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Sloping off to Cataloni
6:00am Saturday 25th January 2014 in Travel
Who'd have thought you could ski so close to Barcelona? Beth Littler discovers Spain's best kept winter secret - the Catalan Pyrenees.
I've been to Barcelona on several occasions, but spent most of my time sitting on the beach rather than seeking snow. So I'm surprised to learn that just a four-hour drive away in the centre of the Pyrenees is the little-known ski resort of Val d'Aran.
Promising a peaceful and slightly more luxurious skiing or snowboarding experience than nearby Andorra, the resort has been attracting Spanish visitors for many years. As far as the British market is concerned though, this is virgin snow.
After flying into Barcelona with Monarch, we pick up a hire car and drive the four-hour journey through the beautiful and sleepy villages of Sopeira and Montanuy.
Finally, we wind our way up through the mountain tunnels and hairpin bends to the ancient town of Vielha, and a little further on to the resort of Val d'Aran.
Our base, the five-star Hotel Le Pleta, is popular with the Spanish royal family, and as we walk through the huge doors into a lobby filled with burning candles and roaring fires, I can see why.
The hotel itself is quite large - boasting 67 luxury suites - but still retains the feel of a cosy country ski lodge with wood-panelled ceilings and lovely stone and slate floors.
The rooms provide everything you would expect from a five-star resort - duck-down pillows, enormous queen beds, a fully-stocked mini bar, and all the mod-cons you could wish for. But best of all is the spectacular view of the Pyrenees.
After a heavenly night's sleep, we head out to the piste, just a short walk from the hotel. The resort is made up of three areas - Beret, Baqueira and Bonaigua - with an intricate system of chair lifts and cable cars to bring you to the top of your chosen run.
In total there are 170km of skiable slopes - making it deceptively bigger than the intimate resort actually feels.
There's no queue at the bottom of the lifts, and as we rise higher into the Pyrenees, it's surprising to see such vast and open slopes. There's very little ski traffic, and no caterpillars of children wearing coloured bibs in ski school - just the quiet serenity of the mountains.
Bonaigua is for the more experienced extreme snow sports enthusiast and is made up of terrifyingly steep black runs, as well as a number of cross skiing routes and some pretty spectacular walking paths.
Beret and Baqueira offer easier runs as well as a great supply of cafes, but there are also plenty of black and red runs too.
After a fun day on the slopes, the mountain air and exercise leave us feeling shattered. The sun is setting, the last few adrenaline seekers are departing the beautifully manicured pistes and it's time to return to the hotel. Thankfully, it's not a horrible walk, lugging heavy skis and snowboards. A mini bus takes us right to the doorstep of Hotel la Pleta where a porter awaits to take our equipment and store it until the next day.
Walking through reception, we're drawn to the swimming pool on the floor below. Lovely smelling salts, high ceilings and a multitude of flickering candles help to ease the day's knocks and many falls.
Afterwards, we venture out to Vielha for a bit of apres ski. The town dates back to Roman times and is filled with historical mansions, mountain houses and 12th century churches. There are also some cosy bars dotted along the river, perfect for a few drinks before dinner.
We dine at the Corner Eth restaurant in the old part of the town and sample local beer and French-influenced cuisine.
Baqueira Beret is considered to be the best ski resort in Spain, but there are also a number of different winter activities on offer, such as snowshoe excursions, dog sledding and motor sledding.
We opt to go dog sledding with D'Aran Mushing. They may look ferocious, but believe me, these dogs are all really cute puppies at heart. After settling into the comfy sledge chairs and covering ourselves with blankets, we are soon flying over the mountains with just the noise of the dogs whistling in our ears.
On saying goodbye to the pups, we take a snowmobile to the abandoned village of Montgarri, which is right on the French border. The village was deserted about 60-years ago, but just outside is the beautiful and rustic Refugi Montgarri, where we find a much-needed roaring fire to warm our chilly toes.
The building was derelict for many years but now offers dormitory-style rooms for walkers not looking to splash out on five-star luxury. Dinners of locally-sourced ingredients are served up for the guests, all at a reasonable price.
With so much to offer for those on different budgets, I'm amazed so few people know about Val d'Aran. This is one secret the Spaniards should definitely be sharing with the Brits.
:: Beth Littler was a guest of the Catalonia tourist board. Visit www.catalunya.com
:: Neilson (www.neilson.co.uk; 0845 070 3460) offers a seven-night break to the region from £955 per person, including half-board accommodation at a three-star hotel, flights from Gatwick, transfers and the services of a resort representative. Departs February 23, 2014.
:: Rooms at Hotel La Pleta (www.lapleta.com) in Baqueira start from 180 euros.
:: For more information on Refugi Montgarri, visit www.montgarri.com