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Cross-border skiing in Europe

Skiers experience an indefinable altered state when skiing from one country to another. When crossing borders at high altitudes, there’s no one checking passports (but bring yours along just in case) and few customs checkpoints.
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Skiers experience an indefinable altered state when skiing from one country to another. When crossing borders at high altitudes, there’s no one checking passports (but bring yours along just in case) and few customs checkpoints. You just sense that you’ve changed worlds. In the first village, a new adventure begins. Grüetzi becomes buon giorno, lunch switches from schnitzel to pasta, and the personalities of the border towns are never the same.

Cross-border skiing from resort to resort is a uniquely European skiing experience. Though stories of cross-border ski adventures abound, interconnected areas along the borders are in fact rather few. After exploring the Alps for the past decade, I have discovered only six areas with lift-connected cross-border skiing. If you dream of skiing over borders, these are the places to do it.

Portes du Soleil
Sprawling across the border between France and Switzerland from Lake Geneva southward almost to Italy, Portes du Soleil claims to be the largest interconnected ski area in Europe. Trois Vallées makes a similar claim, and I haven’t tried to settle the dispute, but it is clear that the skiing at Portes du Soleil is extensive, and it is far more rugged and demanding than at Trois Vallées.

The main Portes du Soleil centers are Avoriaz in France and Champéry in Switzerland. There are also 11 smaller resorts, four on the Swiss side and seven in France, tucked into the mountain valleys in the area. Champéry is a tiny, centuries-old Swiss village that hasn’t yet realized it’s an international ski resort. Barn odors waft down the main street, tractors tow loads of hay, and occasionally a small goat can be seen riding in the back of a station wagon. In the unpretentious bars, townsfolk discuss the latest village hockey scores. But change is evident: In the past few years, area hotels have been renovated and upgraded, and a sports complex and a new cable car have been installed.

A European tour

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A European tour

Experience the grand cities, amazing architecture and natural beauty of the Old Continent.

On the French side, Avoriaz is as opposite as one could imagine. A skier arriving from Switzerland is dazzled by the glitz. Where Champéry is traditional, Avoriaz is a modern purpose-built resort. In Champéry, you look hard for a building with more than four stories; in Avoriaz, condos tower twice as high. Nightlife on the Swiss side consists of updated oom-pah bands in smoky bars, while the French resort rocks with neon-lighted discos and simmers in dimly lit bistros. Champéry still has its cows; Avoriaz has never seen one.

The common denominator is wide-open, expert skiing over marvelous terrain. Beginners can stick close to the resorts and intermediates won’t have a problem if they stay on the trails; meanwhile, experts will be challenged by both the extensive off-piste skiing and the exhausting expanse. For super-experts, the “Swiss Wall” along the Swiss-French border between Avoriaz and Champéry offers as steep a challenge as any marked trail in Europe.

Zermatt, Switzerland/Cervinia, Italy

This is the cross-border experience most American skiers have heard about. Three cable cars bring skiers from Zermatt to the top of the Kleine Matterhorn, where they can then drop down to the Italian resort of Cervinia. It’s wine, pasta and scaloppini, then the return trip to Zermatt. The once-interminable lines in Cervinia have become shorter since the installation of a six-seat gondola system to Plan Maison, where the return trail to Zermatt begins.

The resorts, though connected, are as different as fondue and pizza. Zermatt is the picture-perfect Alpine village crowded with chalets; Cervinia is a collection of unimaginative concrete hotels. Zermatt offers some of the most challenging skiing in Europe (it humbles most experts), while Cervinia makes beginners feel like pros. Zermatt works with Swiss perfection; Cervinia thrives on Italian smiles and good nature.

The cross-border trip will take a full day, including a stop for lunch. The last lifts to the top and back to Zermatt leave at about 3:15 p.m. Lift personnel will warn you if bad weather is in store. Heed their advice. The lifts up to the border crossing have been known to close in high winds and whiteout conditions, stranding skiers on the wrong side of the border. The only recourse is an expensive overnight stay in Cervinia or a four-hour bus trip over the St. Bernard pass.

Ischgl, Austria/Samnaun, Switzerland

This is a strange marriage. Both partners are small villages deep in narrow mountain valleys, yet Ischgl is a pulsing world-class resort, while Samnaun remains a tiny hideaway. Ischgl offers hundreds of hotel rooms and thousands of apartments; Samnaun’s hotels can be counted on one hand. Ischgl vibrates with après-ski while tiny Samnaun sleeps. Though packed with Austrians, Germans, Swiss and Scandinavians, the area is almost unknown to American skiers.

Ischgl offers a wide range of accommodations ranging from excellent to budget (there are no super-luxury establishments). The skiing is high above the town and reachable by three separate gondola lifts. From the top, Ischgl’s slopes seem endless. The wide-open skiing at the higher altitudes, which is shared by Switzerland and Austria, will keep any enthusiast smiling from the opening of the lifts to closing time. And after the lifts shut down, Ischgl’s après-ski is among the best in Europe.

The run from Austria down to Samnaun is a long intermediate trail. Once in Samnaun, it’s a trek with skis on shoulders to a bus that takes you to a small cable car connecting to the upper lifts and back to Austria. Samnaun is a duty-free shopping area with inexpensive whisky, perfume and cigarettes. Skiers regularly cruise back to Ischgl with backpacks bulging with contraband.

Torino Olympic area

The 2006 Winter Olympic Games, which begin in February, are centered in the Italian Alps along the border with France. There is a sprawling lift system here that spills over the border. The improvements coming online for the games are dramatic, with new gondolas replacing chairlifts and chairlifts replacing drag lifts.

The resorts of Sauze d’Oulx, a rustic mountain town with narrow streets, and Sestriere, a resort with modern architecture, are linked with a dozen other towns in this rugged mountain range to form the Via Lattea, or Milky Way. One of the resorts in these lift-connected mountains is Montgenèvre, in France.

The skiing and riding on the Italian side of the border is mostly above tree line, but the trails winding down toward Italy from Montgenèvre are lushly forested, providing a beautiful contrast with the starker Italian slopes. The mingling of the French and Italian trails mimics centuries of cultural connection between the two sides of the border. The region is especially known for its combination of French and Italian mountain cuisines. For food lovers, as for snow-sports enthusiasts, it’s hard to go wrong here.

Courmayeur, Italy/Chamonix, France

This is a one-way, short-term, springtime relationship. When the snows settle on the mountains surrounding Mont Blanc, the Vallée Blanche opens high above Chamonix. This is one of skiing’s grand experiences. A series of cable cars takes groups of border-crossing skiers up from Courmayeur, in Italy. At the top they are met by guides, who lead them over the glacier and down to Chamonix. The trip cannot be made in the opposite direction, from France to Italy. At the end of the day, buses are organized to take skiers from Chamonix through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Courmayeur.

La Thuile, Italy /La Rosière, France

The connection between these two minor resorts was made about 20 years ago, yet the area is still mostly undiscovered. La Thuile has been gaining popularity since the development of a giant resort complex, Planibel, which features a luxury hotel and condominiums with indoor pools, squash courts and ice-skating. The main lifts leave directly from this hotel complex. The surrounding town has remained relatively unchanged. La Rosière is still a cluster of small hotels on the French side of the Little St. Bernard pass. Both resorts are frequented by Italian and French skiers, but there is little other international influence, and the nightlife is very quiet.

The next time travels bring you to a border where you wait to have your passport stamped and visa checked, remember that in these six tucked-away spots in the jagged frontier mountains, changing countries and cultures is only a schuss away. And it is a wonderful way to travel.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .

Charles Leocha is the author of “” (World Leisure, $21.95).