Travel review: French Alps - building sights

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  • To many people, including the French government, the ski resort of Flaine is a 1960s architectural gem. Catherine Scott paid a visit.
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High in the Haute-Savoie region of France, between Geneva and Chamonix Mont-Blanc, the ski resort of Flaine nestles at the heart of a large snowy bowl.

At an altitude of 1,600 metres, Flaine enjoys some of the best snow conditions in Europe with something for everyone from beginner to experienced and even non-skier. But, for me, what sets Flaine apart from many French Alpine resorts is its architecture.

This is no quaint Alpine village full of log cabins, but nor is it one of the soulless high rise resorts found in some areas. Granted, there is plenty of concrete to be found surrounding the car-free town centre. But a lot of thought has gone into the creation of Flaine which is classed as an historical monument.

The site was discovered in 1959 by the geophysicist Eric Boissonnas and the Swiss architect Gérard Chervaz, who challenged themselves to create an example of urbanism, contemporary architecture and design, and for which immediate profitability would be secondary to aesthetic choices and respect for the environment.

Éric and Sylvie Boissonnas entrusted the resort design to Bauhaus master, Marcel Breuer, well known for his many prestigious creations: the Palais de l’Unesco in Paris and the Whitney Museum in New York.

Today, Flaine is the only ski resort built in the 1960s to be listed in the French Historical Monuments Survey.

Right from the early design stages, Éric Boissonnas and Marcel Breuer were determined to respect nature and natural contours. As a result the town centre is on three levels which you can move between fairly easily via a funicular.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but each level has its own identity; one even has an outdoor art gallery featuring artists such as Pablo Picasso.

As far as the actual skiing is concerned it would be hard to ask for more. Perfect for just about all abilities there is enough to keep most people more than happy.

Flaine itself has 140km of pistes, many in a beautiful, sunny bowl around the resort. If you like to get in your ski miles, then the well-linked Grand Massiff has over 265km of pistes. There is a huge selection, including a dedicated beginners area, and a large number of blue and red runs for intermediates. And plenty of challenging blacks and off piste for the more adventurous.

And for those thrillseekers who want to experience more than the slopes have to offer, there is an ice driving track and paragliding.

Wind is one problem which Flaine does have to contend with and is about the only thing which will see lifts close, although the extent of the Grand Massiff ski area means even on a windy day there will be plenty to challenge.

The ice driving is really worth a go. Experts drivers take you at night at what seems like death-defying speeds on a race track made of sheet ice.

It is really worth a go although you may need ear plugs to shield you from the screams of fellow passengers. Maybe that should be deaf-defying.

Although development is limited in the centre of Flaine, on the outskirts a number of newer hotels and apartment complexes have shot up.

We were staying in one of the newest and most plush, a step up from the usual tiny rooms in the self-catering options on offer in French resorts.

We were staying in the The New Pierre & Vacances five star Les Terrasses d’Helios Residence.

In an enviable ski-in ski-out position it has 119 light, airy colour schemed apartments with retro style furniture.

All the accommodation has balconies and terraces to enjoy the views and a number feature a fireplace for cosy nights in. The apartments sleep four to eight people and the residence boasts a Deep Nature relaxation area (treatment rooms, sauna, steam room and relaxation room) an indoor heated swimming pool and an outside hot tub where you can watch the sunset over the Alps.

For those needing or wanting ski school there are a number of choices but we were met literally outside our door each day by our ESF instructor Colas.

If you don’t fancy cooking there are a host of fantastic restaurants for lunch or evening meals. Flaine is a fantastic all-round ski resort and little over an hour’s transfer from Geneva – what more could you ask for?

FACTFILE

Pierre & Vacances (0870 0267 145, pierreetvacances.co.uk) offers seven nights at the five-star Terrasses d’Helios apartments from £479 (saving £235) for a one-bed apartment that sleeps up to four arriving December 12. Price does not include flights. Direct flights to Geneva available from all major UK airports, from £50 return with Easy Jet.

Flaine area lift pass: One day, €39.50 (adult), €29.60 (child).

For more info about Flaine visit: flaine.com

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