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Le Food, les Girls and Now le Ski
To most travelers France has always meant great food, fine wine, lovely women and high fashions, but not until recently has France meant skiing. Over the past 10 years, however, the French government has spent or loaned to private investors $116 million to build hotels, restaurants and lifts in Chamonix, Meg�ve, Val-d'Is�re and other, smaller resorts. It has even built a whole new ski town called Courchevel in the middle of a once-barren Alpine cow pasture. As a result of this energetic program, France has suddenly jumped from a poor third—or fourth or fifth, behind Austria, Switzerland and perhaps Germany and Italy—to the front rank of European winter resort nations. Last year skiing was a $60 million business in France, and this year it should be even more.
At the same time it prepared to receive foreign tourists, the government has been encouraging more Frenchmen to ski. Each year 10,000 schoolchildren are given subsidized study vacations in the Alps. There are today nearly a million skiers in France, twice as many as five years ago. The French national ski team is the best in the world (SI, March 13), and it will try to prove so again at the world championships in Chamonix.
The oldest of the French resorts, Chamonix is a town of narrow, twisting streets, shielded from the sun by lofty peaks that provide the skier with wonderful high mountain skiing (see pages 20-21). One of the most thrilling ski experiences in all Europe is to ride the cable car out of the dark streets of Chamonix, up toward Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. From here the skier can choose between the steep trails back to Chamonix, and the plunge down the opposite slope to Courmayeur in Italy, 8,000 feet below.
During the early winter this year, the French ski team was training in Chamonix. Even before it arrived, there was hardly a shop in town that did not have on display an autographed picture of Guy P�rillat, hero of the team and the world's best downhill skier. At Christmas, P�rillat was tooting about Chamonix in a bright red Alpha Romeo. One day, looking for a parking space near his favorite restaurant and finding none, he drove his car along the sidewalk and parked in front of the place. Downhill champions are big men in Europe.
Courchevel, about 75 miles away by road, contrasts sharply with Chamonix. It is new and sunny and very chic. There are hairdressers and boutiques and waiters in white jackets. The whole town is made of pine, which gives it a raw, unfinished look. It almost seems possible that, when the snow season ends, the buildings will be packed away in boxes for the summer. But there is nothing impermanent in the look of the mountains and lifts, which provide a better variety of skiing than the steep, wild trails of Chamonix. In Val-d'Is�re, too, the slopes are open and varied—the best in all of France. But the nightclubs are quiet. So the less dedicated ski travelers usually head for Meg�ve, the most fashionable of the resorts. It was in Megeve that the Peugeots, the automobile family, and the kidnapers of the Peugeots' young son visited the same nightclub, sitting only a few tables from each other. Now nightclub owners all over town are claiming, ' "They sat right over there."
Brigitte Bardot skis at Meg�ve, or so Megeve claims. In the Du Mont Blanc Hotel is a bathtub just for her, built beside a large picture window. ""She wanted a view of the mountains," the manager explains.
A day of skiing in the French Alps begins about 8. Breakfast—coffee, rolls and jam—is always eaten in the room. There is no hurry. Most lifts don't operate until 9 and the ski schools don't start until 10. The experienced skiers are at the top, learning how to run a slalom. Beginners are at the bottom, slipping and falling, trying to avoid the dogs that seem to be everywhere. The French love dogs, and they are socially acceptable in restaurants, nightclubs, hotel rooms and on ski trails.
Transportation to the top of the mountain is by t�l�f�rique, or cable car. The teleferique looks like a small subway without seats. Some even carry advertising. The crowd that jams aboard is like a subway crowd, too. The French are major league pushers, and when 500 French skiers jockey for position aboard one 40-man t�l�f�rique the elbows are busy.
At noon everything stops for lunch. Banks close, tows stop running and skiers disappear from the slopes. For more than two hours at midday, France eats. The American used to a quick sandwich and a glass of milk finds himself confronted by a six-course meal. It is always delicious, but it can deaden the desire for afternoon skiing. Dinner is late—most restaurants don't open until 7:30—and when it is over, many people are ready for bed. Those with no interest in skiing tomorrow have a cognac in one of the nightclubs.