owe my existence to skiing. At least that’s what my grandparents believed. Just before the Second World War they fled Prague for England with other Czech Jews, and after travelling across the border by train, stopped at a hotel for the night. Everyone was understandably tired and most went to bed early. But my grandfather stayed at the bar and, over a few drinks, got talking to the owner.
As it turned out, they shared a love of skiing and of the emerging sport of biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with shooting at targets. That night, there were knocks on the hotel room doors. Shouts from soldiers. The footsteps of people being led away.
My grandparents were the only ones at breakfast the next morning. Everyone else had been rounded up by the Nazis. They never got to speak to the owner, but they believed to their dying day that while he had not been able to save everyone, he had told the soldiers that their room was empty.
As a child, I spent Sundays at my grandparents’ flat – and part of the ritual was to watch Ski Sunday. Yet while my grandfather would mutter knowledgeably about the slopes of the French Alps, or of the Austrian mountains, my only personal experience of skiing was a disaster. On a French exchange I was plonked on skis and given no instruction whatsoever. Hardly surprisingly, I developed a proper fear of steep slopes.
Now, with children of my own, I wanted to conquer that fear. So in January we travelled to Valloire, a charming town located at the foot of the Galibier pass in the French Alps, and used mainly by French tourists. The warmest winter since the late 1980s meant there wasn’t much snow in the town itself, but with 78 pistes served by 34 ski lifts – including some over 2,500m – there was no problem finding somewhere to ski.
With the children enrolled in the École du Ski Français in the care of enthusiastic but gentle instructors, my husband and I met up with our own teacher, Thierry. I felt wobbly with nerves, but he started us at the very bottom of the gentlest slope, and worked on the most basic of skills: stopping. Then it was up the button lift to my first descent. On the third descent, I felt my speed start to increase, panicked slightly, and ended up sliding down on my bottom. I was more than happy to come back down and take those boots off.
It’s just as well because away from the slopes there is much to recommend Valloire. The town is friendly and beautiful, home to some good restaurants, cafés and bars, but small enough to walk around. Unlike the better-known skiing hotspots, prices are more than reasonable: ski passes are £146 for six days, compared to £208 for Val d’Isère. Good chalets and family-run hotels abound and even at the mountain-top restaurant, an espresso is less than €2. The view is spectacular.
There are also lots of activities for all the family. Later that day we went for a llama walk – the llamas arrived by mini van which somewhat spoiled the effect, but my children adored it, despite almost being towed away when the llamas spotted some tasty greenery. We also tried mountain walks and one cold but lovely evening we watched the local children perform at the ice skating rink, where there was a star turn from Thierry’s daughter.
And the skiing improved. As the week went on, I mastered the basics and Thierry told me that I could start going faster. I can’t say I was any more taken with the experience than I was at the start, however I did jump at the chance to visit a biathlon course just outside the town. Bruno, our instructor, offers classes for small groups, including ski equipment and laser rifles, which are considerably more high-tech than the proper cartridges my grandad would have fired. It wasn’t very martial – families are welcome and Bruno generally starts the youngsters at about eight.
After being shown how to hold the laser gun I lay in the snow, eye focused on the target, finger on the trigger. Still as can be. Click, pop. Click, pop. Five shots, five targets hit. Bruno nodded in approval, and narrowed the target area so only a shot right in the centre would count. This time, much to his surprise, I hit four targets from my five shots. Next, I tried shooting standing up. Another four from five. More praise.
It made for a fun afternoon – my seven-year-old daughter enjoyed it, too. The key to biathlon is not just to have good aim, but to have good aim when you are out of breath, your chest heaving from the effort of skiing. So Bruno sent us dashing around markers in the snow.
And I was amazed to discover that this was where I felt a connection. I’ve barely so much as picked up a virtual gun in a computer game, yet this focus, this narrow world where all you are is an eye, a finger and some breath, I loved. I’m no speed demon, but perhaps a small part of my grandfather’s winter sport genetics has been passed on after all.