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Fit For A King

Fit For A King

Features
By John Fry
posted: 02/28/2006

The rock music pounds in my ears. My arms, as if attached to someone else's body, wave frantically above my head. My body twists, my head spins. The bartender waves at me. "¿Quieres otra copa? (Do you want another drink?)

It's 2 a.m., and new celebrants are pouring in through the door of the disco Millennium. This gringo, however, heads in the opposite direction. I step out into the cold mountain air. With luck, I'll be in my hotel bed by 3. From the same bed, 20 hours earlier, I got up to go to the slopes. An American ski day this is not.

My marathon of skiing and après-ski carousing takes place at Baqueira Beret in the Pyrenees, a range of mountains that extends across the neck of northern Spain from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Baqueira is located between the principality of Andorra on the east and the rebellious Basque region on the west. While it's less known than Spain's other major resort, Sierra Nevada, which hosted the 1996 World Alpine Ski Championships and is close to the busy Mediterranean coast, Baqueira offers more reliable snow, more lifts, longer runs and more varied terrain. In its valley, the Val d'Aran, the inhabitants still speak their own language, which is neither Spanish nor the regional Catalan, but something like the Ladino spoken in the border region between Italy and Switzerland.

From the village of Vielho, the access road climbs past a half-dozen villages, authentically quaint in that the stone buildings preserve or replicate a native architecture that goes back four centuries. Fresh snow piled on tiled roofs gives the place a magical feel. Second-home owners include King Juan Carlos, 68, who is a skilled enough skier to have heli-skied in British Columbia and has been a Baqueira booster since the resort opened in 1964. The royal daughters and son are also skiers.

But there's no sign of the King or his offspring when I visit. "Celebrities and movie actors come here, says Roberto Buil, Baqueira's director. "We don't like to say who they are, let alone that they are even here, he sniffs. Roberto sits next to me as we ride eight miles to the mountain in a bus that picked us up at the hotel, the Sol Melia, in Vielho. It's 9 a.m. Two hours earlier I'd crawled out of bed.

Already the road is a stream of Wagoneers and Explorers carrying families to the lifts. "The Spanish have become like the Americans, Roberto confides. "You can't separate them from their cars. The two-lane access road and its tributary lanes are lined with hotels, inns and apartments, restaurants and discos that cater to thousands of guests.

At the compact base of Baqueira's estacion de esqui, the crowd looks more American than European—baggy-panted boarders, parents coping with children, folks with K2 skis dressed in Obermeyer outfits. I notice one welcome difference when I get my lift ticket. A Baqueira Beret three-day pass costs about $155, compared with $234 at Aspen. Perhaps it's why the Aspen Skiing Co., gave up the ownership stake it once held in Baqueira.

Baqueira and its two companion areas, Beret and Bonaigua, are linked by 30 lifts, including eight high-speed quads and the first phase of a gondola. The massive lift system sprawls over mostly treeless terrain, equal to more than half of Vail. All around, the skyline is punctuated by pristine, big-shouldered mountains rising above 8,000 feet. I hadn't imagined that such gorgeous mountains existed in Europe outside of the Alps.[NEXT]From the chair, soaring 2,500 vertical feet up the mountain called Cap de Baqueira, I spot the tracks of snowboarders who've gone off-pista. Not a cloud dapples the sky. The temperature is warming, and the surface is corning up nicely. I find myself working a series of large-radius turns down the pista Luis Arias, named for the Olympic racer who was the resort's founding director.

At noon, I leave Baqueira to sample the slopes at Beret, an easy ski. On top, a powerful wind blows. Fighting it, I traverse a ridge, actuaally a col or pass, Colhet de Marimanha. On one side, in the distance, are high glistening peaks rising out of Andorra, itself the home of four ski areas. On the other side, to the south and west, unfolds a spectacular vista of the Pyrenees stretching across the horizon to the Atlantic, like whitecaps on the ocean.

As my skis pick up speed, I follow the Marimanha run, down and down, breaking off here and there to cut turns in the fresh snow on the meadows flanking the pista. For several hours, roaming the mostly intermediate terrain, I ride the lifts with friendly Spaniards.

It isn't until 3 in the afternoon that I stop for lunch in the mammoth Beret daylodge, surrounded by sun-soaked outdoor terraces. Inside, I find Roberto and a group of friends around a table of already empty bottles of negres (Catalan red wine), suggesting a distinctly un-American lack of dedication to skiing. Platters are piled with buttery pasta, paper-thin sliced duck and ham carpaccio, fresh green salad and varied cheeses. The Catalan food, admired now throughout Europe for its combination of the best of Spanish and French cuisine, is gorgeous to view, and extraordinarily subtle in taste. To end the meal, the caballero passes around a tray of bottled brandies and grappas, and we pour our own. Roberto looks at his watch. Two hours have passed. It's almost 5 p.m., time to board the chairlift to Baqueira before it closes.

Returning to Vielho, I catch an hour's siesta. After, I walk Vielho's streets. Through the windows of tapas bars, I see locals and visitors in ski attire, shoulder to shoulder, talking animatedly, drinking beer and wine, and enjoying small salami sandwiches, grilled sausages, tortillas and olives. Eating tapas is a popular après activity, not to be confused with dinner.

For dinner, up in the charming village of Arties, I join some friends at Urtau, an ancient barn converted to a restaurant. The place is largely empty when we arrive, because it's only 10 p.m. "Too early, we're told. By midnight, we've finished our meal unfashionably early, and tramp out into fresh falling snow to begin a spirited tour of Arties's discos.

Psychedelic lights flash. Music blasts the ears. Trays of sparkling white wine are emptied, and by the time I reach my last stop, the Millennium disco, I hear a voice inside my head: "Idiot, go to bed. How do you imagine you'll ski tomorrow?

I needn't have worried. The next day, heavy snowfall and high winds from the Atlantic shut down the lifts, and I sleep in. I'm not disappointed. I know that tomorrow holds the promise of another of skiing's longest days.

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