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Skiing with tradition in the Alps

It’s hard to resist a feeling of superhuman grandeur when you standperched over an ocean of fresh snow watching the sun creep over theDents du Midi

It’s hard to resist a feeling of superhuman grandeur when you stand perched over an ocean of fresh snow watching the sun creep over the Dents du Midi — the Teeth of the South — a wolf’s jaw of jagged peaks soaring more than 3,000 metres from the valley below.

Such a vision of natural splendour is enough to inspire you to turn your skis toward the black slope they call Le Corbeau — The Crow — and flash down its near-vertical mogul field in a display of downhill daring-do.

Or perhaps not. The alternative is a gentle incline crossing the invisible frontier from France into Switzerland, where the patrons of the Chalet Neuf cafe provide a hot spiced-wine welcome while you contemplate how next to avoid any death-defying antics on your winter holiday. Whether you’re a manic mountain thrill seeker or a mild-mannered slider who views skiing as an excuse to enjoy fresh air, spectacular scenery and hearty Alpine cuisine, it would be hard not to find what you’re looking for in the Portes du Soleil.

This vast winter sports playground rises above the south bank of Lake Geneva with 644 kilometres of interconnected ski slopes. The “gates of sunshine” ski area straddles two countries, 12 resorts and 266 pistes, ranging from gentle descents through forests of spruce and fir, to fearsome plunges like La Chavanette, one of the most challenging runs in the Alps.

Chatel sits in the centre of the Portes du Soleil, a village that collects epithets the way skiers collect bruises. “The charming village side of the Alps,” “the most Swiss of French resorts,” “where Swiss style meets the French touch,” “a family-plus mountain resort,” are some of the slogans adopted by this cosy collection of wooden chalets nestled in the slopes of the aptly named Abondance valley.

While some French ski centres, purpose-built in the 1960s and ’70s, have all the concrete charm of the Parisian high-rise suburbs flung up at the same time, Chatel has fought to maintain its Alpine village ambience. Although it’s no longer the remote scattering of mountain farms shown in photos predating the opening of the first ski-lift in 1947, the hotels, vacation homes and apartments that now cluster around the little stone church strive to replicate the traditional rural architecture.

You can tell Chatel is more than just a ski resort from the unmistakable whiff of manure that occasionally permeates that pure Alpine air. The village boasts 30 working dairy farms producing nine-kilogram wheels of primrose-coloured cheese based on a recipe first developed in the 14th century by monks who built the monastery a few miles down the twisting valley road in the village of Abondance.

The Chatel tourist board organizes regular farm visits to sample the cheese with fresh bread, sliced local sausage and crisp white wines like Marin and Crepy made by the shores of Lake Geneva, just 40 minutes drive away down the precipitous mountain road. Reinforcing Chatel's village atmosphere, little delis selling traditional farm products compete with ski-gear stores on the village’s three main streets. A score of restaurants offer fondues and other hot cheese specialties.

There are two cinemas, a couple of pubs and a handful of boutiques, some offering clothes spun from local wool, traditional pottery or woodwork, but Chatel is not really the place to come for chic shopping or wild apres-ski nightlife.

 
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