Courtesy Baqueira-Beret Resort
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updated 12/14/2006 1:13:54 PM ET 2006-12-14T18:13:54

By the time we finish lunch, it would be considered happy hour in the U.S. But we’re in Spain, and our happy hour — make that plural, happy hours — began during our mid-day meal, a massive and sumptuous repast at which I consume half a duck, two ensaladas, fois gras, and duck carpaccio, all enjoyed with two glasses of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and a bottle of wine. Carajillo (spiked coffee) is served as a digestivo. By the time we finish, it’s way past siesta, and my friends ski off into the encroaching clouds. I speak no Spanish, let alone the local dialect, Aranese, where si is òc and adiós is adishatz.

Fending off alcohol-induced vertigo, I aim my skis toward some snowplowing skiers wearing festive colors and begin a Bode-Miller-ish downhill toward the village of Tanau and its five-star hotel, the Royal Tanau. Tapas and cocktails are next on the agenda. Someone in our group must have thought we’d need them. But this is the Pyrenees, and this is how it’s done.

Not to say the whole day has been a booze cruise. It began quite soberly in Vielha, the largest town in Spain’s Val d’Aran and the gateway to the country’s largest ski area, Baqueira-Beret. We awoke to brilliant southern European sunshine glinting off the tops of 10,000-foot peaks. Shaking off jetlag and the previous day’s four-hour bus ride from palm-treed Barcelona to snowy Vielha, we drove up to Baqueira around 10 a.m. — late by North American standards. But the Pyrenees enjoy one more hour of sunlight than the more northern Alps, so no one’s in a rush.

From the parking lot, we trudged a few hundred yards farther up the road to the base area, passing a phone booth buried almost to the roof in snow. From here, the resort looks small — just a few steep trails cut into a wooded mountainside. Our impression changed dramatically after a high-speed quad chairlift deposited us 1,000 feet farther up at Baqueira 1800, Spanish skiing’s version of Penn Station (1800 standing for elevation in meters). Here, seven lifts begin and end. And it pays to have a plan.

Rising in front of us is Cap de Baqueira, a massive mountain blanketed in snowfields, dimpled with untracked bowls, and streaked with 2,300-foot-long chutes. Far to the north are the wraparound snowfields and bowls of Beret; to the southeast, the mellow trails and short steep chutes of Bonaigua.

Our plan was to check out Baquiera, then head over to Beret for lunch. As the Pla de Baqueira six-pack chairlift whisked us to the summit, we watched the, uh, early risers carve turns down groomed swaths in the snowfields. Only a few tracks cut up the powder.

“When did it last snow?” I asked Marga, our guide. Clad in a mustard-colored one piece, she smiled all the time and kept apologizing for her English. “A couple of days ago,” she replied.

I looked around at the knolls, chutes, and bowls that comprise the Cap’s topographic profile. “Why doesn’t anyone ski there?” I asked, pointing to a shady pitch dotted with scrubby pines.

“You can,” she said, shrugging as if to say, “Why would you want to?” Then added, “You must be a good skier.”

Baqueira opened in 1964, joined with Beret soon after, and has grown almost continually since then. Thirty lifts now serve 4,749 acres — that’s more acreage than either Whistler or Jackson Hole. Snowfall averages 500-650 feet each winter – as much as powder-blessed Alta in Utah. Half the days are sunny. “Most of the land is pasture,” Roberto Buil, General Manager, pointed out, “so it doesn’t need a lot of snow cover.”

The fact that summer pastures became winter pistes is fitting in Val d’Aran. The only east-west valley in the Pyrenees, the region is geographically part of France but politically tied to Spain. Not until Franco had a tunnel bored in the mountains to the south in 1948 was the valley accessible to its provincial capital, Lleida (although a road was hewn into Bonaigua Pass in 1924, snow and avalanches frequently close it).

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Modernization quickly found the valley evidenced by an eyesore of a power-line cutting over Baqueira’s flank. But the valley’s Romanesque architecture in the many small villages and its exceptional Aranese cuisine, with French and Spanish influences, remains intact.

With dinner served close to midnight, nightlife at Baqueira-Beret doesn’t mean naked dancing on tables. It’s long dinners with friends toasting with glasses of cava and arujo, the local grappa. Each village is loaded with restaurants — 150 total in the valley. At the smaller restaurants, we were welcomed like guests in a private home. Duck is a staple in Val d’Aran, which explains why fois gras is ubiquitous. And delicious.

Aranese chefs have taken the best of nueva Spanish cuisine, such as disappear-on-your tongue tomato foam, and added it to traditional dishes, like slow-cooked fall-off-the-bone Ternasco con setas (roast lamb stewed with mushrooms). Stay in Val d’Aran for more than a week, and your ski pants might no longer fit.

Back at Baqueira-Beret, we skied ourselves back into our wardrobes. The trail map makes it look like a provincial resort for skiers who haven’t yet mastered a carved turn. The map lists only seven muy difícile pistes.

In reality, the whole north wall of Cap de Baqueira is an escarpment of extremism. Off the back of the Cap is a piste called Escornacrabes, literally “where the goats go to die.” We wondered if goats are the only ones that die here.

A storm shut us down before we could check for dead goats. Instead, we dined on succulent carne de cabra (a.k.a. dead goat) in the village of Unha. As we cracked open another bottle of arujo and talked of an impending siesta, Roberto Buil stated the obvious, “The Spanish enjoy life.”

And this is how it’s done.

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