I once read a remark on someone else's blog to the effect that the French are the only nation in the world to be afraid of traffic jams. I can't remember which blog it was, but if it was yours, all I can say is, how true! The scariest time for traffic jams is the first Saturday of any school holiday and the worst place to be leaving from is Paris. If it happens to be the first Saturday of the February break, you should be quaking in your boots even as you start to contemplate hitting the autoroute.
My friends and I, constrained by offspring and employment, had no choice but to take our skiing holiday the first week of the Parisian break. We booked into a hotel en route for Friday night, hoping to leave the capital after rush hour and cruise smoothly up to the ski station at the end of Saturday morning as everybody else was cursing their way past Auxerre in first gear. Yeah right. Even with our cunning overnight strategy, we queued at the toll barriers at midnight and spent 16 hours on what should have been a 7 hour trip. According to the government traffic agency, it was a black day. In my naivete, I hadn't even realised that there was a category worse than red.
But it was worth it.
We arrived at our little village on Saturday afternoon and loaded our luggage and food supplies on to a sledge, because the summer road to our chalet was a genuine ski piste.
The first thing that struck us in our new accommodation was the heat in the sun room, whose big windows trapped the sunshine and gave us a gorgeous view over the mountains. For warmer days, we had an outside balcony too, and the rest of the chalet was cosy and comfortable for the long winter nights.
We were staying at Peisey-Vallandry, which is a small station in itself, but connected to the whole of the Les Arcs complex, as well as to La Plagne by the Vanoise Express cable car. Everything about it was fantastic. The snow was fresh and soft. The runs were appropriately graded (unlike last year in Les Deux Alpes, where terrifying blue runs frequented by hundreds of novice skiers plunge down rocky gullies at vertiginous angles). The people were friendly. And somehow, the lifts and the runs were big enough and widely enough spread that those thousands of people that we sat in the traffic jams with were comfortably absorbed and we never had to wait too long for anything or avoid anybody too kamikaze on the slopes.
It was a satisfying year for me personally too, because after two years of skidding between enjoyment, fear and humiliation, this was the year I finally felt I could glide down just about anything I wanted to without endangering life and limb.
Nevertheless, seven days is a long time to spend being hauled mechanically up a mountain and sliding rapidly down it, so we also spent a couple of days hiking and snowshoeing. Here I learned the lessons that even snowshoes are not enough to stop an average adult sinking into 2 metres of powder and that alpine hiking trails disappear very quickly in winter when nobody else is stupid enough to try to walk along them.
Nevertheless, much fun was had and on the second day I got far enough to discover some incredible views over the Parc de la Vanoise before heading rapidly down the hill before the avalanches started in earnest.
We were lucky enough to be able to travel home on Sunday instead of Saturday. This time our ingeniousness paid off and the roads were relatively empty, meaning that our final memories of red and black were happy ones of ski slopes and nothing to do with traffic jams.