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Spain's ski season starts: So many slopes, so little time
IT HARDLY seems possible that less than two months ago many residents in Spain were still on the beach, and yet this weekend, the ski slopes are already open.
Spain may be famous for its sun-drenched, palm-lined shores, but is often overlooked when seeking out winter sports breaks, regularly losing out to Austria, Switzerland, the French Alpes and even the Italian Dolomites – despite Spanish pistes being some of the cheapest, most user-friendly and best-quality on earth and typically a short drive to non-snowy attractions.
For example, a two-night hotel stay complete with forfait, or lift pass, at Teruel's Javalambre or Valdelinares slopes (southern Aragón) starts at around €127 per person – add equipment hire and medical assistance cover and the whole lot comes in at around €190. Very similar prices, although on average around €50 more in total, can be found on Aragón's northernmost slopes, in the Pyrénéen province of Huesca at the resorts of Cerler and Formigal-Panticosa. If you're near enough to travel to the slopes for the day, equipment hire alone is around €20, medical assistance in region of €7, and lift passes about €25, depending upon offers available at the time – and promotional prices, discounts and packages are often advertised throughout the season.
Bear in mind, too, that mid-week can be cheaper – and far less busy – than weekends and bank holidays.
If you live on Spain's east coast, in Catalunya or the Comunidad Valenciana, it is perfectly possible to go skiing for a day and be back by nightfall or, at the very least, you're unlikely to have to drive more than about three hours in each direction.
Most of Spain's ski resorts are challenging enough for the most competent and experienced – even Javalambre and Valdelinares have black slopes, although these are the most-recommended for beginners, novices or anyone who's a bit nervous.
If it's your first time on the piste...
Lessons are absolutely essential if you've never been skiing before, and this is where it can get expensive: given that they are priced by number of pupils, an hour's private tuition can be as much as €36, but if you can persuade a friend to come along, the cost drops to a typical €21 a head, or about €15.50 each for three, €13 each for four or around €11.50 if there are five of you. Group sizes are normally limited to six, where they'll cost you about €10 a head.
Once you've had a lesson or two to find out how to stop, start and turn, you can safely practice on your own for a while until you've either got the hang of it or reach a stalemate in your progress and need some early trouble-shooting – but lessons will ensure much quicker progress than trial-and-error sessions alone.
Until you've decided whether you want to stick to the sport, you probably won't want to invest too much in specialist clothing – equipment hire includes boots, skis, ski-poles, and although helmets are not normally part of the standard price, can be rented for a few extra euros – so the general rule is to dress as you would for a long day outside in the snow and cold (warm, waterproof, comfortable), with good gloves; but do buy some ski goggles, even if you only plan to go once. Snow blindness is extremely unpleasant, and if it's actively snowing when you're on the piste, you don't want your vision obscured by getting a faceful. Also, proper ski goggles don't steam up when you breathe, and cut the glare from sun reflecting off the white stuff.
That's another thing: use sunscreen on any exposed flesh, even if it's -7ºC. As well as the reflection off the snow, the sun and UV rays are stronger at altitudes, particularly when wind is involved, as in whizzing down a slope at speed.
Which ski stations are open now?
Most of Spain's ski resorts will be open by the forthcoming bank holiday weekend, which takes in Constitution Day (Thursday, December 6) and the Immaculate Conception (Saturday, December 8), but 11 are already in operation from today (Saturday, December 1), mainly in the Sierra Nevada (Granada province) and Catalunya.
The Sierra Nevada has the best snow for this weekend, according to the Tourism Association for Ski and Mountain Resorts (ATUDEM), up to 1.5 metres (4'11”) in depth and with 59 kilometres of pistes open.
In Catalunya, the Girona-province resorts of Masella and La Molina open today with 60 centimetres (two feet) of snow and 32 and 15 kilometres of 'skiable pistes' respectively, Vallter with 10 kilometres and Núria with eight.
Catalunya boasts some of the widest choice of slopes – in its land-locked province of Lleida, you can also head to Boí Taüll (31 kilometres of piste, 90 centimetres or 2'11” of snow), Baqueira Beret (27 kilometres of 'skiable piste' and a foot, or 30 centimetres of snow) Por Ainé (50 centimetres, or 1'8” of snow and 18 kilometres of piste), or Espot, with eight kilometres.
As yet, Port del Comte and Tavascán ski stations in the province of Lleida are not open, but are expected to be ready by the bank holiday weekend.
Two of the Cerler area resorts in the Benasque valley of northern Huesca, in the Aragonese Pyrénées, are ready to roll from today – the main Cerler station right in the village of the same name, and also the Llanos del Hospital resort, with 31 and eight kilometres of piste respectively.
Astún, Candanchú, Formigal and Panticosa remain closed until the bank holiday.
Where else to find ski resorts in Spain
The next week or so will see a long list of ski stations gradually firing up for the winter; wherever there's a mountain range in Spain, there's likely to be a snowy resort.
Cantabria is home to ski slopes in Alto Campoo, and its western neighbour, Asturias, to Valgrande-Pajares, Fuentes de Invierno, and San Isidro.
Spain's most north-westerly region, Galicia, is where you can find the Manzaneda resort in the province of Ourense.
The huge centre-northern region of Castilla y León is another, off-grid option practically unknown to tourists – a day or two's skiing in Lunada, in the province of Burgos, could be combined with a trip to the city of Burgos itself and its mind-blowing cathedral, the second-largest in Spain and arguably one of the most beautiful in the country, if not the world; you could also combine the slopes in La Pinilla, Segovia province, with an obligatory selfie in front of the colossal, spectacular Roman aqueduct in the city of the same name; a snowy break in the Sierra de Béjar in the province of Salamanca with a day tour of Salamanca city, considered the Spanish answer to Oxford, home to its oldest university and the epitome of classical Spain; or try out Leitariegos, in the province of León, or the Punto de Nieve Santa Inés ('Saint Inés Snow Point') in the province of Soria.
La Rioja is best known for its fine wines and excellent wine-region tours, but to Spanish residents, it is also famous for its major ski resort, Valdezcaray.
And if someone told you there were ski resorts in London and Paris, you'd laugh – unless you thought they were referring to dry slopes or indoor shopping-centre versions. But Spain is one of those rare nations whose capital does, in fact, have ski stations – at least, in the Greater Madrid region, if not in the actual metropolitan area. Close enough to drive to for a day's skiing and be back in the bright lights of Spain's largest urban hub for dinner, the Valdesquí and Puerto de Navacerrada slopes mean Madrid-dwellers don't even have to leave their home county for a skiing trip, and can easily avoid hotel fees unless they want to hit the après-ski bars or don't feel like getting behind the wheel after an energetic session on the snow. But if you're travelling from farther afield, why not take a ski- and city-break, taking in the beautiful historic attractions, clean and colourful streets, superb restaurants and splendid shoppìng in Madrid as part of your snowy trip?
Who says you can't have your cake and eat it in Spain?
Ski slopes nationwide are normally open until at least the end of March and often into April, so you've plenty of time to plan your winter adventures.
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