It's difficult to picture the Alps in your mind's eye without a blanket covering of white. But when the snows melt, another side to the region comes alive. Neil McQuillian reports from a verdant and warm Portes du Soleil.
The sun is throbbing. The air is humming. Insects flit in the haze as wisps and dots, and the grass of the steep hill before me is deep, deep green. Now hand me a glass of cider and let the cheese-rolling begin.
Except the steep hill isn't a Gloucestershire cheese-rolling steep hill. This is the French Alps. And come winter, the steep hill is a ski slope.
I cannot quite grasp it. I mean, I believe Thierry, my host, on whose Morzine terrace I'm standing as he points out the various runs that we can see from here. But, in this height-of-summer heat, it's not easy to compute.
In fact, for the entire time I spend in the Morzine-Les Gets area (Les Gets is a neighbouring village), I don't ever really come to terms with the reality that this balmy, beautiful destination is 'off-season', that most people shun the area when its pastures are abuzz with life – "What's that metal pole thing in the field over there? Like a big robot arm?" I ask of a snow cannon on the morning of my departure. It just. Didn't. Sink. In.
So why am I here when, for many people, visiting the Alps out of season is like going into a nightclub at noon, with the cleaners clattering about and the lights startlingly on?
Well, for the very same reasons that people started coming here for constitutionals centuries ago: it's absolutely gorgeous and the mountain air does you the world of good. Oh, and, this being the off-season, it's actually quite reasonably priced.
And another thing: as summer in Europe 2018 hits a rolling boil that doesn't look like ending any time soon, Alpine France is relatively cool. Relatively. For climate change is, according to the WWF amongst other authorities, kicking in big time in the Alps.
I asked a number of longtime Morzine-Les Gets residents about this and got the same answer from all of them: climate change is happening. Thierry told me that, officially, the end of the ski season is April 25, but that, "every year the winter is shorter. And you see today, it is red hot."
So it's a good job that Thierry – a lithe ski instructor and a vision of Alpine health – is also involved in the hospitality business. In a reboot of the old Alpine sanatoria tradition for the modern age, he and his British wife Lindsey offer juice-based detox retreats in the warmer months.
Thierry's grandfather would no doubt have approved of this enterprising spirit. Pascal Rodriguez escaped the Spanish Civil War to come to Morzine, where he first had a butcher's, then a bar, then a hotel. He would arrange for ski races to start and finish at the hotel, where he'd serve up fondu and tartiflette for sustenance. Thierry reckons he basically started tourism in Morzine in the 1960s.
Yes, the 1960s: skiing's hold on the Alps is really not that old. Before snow became 'white gold', the area's economy relied on mining black gold – slate – and dairy farming. I went even further back in time during a misty walk up into the mountains above Les Gets with naturalist Michel Rostalski. From wild spinach and nettles (which he niftily folded into a neat edible parcel) to arnica and St John's-wort, Michel plucked all manner of medicinal herbs and plants for us to sniff and crush and taste.
The time-travelling moment came when we reached a patch of Lady's Mantle. Michel plucked a stem, brought the head to his mouth and gently sipped. A very, very long time ago, he explained, alchemists would climb up here in the early morning to drink the perfect beads of liquid that gather on the plant's leaves: "They thought it would give them visions and ideas."
But my favourite bit of the four-day trip really couldn't be more modern. In fact, eMTBs (electric mountain bikes) seemed so modern to me I thought they might be a gimmicky meh. Fast forward one hour, however, and I was feeling like the king of Mont Blanc, whose luminous peak kept coming into view as I rocketed up and down the mountain tracks that thread about the winter pistes. Basically, imagine cycling on a travelator. With thighs like pistons. That's electric mountain biking.
And they come here to ski?
Header image:© Julia Kuznetsova / Shutterstock. Photos from top-bottom: © Julia Kuznetsova / Shutterstock; Dog and flowers © Neil McQuillian; Tartiflette and salad © Neil McQuillian; Lady's Mantle flower © Neil McQuillian.