After we came back from England in the middle of January if was well over a week before we saw a full day of sunshine, so winter sadness was getting a distinct possibility. Houses with stone floors can never be described as cozy unless a huge amount of heating is applied. I hear the cries of “stop whinging; if you think that’s bad just try what we’ve got!”, which are of course entirely justified, but I’m simply recording that there are times when we miss cavity wall insulation, wall-to-wall carpets and central heating designed to cope with winter. It’s a lot worse five miles up the road in Bajardo, which had several snowfalls and where the temperature hovered around zero for several days. Bajardo sits on the edge of an exposed ridge at over 900 metres altitude, and it must be quite depressing going out and finding that no matter what direction you take it’s always warmer – much warmer – than at home. But in the middle of summer the shoe is on the other foot; people escape from the furnace of the coast to spend a day in the relative cool of the mountains. Which only goes to prove that nowhere is perfect, and if it were everybody would want to live there and it would soon stop being perfect.
As a matter of record, night-time temperatures in January were mainly higher in England than they were here, and on one occasion at least the daytime temperature was too. Of course that must have been a sunless day here; with the sun it always gets a lot warmer. But at night it’s usually five degrees or lower and for a week or so it hovered at or just above zero. We had a couple of mild frosts, with ice on the car roof and windows, and any standing water was frozen solid. I hope the lemon tree and other more tender plants will survive.
So the long autumn has finally ended, and snow arrived in the Alps about a week ago, along with quite a bit elsewhere in Northern Europe from what I saw on TV. For the first time since we arrived the mountains are topped with white.
The ski resorts were finally able to get into gear, so today we set off to Limone Piemonte to try out our closest one. The resort (Limone 1400, pictured) is about 40 miles from here and it takes an hour and a half to get there. The route means first the usual crawl through Ventimiglia, then we head north up the Roya valley, climbing all the way. After ten miles or so the road crosses into France, passing through the towns of Breil and Tende. This part of France is surrounded on three sides by Italy, though that’s a bit academic as the same three sides are also the Maritime Alps with only two roads through or over the mountains. The only direct access to the rest of France is by winding roads, one of which goes to Nice, though the quickest route is through Italy and along the Mediterranean motorway. By the same token, the region is an access route for Italians going north and south between the provinces of Piemote and Liguria. Ah, the benefits of European integration.
Breil is a most attractive town on the Roya river that seems to be something of a centre for river-based water activities, camping, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. The scenery is dramatic and very Alpine, with steep valleys and the occasional snow-capped peak, though snow amounts are unusually small this year. Tende is further north and much higher. It’s cold and doesn’t seem to be much of a tourist destination, though we haven’t seen it in summer. Just above the town is the Tende tunnel, an ancient 3km hole punching through the Alps into Italian Piemonte. And sitting astride the Italian end of the tunnel is the ski resort of Limone.
Limone has two main centres; the lower is at 1100 metres and the higher, right next to the tunnel entrance, at 1400. It’s a friendly place; not large but with enough to keep people like us more than satisfied. Right now only part of it is open; the season has been poor all over Europe and only the highest resorts are able to cope well. Limone is one of Europe’s oldest ski resorts, as well as one of its most southerly. I assume all the original equipment wore out a few years ago because all the lifts are very modern, and they link up well so no walking uphill is ever needed. The car park fills up by 10am and there were several coaches bringing in parties of school children from Italy and from France, but we never had to queue and often had the slopes to ourselves. Perhaps everyone was in the restaurants, of which there are several dotted around the pistes.
The area feels rather different to the other European resorts we’ve visited, all of them more northerly. In fact, what came to mind more than anything was the Californian resort of Heavenly, on Lake Tahoe. It’s difficult to know exactly why; perhaps something to do with the wide pistes, the shape of the mountains and the distant views of snow-capped peaks, but I think also the strength of the sun. By early afternoon it was truly sunbathing weather; hats and gloves became a matter of protection, not warmth. In a month or so I would expect to ski only for a morning as the snow will turn to slush every afternoon. This seems to be acknowledged by the resort offering half-day tickets.