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Sloping off to Spain.

IT was the calm before the storm. As our chair-lift sailed serenely high amid the tranquilly beautiful Spanish Pyrenees, the silence was palpable. With generous powder frozen to stunning peaks, a clear blue sky and an unseasonably warm sun, skiing conditions were perfect.

At the top of my blue piste, it almost seemed inherently wrong to next hurtle down a mountain, scything and skidding at every turn.

I was in the region of Baqueira Beret in January, close to the French border, a haven for snow beginners and experts alike. The King of Spain reportedly owns a house nearby.

I was definitely a beginner, having only once donned skis before in Finland, and so the sight of some manageable-looking elementary slopes to hone the technique was initially very comforting.

Val d'Aran is situated in the northwesternmost corner of Catalonia, steeped in history with 25 miles of postcard villages and a populace that speaks its own Aranese language.

The valley has its own microclimate and is one of the most snow-sure resorts in the Pyrenees, regularly getting double the snowfall compared to nearby Andorra, for example.

My wife and I were picked up from Toulouse airport and within two hours arrived at Chalet Eira in Tanau, Baqueira''s most exclusive resort village.

Around 150ft from the chair lift, it's all too easy to forget the normal nightmare of long, equipment-laden walks to the lifts to begin a day's skiing.

Thirty seconds walk in your shoes from the chalet door and you find yourself at Calafate Ski Shop A quick change into your boots with the help of their friendly staff, pick up your skis, walk another 30ft and suddenly you''re on the lift. As I said, all too easy.

Up on the mountain, my wife and I were put through our paces by Tim Eyte from BBSkiSchool (bbskischool.co.uk) which offers free lessons to guests in the chalet three mornings a week.

Instructed to give more downward pressure here, and a welltimed bend of the knees there, I was soon catching the skiing bug and, while the green pistes were serving their purpose, I soon had my eye set on the 'cruisey' blues.

After a hearty mountain lunch in Era Cabana cafe on their sunny terrace in Tanau, we were fuelled and ready for another afternoon on the mountain.

What struck me about Baqueira early on was the friendliness of staff and customers alike.

Every visit to a lift, I was greeted with a welcoming smile and sent on my way with playful cries of 'arriba' while mishaps were greeted with a laugh and joke, and not the haughty 'harrumph' of some European ski resorts.

My wife, a total beginner to the piste, was left bruised and bashful after one public button lift fall, but it was all swiftly dealt with by a cheery supervisor.

As well as catering for beginners, Baqueira has many challenging reds, steep blacks and excellent off-piste for the advanced.

With 3,300ft of vertical runs, 75 miles of pistes, seven miles of itinerary runs and huge opportunities for off piste, Baqueira caters for all levels of skier.

For those looking for something more extreme, you can get a bird's eye view, courtesy of Pyrenes Heliski.

Chalet Eira itself, run by Ski Inspired (skinspired.co.uk) was a cosy, luxury gem with generous sized bedrooms with lovely views of the slopes. The accommodation is a mix of four doubles and four duplex rooms, which have their own separate lounges, and can accommodate families.

Sitting in bed first thing in the morning before skiing with the curtains open watching the dawn break was an unbeatable way to start the day.

Small enough to be truly cosy, the lounge was a great place for a glass of red wine in front of a roaring fire.

The restaurant service included a buffet breakfast with cooked option, an 'apres-ski'' tea, pre-dinner aperitifs and a three course meal with very acceptable table wine included in the price.

The chalet is available for exclusive use booking, either reserving a floor or hotel entirely, ideal for large groups of friends or families.

Away from Chalet Eira, the charming villages of the Aran Valley are a short drive away.

Its rustic tapas bars and restaurants are a feature with many skiers heading down for the homely bonhomie found in traditional villages like Arties, Salardu and the main town Vielha.

At the Urtau restaurant in Arties one Wednesday evening, its two wide counters were laden with mouth-watering 'pinchos' keeping thirsty skiers happy after a long day on the slopes.

(00 A Spanish TV camera crew were salivating too as they spent two hours filming this intoxicating spread along with chef interviews and live cooking in the kitchen.

uk, Tiffany''s, La Luna and Eth Refugi are some of the more popular places for the young or young at heart.

This easy, good-natured air is replicated on the slopes, and it was common for a skiing Good Samaritan to shimmy over to my stricken fallen body and assist with helping me clamber to my feet.

On one occasion, velocity becoming too uppermost in my mind I experienced a spectacular wipeout right under a group of watching 20-somethings on the gondola just 15ft above. They just smiled politely, no staring or fingerpointing, just lost in the beautiful stillness of the eerily quiet mountain.

Peace and excitement together. Often unachievable, but when perfected the ultimate mix.

TRAVEL INFORMATION ? A week at Chalet Eira (eirahotel.com, baqueira.co.uk, 00 34 973 645446) from pounds 633pp.

KLM (klm.com) return flights ex-Liverpool to Toulouse via Amsterdam from pounds 156 it to my
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 18, 2012
Words:941
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