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In the early 1920s, a disillusioned and war-weary young English writer woke one morning on the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada to a rapturous sight. Gerald Brenan had spent two years on the western front winning a Military Cross and a Croix de Guerre before fleeing postwar Britain to try his luck as a writer in southern Spain. In the early morning light, he could glimpse the distant hills of Morocco. “As the sun rose like a cannon ball over the distant sierras, the whole coast of Africa came into view,” he wrote years later.
His vantage point for that spectacular view, a desolate goatherds’ hut, is rather less remote now. Mulhacén, the highest crest of the Sierra Nevada at 3,481m, abuts Mt Veleta, on whose snowy flanks run the pistes of one of Spain’s largest ski resorts. But even if you have made it to the top courtesy of a drag lift and draped in modern ski clothes, as my sons Mungo, Ned and I did a few weeks ago, rather than relying on espadrilles and the goodwill of goatherds as Brenan did, the magic of that first glimpse of Africa endures.
Through the bulbous clouds, with eyes shielded against the diamond-sharp reflection of sun on snow, I cannot be sure it was Africa I saw. But I could definitely see the fabled city of Granada, 2,500m below. Only that morning, we had gazed up at the mountains from our lodgings in the surrounds of the city’s Alhambra palace, enjoying the same magnificent view that captivated its Moorish rulers so many centuries ago.
The emirs who established the Alhambra as the royal residence despatched servants daily to the Sierra Nevada for ice in the summer. They also diverted the mountains’ chilly streams through their antechambers as a rudimentary cooling system. (The waters still flow in the same channels today.) But the emirs could only dream of scaling the snowy peaks, let alone imagine having breakfast in the Alhambra, spending midday on the mountain top and returning for dinner, as we did several days in a row.
The last time my wife Sophie and I had skied was more than two decades earlier in newly post-communist Romania. It is hard to conjure a more striking contrast between our berth then, a simple wooden cottage in the heart of the Carpathians, and our lodgings for the first three nights of our week in Spain. We were staying in the very building that Isabella of Castile chose as the site of the first convent in Granada, after the Reconquista from the Moors of 1492. An Arab palace, turned Franciscan convent, turned victualling station for Napoleon’s troops – and donkeys – it is now one of Spain’s celebrated, state-owned parador hotels.
On our first afternoon in Spain we went on a tour of the Alhambra, whose medieval walls encompass the parador. Our guide, Roberto Muguerza Bartlett, had the courtly manners, erudition and wit essential for captivating travel-weary visitors who had just spent an hour and a half driving in circles in Granada after getting hopelessly lost courtesy of a GPS. In moments he had entranced us all. It was as if we were 14th-century emissaries, gazing for the first time at the Court of the Lions, staring in awe at the stalactite-like ceilings of the antechambers, the Persian carpets on the walls, blinded by mirrors and sunlight.
On our second night, we were invited on a tour of the hotel. Just about anywhere else, this would surely be one of the last things one would want after a tiring day on the slopes. But where else does a hotel tour take guests through halls bedecked with medieval tiles to rooms with views over the Generalife, the summer palace of the Moorish emirs?
Juan Carlos Sánchez Gálvez, the hotel manager, began by whisking us through a door from the hotel reception to a marble tombstone. It covers none other than the original grave of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Then, we were taken past the Franciscan chapel that is now used by Japanese visitors for weddings, to the Nazari room – once a favourite of the emirs, now a sitting room for guests with white, green and blue tiles and carved stone arches. A little later we sat down to the hotel’s Nasrid dinner – a five-course aromatic Moorish feast. It may have been designed to be spread out over a long sultry afternoon but after a day’s skiing we wolfed it down.
Most stay at the parador, of course, to marvel at the Alhambra, one of Spain’s most popular attractions. Michelle Obama dined there in 2010, as did David and Samantha Cameron more recently. But, in the winter at least, the parador’s gardens and ruins retain the spirit of their earliest sponsors, Isabella and Ferdinand, rather than of modern celebrity. One evening we strolled through the palace grounds escorted only by cats. So it did seem a little sacrilegious to hare off after breakfast on the 45-minute winding drive to the slopes. But for Ned, on his first ski trip, there was the thrill of a first black run, and for Mungo, his older brother, the chance to fly down the mountain at ever more vertiginous speeds.
We were not alone in indulging in a portfolio holiday. Several in our ski-school class were revelling in a blend of culture and sport, staying in Granada and commuting to the slopes. Some, too, spoke dreamily of the triple: in April and May explained René “Tito” Herrera Caballero, our ebullient Spanish ski instructor, “You ski on the Sierra Nevada and swim in the Med on the same day.”
For the second half of our week we stayed in a converted cortijo or farmhouse in a remote mountain valley between the city and the ski slopes. It was vintage Brenan territory. One evening on our way wearily down from the slopes, we had to pull in for 10 minutes as hundreds of goats clattered down the terraced hillside and over the road in front of us. Our hosts at the Almunia del Valle left Madrid 12 years ago and have clearly never looked back. To stay there is like staying with your most generous friends.
The almond trees were just starting to blossom when we arrived. Soon the valley will be a riot of colour and scent. In a month or so, visitors will shelter under their groves from the Andalucían sun. For now there are log fires and feasts prepared with much pride by the owners. I understood why Brenan rhapsodised about “persimmons, quinces, oranges, lemons and more”. It is easy to imagine Virginia and Leonard Woolf sitting round Almunia’s table engaging Brenan in fast and furious conversation on London’s literary scene when they came to see him early in his stay.
In Brenan’s memoir, South from Granada, he describes an annual August pilgrimage to the valley leading up to Veleta on the day of the Virgin of the Snows. It is tempting to read it as a paean to a long lost and more devout world. Having left Spain just before the civil war, he observes on his return in the early 1950s how much it had changed since his first arrival. His adopted home village of the 1920s, once “so charming in its animated immobility ... had put on a purpose and bustle that seemed quite foreign to its nature”.
Well, there is inevitably no shortage of “purpose and bustle” in the resort village of Pradollano. At 2,100m, it houses the ski rental companies and bars that equip and fuel the skiers on the 105km of pistes which fan out above it. This is the ultimate family-friendly resort. You drive to a vast underground car park and are at the cable car within five minutes. There are slopes for all standards and a joyous lack of queues on weekdays – even during the UK’s half-term school holidays, when French resorts are packed. And even in February, there is a southern softness in the temperature. As I kept being reminded, this is Spain, not the Alps and all the more startling and beguiling for it.
On my first trip up the drag lift in search of Africa’s coastline, my companion was a starry-eyed young man from Granada. I assumed his was the exuberance of altitude and deep snow, but no. He had not been skiing for three months since his first child, María, had been born. He was on a mission to stand on the mountain top, get down on his knees and thank God for her birth.
I missed the devotional moment. Our eyes were drawn to a rather more eye-catching display of emotion. A snowboarder was on his knees banging the piste in disbelief, watching his board career down the mountain before us. We set off in pursuit.
Spiritualism and adrenalin at 11,000ft – Brenan would surely have approved.
EasyJet flies to Málaga (100km from Granada) from 15 European airports; returns from London start at around £63. Holiday Autos offers car hire at Málaga airport from £3.45 per day. Doubles at the Parador de Granada cost from£223 including breakfast. I-escape has a range of boutique hotels in Granada, including La Almunia del Valle, where doubles cost from £92. See also sierranevada.es
Carpe diem on the slopes of Cairn Gorm
“These are the best conditions in 10 years,” was the view of the man behind me in the queue for the T-bar lift, writes John Aglionby. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pile of snow like that and I’ve been skiing here for decades,” he added, waving a pole at a mound that would have dwarfed most Alpine chalets.
But there was not an Alpine chalet in sight. And not a word of French, German or Italian to be heard among the people waiting to be pulled up the mountain. For we were three-quarters of the way up Cairn Gorm, the mountain that is home to the second-largest and arguably best-known ski resort in the Scottish Highlands.
The man I was chatting to had popped up the mountain for the day from his home in Inverness, less than an hour’s drive away. I was in no position to argue, this being my first skiing holiday in Scotland. But the conditions were certainly very good indeed. There had been several fresh falls in the week before we arrived. If anything, there was too much of the white stuff – two of the lifts, giving access to the more challenging western runs, were closed because of the drifts.
True, the runs are not nearly as long as those in the Alps – the summit of Cairn Gorm is only 1,245m high. And the ski area covers only a fraction of the likes of Tignes, the French resort we visited last year (it boasts 91 lifts and 300km of pistes; Cairn Gorm has just 17 and 39km). But my wife, children aged 10 and eight, and I had more than enough options to keep us royally entertained for a few days.
This was partly because we had struck doubly lucky. Not only were the snow conditions great but the sun was shining, with the visibility in the tens of miles. The wind was little more than a gentle breeze on our backs as we glided down the slopes.
But conditions at Cairn Gorm are unpredictable and herein lies the resort’s problem. In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of fantastic days but there are also still plenty of days when the weather is so inhospitable that people are banned from the mountain. This season there have been more than two dozen such weather closures – 30 per cent more than the average for recent years. There are almost certainly going to be several more before the season ends, which – on the upside – might not be until mid-May.
Skiers have two options on such occasions. Try another Scottish resort – there are four – or opt for hiking or biking below the snowline. While this is not ideal when one has planned for a winter sports holiday, CairnGorm Mountain, the state-owned operating company, has invested heavily in the non-skiing facilities because, as Colin Kirkwood, its marketing manager, says: “We need both our summer and winter parts of the operation to make it all viable.” The company, which was taken over by government in 2008 after it almost went bankrupt, has made a profit in four of the past five years.
During our visit, where the resort fell down was on the equipment hire. Even though we had booked online in advance, there was a shortage of poles; a situation only rescued by one of the staff lending me her own set. Nor was it over-endowed with helmets. Hopefully this state of affairs will improve if a deal, currently at an advanced stage of negotiations, is completed that would see the ski area leased to a private operator, Natural Retreats, for 25 years. The land and infrastructure would remain under government ownership.
Would I go back? Based on the skiing, yes. But, because of the unpredictability of the conditions, I would not risk booking months in advance. Scotland is a carpe diem ski destination. But, if the weather is good, you won’t be disappointed.
CairnGorm Mountain (cairngormmountain.org) is seven miles southeast of Aviemore, where there are numerous hotels, and 32 miles southeast of Inverness airport, which has flights to UK airports and Amsterdam