When most people hear the word “ski,” they think of the Alps, the Rockies, Mammoth and more. But in northern Spain, a little-known skier’s paradise is hiding out – with so much more than just picture-perfect powdered slopes to offer.
The Spanish Pyrenees certainly have the snow a skier needs to get their fix, but other elements of well-treaded and practically universal ski culture, found in cookie-cutter form at so many other ski resorts around the world, have been boxed out of this little valley with its rich and relatively isolated history. Here, turning off the clock and putting on your skis on a break in between hearty meals is the name of the game.
Many of the classic traits of Spanish Catalonia are here: cobblestoned courtyards, local olives and cervezas, large beef ribs fresh off the grill, sweet and tart patxaran liquor with a cinnamon kick, and even a Spanish pointer warming up beside a fire. The mornings are similarly and canonically delicious and relaxed: doughnuts, churros, and pancakes are made before your eyes while cold hams, cheeses, cakes, brownies, entire freshly sliced honeycomb, and even cold sparkling wine are savored at every table.
Here, people don’t rush out to the slopes to maximize ski time: they simply enjoy themselves, all the way there and back again, often several times each day.
But there’s no lack of skiing available. In the past decade, the area has developed into a skiing heaven – now offering 100 miles of skiable routes, 36 lifts, and 5,617 acres of skiing — slightly more than even long-time skier’s favorite, Vail.
These mountains aren’t a long-time home to skier’s, however. The area has instead mostly been used as a post for pilgrims crossing the Pyrenees since the 12th century, with little more making up the town other than a centuries-old church, a restaurant, a bar, and an inn that’s been handed down for generations and feeds half the town. The old buildings have hid quietly from the developing world on all other sides of the mountains.
The people in town speak Aranese, the language of the valley – and one few people have ever even heard of without visiting Val d’Aran themselves. It’s a semiautonomous commune within the semiautonomous region of Catalonia. The valley runs about 25 miles, with its walls steeply rising on either side of the river, trapping storms with their heavy snowfall inside. It ends at the French border, and just like its culture the name combines French and Spanish: the Basque word haran means ‘valley,’ like val in French, amounting to Val d’Aran – literally, ‘valley of the valley’.
Truly its own little world, the only way to reach it until very recent years was by mule or on foot, without clear roads (which even today can close anytime due to snow). With the red Aranese flags flying proudly above the tiny buildings, one ski guide admits, “I’ve lived here for twenty-three years, and they still call me el madrileño — the guy from Madrid.”