Chalet des Danois

10 Jan

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Les Trois Vallées (The Three Valleys) is a ski area in the French Alps. Its 600 kilometers of interconnected slopes and 180 ski lifts makes it the largest ski area in the world. In the Vallée des Belleville sits the tiny town of Saint Martin de Belleville, where you can catch the first of two lifts to the top of Tougnete, a 2434 meter peak with ski pistes that take you back down to the town below. About halfway down the mountain on the left side of a bend in the blue pelozet piste, there is a cabin perched on a bluff just above the spot where the two lifts meet (find the lifts Saint Martin 1 and 2 on this map). If you’re brave enough to follow the narrow, icy, ski-worn path on the left of the piste before the bend, you’ll find yourself outside the 1900 meters-above-sea-level Chalet des Danois (Cabin of the Danes).

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Chalet des Danois is owned by Palle and Kirsten, a Danish couple who, along with their children, have been skiing at Les Trois Vallées for over two decades now. One day on their way down the pelozet piste, they noticed a “For Sale” sign outside a century-old cow stable. Initial reluctance gave way to interested inquiry, and by the next summer they had sealed a deal to purchase the structure. Due to the region’s historical preservation regulations, Palle and Kirsten were not permitted to alter the stone exterior of the cabin, so they resorted to building “a cabin in a cabin” as they put it. With the installation of an electricity connection, Chalet des Danois began receiving non-luxury seeking visitors in the winter of 1997. The first guests consisted of friends committed to both daytime skiing and nighttime woodwork to improve the cabin’s interior. The next winter, water was connected from the cabin’s original well, and since then, Palle and Kirsten estimate they have hosted roughly 150 different family members and friends at the cabin. With two floors, a kitchen, two toilets, one shower, a ski equipment storage room and enough bunks to sleep 20 (although the record number of guests at one time is 22), Chalet des Danois offers a simple, communal and convivial experience on par with any European youth hostel or Israeli kibbutz. But maybe Kirsten said it best: “it’s a zero-star hotel, but a five-star cow stable.” Here’s the view from the cabin:

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My Danish host mom, Lydia, befriended Palle and Kirsten while studying chemical engineering together at DTU (Danish Technical University). Lydia and Jesper, my host dad, and their son Rasmus have been going to Chalet des Danois for 10 years now, and were gracious enough to invite me to join them this year. After hearing so much about this mysterious cabin high in the French Alps, I instantly accepted their invitation – despite a complete lack of prior skiing experience. Lucky for me, Palle has embraced the role of ski instructor for the chalet’s guests who are new to skiing. My lessons started before I even reached the cabin – the only ways to reach Chalet des Danois are to hike 90 minutes up the side of the mountain, or to take the two lifts to the top of the mountain and ski down to the cabin (this is also how luggage and other supplies are typically taken to the cabin). With Palle’s patient guidance, I made it down the mountain and into the cabin in one piece. Our arrival brought the guest total to 18 – most of whom were Danes and graduates of, or students at, DTU (the stack of New Scientist magazines on the bookshelves confirmed my suspicion that I was surrounded by engineers). The cabin’s Danish guests were quick to give me an education in Danish humor (to give you an idea, begin with a heavy dose of Monty Python, mix in some dark, morbid, ironic, and politically-incorrect elements, then practice in inappropriate settings – you’ll be an expert before you know it).

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Kirsten is Chalet des Danois’ head chef, and when we arrived she was already hard at work in the kitchen. Kirsten both prepares and oversees the preparation of three hearty meals a day for all the cabin’s guests, typically consisting of a meat-and-potatoes dish for dinner, homemade bread rolls with cheese and Nutella for breakfast, and a filling soup for lunch made from dinner’s leftovers and complimented by leftover breakfast bread. The cabin is well-stocked with non-perishable foods hauled up the mountain once a summer, so guests are asked to bring meat, vegetables, and other fresh foods to be shared with all. Kirsten is able to take this plethora of provisions and make meals which, after hours of skiing, rival those served in any Michelin-designated restaurant.

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“Learning to ski is like learning to ride a bike,” Palle told me, sounding every bit the professor. “The key is finding your balance.” Besides this piece of advice, my skiing instruction was entirely learning-through-doing. Palle would start down a slope and tell me to follow and mimic him. We repeated this for the first several days, and despite sore and cramp-filled quad muscles, Palle pushed me to find my balance and develop my technique. Thanks to Palle’s patience and commitment, and the encouragement and help-getting-up-after-falls I received from my ski instructor team of Kirsten, Søren (Kirsten’s brother), Lydia, Jesper, and Torben (a friend of Kirsten and Palle’s), I was skiing down the red intermediate slopes by the end of the week. What a fun, rewarding sport that I hope to continue when I return to the states. I cannot thank the hosts and guests at Chalet des Danois enough for their hospitality, generosity, guidance, patience, encouragement and cooking. It was a visit I will not soon forget – and hopefully the first of more to come! Below are some pictures from the slopes with captions – enjoy!

From left to right: Torben, Jesper, Lydia, Kirsten, Søren and Palle:

My Ski Instructors Brightened

After-skiing at Le Grand Lac:

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Sunset from atop Tougnete with Søren:

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Mont Blanc, the highest peak in continental Europe (what a contrast between the brightly-lit peaks and the valley cloaked in shadow):

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A morning “moonset” from the cabin:

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It feels like you’ve reached the edge of the world:

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2 Responses to “Chalet des Danois”

  1. Kathryn GetekSoltis January 13, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

    The Alps!!!!!
    Love those pics, Nathan!
    Peace,
    Dr. Getek

  2. Nancy Macias January 13, 2015 at 11:21 pm #

    Nathan, What a well written and fun article on your new friends cow barn make-over. I knew you would love skiing and get the hang of it quickly. Nathan, since I haven’t heard from you I am wondering again, if you got my Christmas card, money and Sedona Calendar. Please let me know. I will put a tracer on it if not. Thanks, Grandma Date: Tue, 13 Jan 2015 12:36:14 +0000 To: nancym7537@hotmail.com

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