By ProgBlog, Mar 5 2017 11:00PM

ProgBlog wasn’t posted last week due to the annual skiing holiday, this year undertaken by only two Pages, father and son. Booking a skiing trip inevitably involves a degree of chance, including will the weather be good for skiing and will there be sufficient snow to last the full week. There are other unknowns, too, such as the quality of the accommodation if, like us, you resort hop from year-to-year to experience different places.

Planning the trip normally relies on synchronising three diaries and taking into account Crystal Palace FC home fixtures, gig bookings and avoiding both UK and French/Italian/Austrian school holidays and everything has to be completed before the end of the financial year – for one of us working in local government finance.

We used to drive to the French Alps but for the last 10 years or so we’ve booked with a high street tour operator. Driving was fun. You could take whatever you needed and, as the family has similar musical tastes, turn the journey into one long progressive rock show. I downsized my car in 2008 and went without a car between 2012 and 2013 before getting an even smaller car which has effectively ruled out self-drive. Also, even when we set out on a Friday evening and stayed overnight at a budget hotel in northern France, the section of road approaching the Geneva turn-off first became a crawl and then a solid line of steel and aluminium, so now we fly.

Given the good-natured family relationship, built on a love of prog and a love of skiing, choosing a suitable destination ought to be easy but we do tend to book fairly late. With Google searches notching up the price of a holiday (unless you delete your Chrome browsing history) the choice is facilitated through a multitude of browsing tabs directed to different tour operators and TripAdvisor reviews. The range of reviews on offer needs to be carefully dissected and put into context. Some people like to ski and party and therefore just need somewhere basic to rest; some like home comforts and will criticise the noise from the street outside as revellers (see above) return to their rooms at 3am. We like something large enough to spread out a little and though we’re used to self-catering, we’re equally happy to be catered for... long as it’s not a chalet!

This year I went back to Val d’Isère, having been there previously in 2003. This was my son’s first visit but I knew that he’d find enough skiing because the area is huge. We had been tempted by the cheaper Tignes as a lift pass combines both Tignes and Val d’Isère, at least partly because of the architecture but the accommodation was some way down the valley and was therefore a less attractive proposition. We booked an apartment in Alpina Lodge, very close to the central lift hub of the village, and were pleased to find it a good-sized suite intended to accommodate 6-8 people. I don't know if this was a post- EU referendum effect associated with the devaluation of Sterling compared to the Euro but Val d’Isère is a resort traditionally associated with the British and though English probably remained the dominant language in resort, the flight out from Gatwick was not full. However, I was quite happy to be put up in a space big enough for eight and I'd never been in self-catering accommodation of this standard before; there was a mezzanine bedroom, there were two bathrooms and even the cooker had four rings! Whereas I'm used to packing out my ski bag with cleaning materials and toilet rolls, Alpina Lodge was run on hotel lines with a mid-week clean, a plentiful supply of towels and complimentary toiletries. Luxury!

The wifi in the rooms was not brilliant but we were able to download films onto a tablet to watch after cooking and eating. We ate out on two nights; the first was at Flash Pizza, a recommendation by the Crystal rep. You'd expect ski reps to know the cheapest places to drink in resort but you might not be interested in their choice of restaurant. However, Flash Pizza turned out to be a tiny, cosy and friendly restaurant with a good choice of pizzas and though it would have been best to book, we managed to get seats at the bar after having to wait only 5 minutes. I had a Bailletta (tomato, mozzarella, goat’s cheese, walnuts and honey) which came perfectly baked; a thin crust on the well-done part of the spectrum and at €13 for a pizza 33cm diameter, the price for Val d'Isère was very reasonable. The ultimate recommendation came from the chef at one of the more established restaurants in the village – our intended destination for the last evening - who arrived to pick up his takeaway on his night off and stayed for a glass of wine and a chat. We didn’t get to eat at the Taverna d’Alsace because once again, we failed to book a table. Not booking a restaurant for the final evening of a skiing trip is madness, something we’ve done (or not done) on other trips. Fortunately, we could see another restaurant from the front door and made our way through the snow to La Casserole. A board outside indicated there was no break in service so fitting in two people at 6pm was not a problem.

La Casserole served local fare and the specialities, not surprisingly, were casseroles. The beef in my casserole, cooked in a local red wine, was presented in large chunks which melted in your mouth; genuinely lovely, filling home-cooked food. We also chose to indulge in dessert, both choosing a massive crème brûleé flavoured with vanilla, a hint of lime and bourbon and served in a special dish: A dessert to die for.

The first two days of skiing we undertaken in excellent conditions – clear blue skies and the occasional cloud and firm snow. Sadly, conditions on days 3, 4 and 5 included some of the worst mountain weather I’ve experienced where blizzards and flat light made progress very difficult. My poor eyesight means I’ve been known to fall over backwards from standing still when I’ve not been able to see features on the piste. We did manage to do some skiing on each of those days but in my case it was a genuine struggle.

Day 6 dawned bright and we set off for the furthest point in the area, the Aiguilles Percee beyond Tignes. This is a rock wall with needle-like features and an amazing quirk of geology, a natural arch in the rock which looks like some sort of cosmic space-time portal, accessible with a minor off-piste excursion. A full day ended with reduced light and strong winds, blowing away powder from the ungroomed pistes; a successful venture despite the reduced time on the slopes.

Downtime during the day when we were unable to get onto the mountains was spent preparing a postcard story, listening to music on my mp3 player, and going in search of coffee. The spread of independent coffee shops in the UK is taken for granted but, outside of Italy, mainland Europe is lagging behind and for those of us who rely on a good roast bean nicely prepared, the alternatives are rarely worth bothering with.

Fortunately for us, we found Arctic Cafe which does mountain energy foods, smoothies and organic coffee which was as good as anything you'd get in Shoreditch; a really well prepared espresso shot that we sought out every day and twice during the morning we were waiting for our transfer out of resort.

Ski playlist:

A Saucerful of Secrets – Pink Floyd

Fragile – Yes

In ogni luogo – Finisterre

Equatorial Array – Gareth Page

Invention of Knowledge – Anderson-Stolt

La Coscienza di Zeno - La Coscienza di Zeno

Meddle – Pink Floyd

Red - King Crimson

By ProgBlog, Mar 22 2015 07:20PM

I've just spent a fantastic week on the slopes around Sauze d'Oulx - the annual family skiing trip - with my son Daryl and brother Richard. One slightly irritating feature of a holiday in a ski resort is the music - you get pop hits from decades ago (Cyndi Lauper's Girls Just Want to Have Fun; The Bangles' Walk Like an Egyptian; Take On Me by A-Ha; Olivia Newton-John singing Take Me Home, Country Roads) or timeless, bland 120bpm Europop that could have been an Ibiza anthem from 1999 or a Val d'Isere hit from 2005. This stream of rubbish is an insult to everyone. Sauze d'Oulx is in Italy, home to some diverse and brilliant prog. My first time skiing was a couple of valleys away from Sauze in Bardonecchia and the live band at the hotel kindly played a PFM song, rather well, when we submitted a request. So how prog is skiing?

The old insult slung at prog is that it's elitist. I don't agree with this sentiment despite the fact that a fair number of both major and minor protagonists have had formal training to a high level; skiing could also be called an elitist sport though this no longer holds true as cheap air fares and package holidays have opened up resorts to all comers. Of course, some resorts are more exclusive than others... Prog and skiing both require technical mastery and rely on equipment that has evolved to enable boundaries to be pushed further and further back, whether that's sonic creativity or shaving fractions of seconds off downhill timings; both disciplines require practice if you wish to advance. An annual skiing holiday of 6 days on-piste is not really sufficient to gain and maintain expertise but when you’re based in Croydon and work full-time in central London it’s the best I can do. It’s taken 16 weeks over 17 years to get me to my level of proficiency, an advanced intermediate. The runs above Sauze were perfect for providing a reasonable challenge, consisting primarily of reds and blacks but long trails, which tend to be the easier blue and green categories, can still provide an enjoyable excursion. I see the thrill of successfully descending a precipitous slope as being comparable to the feeling that’s generated when you’ve mastered a particularly difficult riff or musical phrase, perhaps in an unusual time signature and, in a similar vein, skiing a scenic route through changing scenery is equivalent to an uplifting melody. In truth, I am inspired by mountain landscape and it’s the imagined worlds conjured by symphonic prog music and lyrics that I find so compelling about progressive rock, be it Yes from Fragile, Close to the Edge or Tales from Topographic Oceans or Höstsonaten with Winterthrough; if I can’t be outside in a mountain environment, there’s a suitable substitute indoors listening to prog.

A few years ago Daryl and I were based in Livigno for our week, a resort organised as a series of villages along a high valley, famous for its odd tax free status and home to Birrificio, the highest brewery in Europe where they brew a small rage of excellent beers under the name 1816 Livigno and with the symbol of an Eagle, not unlike the CPFC Eagle. Practically speaking, Livigno has an exceptional snow record with a season that extends beyond almost all other European resorts. Better still, in the lower reaches of the resort we discovered two record stores. There was a smattering of progressivo Italiano on offer but sadly, I already owned this material (Disco Music Livigno, Via Plan, 379, 23030 Livigno).

I’ve managed to get through quite a lot of clothing and equipment in 17 years. We all have our own skis and boots; the potential outlay for ski hire equipment makes it economic sense to buy your own but, more than this, the comfort of fitted boots gives you more confidence and the sport becomes increasingly effortless. There were major technological advances in music that allowed the development of progressive rock and like prog exponents and sonic explorers, ski technology has also progressed and now not only incorporates new materials and, within my time as a participant of the sport, the shape of the skis has also changed, creating the ‘carving turn’.

I used to go to play squash and go to the staff club gym at Guy’s in an attempt to physically prepare for skiing; until last year this had evolved into strictly more frequent games of squash, then they sold off the squash courts for a new development on Borough High Street. I’ve never used a dry ski slope (I remember the matting that would have formed this facility in Crystal Palace Park, which I might have used had it still been there) and getting to a snow dome always seemed too much of an unnecessary trek but, like performing exercises on a musical instrument, getting fit for skiing is important.

There are different varieties of skiing: downhill; slalom; cross country; ski cross; ski touring and then there’s even skiing’s rebellious sibling – snowboarding. If downhill equates to the jazz rock side of prog, a technically proficient, breathtaking sprint to the finishing line and slalom to the intricate twists and turns of Gentle Giant, perhaps cross country skiing is the sweeping panorama of symphonic prog and ski touring the ultimate expression of difficulty and perseverance: Zeuhl. And snowboarding? That’s got to be prog metal!

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