The obscure French town where winter holidays aren’t just about skiing

Villard de Lans

It’s early evening and the Place de la Liberation in Villard-de-Lans is packed not only with tourists but also with local residents shopping, greeting each other and going to bars for an aperitif.

On a quiet narrow street, I discover a beautiful Art Nouveau corner building adorned with a hand-painted “Apotheke” sign above the balconies. A closer look reveals that the window isn’t boasting about €100 face creams, but rather full of vintage clarinet keys and saxophone mouthpieces. I’d bet no other ski resort has a musical instrument restorer’s studio up the road from the souvenir and skiwear shops. But Villard-de-Lans, in the Isère department, is a lively town first and a ski resort second.

Pharmacy Villard de Lans

Pharmacy Villard de Lans

It lies on a plateau above Grenoble surrounded by mountains, part of which forms the largest nature reserve on the mainland (170 km2 ) – home to deer, chamois, ibex, wild boar and four different breeds of vultures, as well as a cuter bird, the diurnal pygmy owl.

What is most obvious, however, is the site’s geology – in contrast to most of the predominantly dark granites and slates of the Western Alps, the rock here is composed of sedimentary limestone. As you cruise along pale cliffs and mesas, it’s like the Dolomites in miniature – with similarly stunning natural light shows in brilliant pinks and oranges at sunrise and sunset.

gentle mountains

The pistes, too, are reminiscent of the eastern Italian resorts: predominantly wide and gentle reds and blues, which you can take at your own pace – either hurtle down without the crowds or meander, enjoying the scenery and framing a photo with the sun shining through the Pas de l’Pas ‘Œille, an eye-shaped hole in the ridge that separates the two halves of the Villard-de-Lans-Corrençon area. This is enjoyable skiing for those who don’t feel the pressure to rack up mileage or tell tales of tackling the most challenging descents.

Villard de Lans

Villard de Lans

Conversely, like many low-key resorts, this means you’ll find untapped off-piste opportunities when you want them. I even decided to do a small, easy ski tour. Fit-as-a-flea tour guides rarely walk easy without realizing that we are different beasts. But in Sebastien from the local ESF I found a Capricorn willing to lead at my water buffalo pace. The reward for our ascent was a pretty tree walk through snow spirits.

Bold pedigree

Although little known, Villard-de-Lans has a winter Olympic pedigree as the venue for the luge events of the 1968 Grenoble Games. The track is still there, along with a memorial, near the ice rink, home of Les Ours in the third division of French ice hockey. When I visited there was a training session for local children, where brave 10-year-old goalkeepers threw themselves across the ice.

Villard de Lans

Villard de Lans

Courage is part of the history of this valley. Villard de Lans’ neighbor, Vassieux-en-Vercors, was one of five communes awarded the Order of Liberation by General de Gaulle during World War II (another was near Grenoble). A Maquis stronghold from 1942, the Vercors Plateau provided refuge for refugees (including Jews from the Polish school on what is now Place de la Liberation), training camps for resistance fighters and airfields for Allied airdrops – all protected by the natural fortress of the mountains.

After D-Day, retreating German forces feared Allied soldiers would land there and cut off their escape from southern France, so an indiscriminate assault on the valley was launched. There are cenotaphs and other poignant reminders everywhere – as well as a Resistance Museum down in Grenoble worth a visit.

However, the history of Villard-de-Lans did not begin in the 1940s. From the late 19th century, when the Hotel de Paris opened, tourism grew for the next 40 years, both summer and winter – including celebrity visitors like Coco Chanel and the Aga Khan. Many of the popular addresses from that time (the Splendid, now an apartment residence, and the Christiania, still a hotel) are still in operation. Those with an eye for architecture will recognize the evolution from Beaux-Arts flourishes to Art Deco straight lines, as well as traditional architectural styles such as the area’s distinctive heavy-stone “crow’s step” gables.

full of flavor

Chevrerie Les Cabrioles

Chevrerie Les Cabrioles

In fairness, you’d be forgiven if you don’t look up at the gables on an evening stroll, whether you’ve spent the day skiing or not. Villard’s shop fronts are eye-catching. Just outside the center, La Fabrique du Ski is a boutique workshop that makes beautiful skis, some handmade from bamboo or slate. For non-equipment nerds, there’s a craft brewery next door.

For many, culture is read in the glass or on the plate. The modern test of resistance is the temptation to fill bags – and to whet the appetite with samples from the shops: ‘Noix de Grenoble’ (the best walnuts you’ve ever tasted), tinned fruit, sausages and cheese. If you’re tempted by the latter, favor the creamy Saint Marcelin, the spicy Bleu de Vercors or the goat’s cheese at Chèvrerie Les Cabrioles near the Corrençon lifts, worth a visit for their goat’s milk waffles alone.

In town, Le Pot de Vin is fun (they serve tartiboules – a tartiflette in bread, like a cheese bunny chow) while La Vieille Forge is a great bistro. If cheese-tasting doesn’t fill you up, book Le Clariant in Corrençon – only accessible by an hour’s walk down a snowy path, where raclette is the perfect treat.

Chartreuse Distillery Monastère de la Grande Chartreuse - Pascal Flamant

Chartreuse Distillery Monastère de la Grande Chartreuse – Pascal Flamant

A car is helpful, not only for convenience, but for exploring the surrounding area – the fascinating city of Grenoble, the new Chartreuse Experience on the outskirts, dedicated to the green liquid whose recipe is known to few monks, and the monastery Chartreuse itself in a remote valley.

Villard de Lans is not a ski-in/ski-out resort that runs from the first lift to the last. It offers a rural French holiday experience with added snow and sports. And if you’re a ski musician with a broken alto saxophone, it’s the perfect destination.

need to know

A seven night B&B stay at the three star Le Christiania Hotel costs from £413 per person, based on two people.

More information about Villard-de-Lans and the region can be found here.

The most convenient airport is Lyon, which is also served by Eurostar. Peak Retreats offers seven nights self catering one bedroom apartments at Le Splendid from £1,059 including passage through the Euro Tunnel.

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