there if you had a yen to swim. Unfortunately the day we fancied swimming was the very snowy day when the busses weren’t running.

There is apparently a launderette in the same building as the supermarket but we didn’t find it. We did our laundry down in Chatillon.

Skiing Zermatt/Valtournenche/Breuil-Cervinia

There are several options for ski passes. You can get a ski pass just for the Valtournenche area (useful to know if you decide to stay at the gondola station there). Alternatively you can get a pass for the combined Valtournenche/Breuil-Cervinia area. Last, and definitely not least, you can get a pass that includes Zermatt.

Options exist for 3 hour, 4 hour, morning or afternoon passes as well as the usual day and multi day passes.

Lift passes are credit card style contactless passes and you have to pay €5 per person for the card. Unlike the other resorts we have been to you get this deposit refunded if you return the card to the ticket offices. You can pay an additional €3/person per day for insurance to cover you for rescue from the slopes in case of an accident (not any other medical costs though so you still need proper insurance).

If, like us, you are buying passes on a day-to-day basis then it’s worth knowing that it is more expensive to ski at the weekend when Italians visit in large(ish) numbers.

The Cervinia side of the resort is mostly blues and reds with just a few blacks. There are boarder cross runs but they were closed while we were there so I have no idea what they are like. It’s not the most challenging of resorts, best suited to people who enjoy long cruising runs on red slopes.

You can only get to the highest point if you have the pass for Zermatt and we didn’t ski in Zermatt this year. There are a couple of entry points into Zermatt but you need to be careful as the lifts are prone to shutting in high winds, so keep an eye on the weather and the electronic boards in the gondola stations. It’s usually said that the cheapest option if you find yourself stuck in Zermatt is to find a hotel to spend the night and get back the following day. Good luck finding somewhere cheap in Switzerland!

As already mentioned there are lockers at the Plan Maison gondola station. There is also a picnic room here, something that’s very welcome because the ski area is not well equipped with benches for those of us who take a packed lunch.

A lot of the public toilets are the squatting hole in the floor type, but of course you will have thighs of steel from all that skiing so it won’t be a problem. Restaurants on the slopes are generally happy for people to use their toilets as there are not many official public toilets, but really the coffee is so cheap that you might as well have one while you’re there. In fact the on-slope restaurants are much cheaper than their French counterparts.

Snowshoes/Walking

There are a couple of long marked and groomed snowshoe/ski touring trails on the ski area, either leaving from the bottom of the Cretaz lift or from the Plan Maison gondola station. You can get single or return gondola passes to access the trails. There are also plenty of walking trails in the valley. From the sosta it’s worth having a stroll to Lac Blu and in town it’s a pleasant walk up a track to the Les Clochards restaurant. Just keep an eye on the avalanche conditions as some of the footpaths run underneath steep walls.

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