Snowboard Pas De La Casa, Andorra: Ski Duty Free
Words and Pictures by Bob Cook
Published March 2008
It's been deemed Ibiza on Ice, and is known for its monumental, if not a little cheesy après ski nightlife, but with Pas de la Casa now linked up to the entire Grandvalira region , is the skiing and snowboarding in the Andorran Pyrennean principality now a match for its more upmarket Alpine cousins?
32 Broken Bones
First things first - I think it's best you get a little background on me. I am, without exaggerating, the clumsiest person on Planet Earth. I have been known to trip tit over arse and seriously injure myself on a completely flat surface. I display an incredible ability to smash expensive things without trying to. In my life, I have had a total of 32 broken bones. At school, my mates' nickname for me was "Aimless Flailing Bob."
You can, therefore, imagine the slight trepidation with which I approached the idea of my first snow sports holiday. The jokes were endless, from the cost of my insurance premiums, to fantasy scenarios of flailing uncontrollably into a ski lift, knocking it over, causing an avalanche which claimed thousands of lives and somehow manages to destroy an entire Alp. To my mind, these scenes were not outside the realms of possibility. Still - a snowboarding holiday was suggested, discussed, keenly followed up and booked.
I've always been interested in the idea of snowboarding. The idea of hurtling down a mountain with a high-tech tea tray attached to your feet, ploughing through schools of six year old French children on skis, has always held a certain appeal. But you have to understand another thing about me - I'm from the North of England. In fact, about as far north as you can go before it's Scotland, and I'm with Charlie Brooker on this one - associating myself for a week or more with the Pimms drinking, public school attending, matching one-piece and pashmina wearing, braying Jocastas and Tristans of this world is just not something I can morally conceive of. That clearly puts snow sports off the agenda, doesn't it?
Brits Abroad a board
So, where to go, where I could learn to snowboard, but not be constantly surrounded by such people? Where I could have a good time without having to deal with the insufferable "Brits abroad" football and fish and chips nonsense, where the drink was plentiful and cheap, and where it's not going to leave an irreparably large hole in my bank account? Sempai Sam Baldwin provided the answer. Pas De La Casa, Andorra.
Andorra, for those of you who don't know, has a reputation for being the Ibiza of the snow sports world; it's a little tax free principality of Catalan / Spanish / French mix, which is basically one giant lump of Pyrenee with absurdly cheap duty free alcohol and cigarettes and ski resorts dotted all over it. Coming with this Ibiza-like reputation, the cheapest way to get out there was of course to book a package deal. We went with Inghams, who offered a cheap deal on a self-catering apartment with 6 beds.
Getting Geared Up
Of course that left the issue of buying kit. One of the party's dad owns an Oakley shop and has contact with a wholesale supplier (£25 Oakley goggles, anyone?) so it was pretty cheap all in all and set me back about £150 for the lot. I have a vested interest in not looking like a snowboard gangsta-wannabe idiot who can't pull his trousers up, and I think I did OK from my choices in the "not looking like a complete twat" stakes (except for my faux-ironic Japanese kamikaze headband worn in the afternoons to poke fun at my lack of balance) - but it did unfortunately leave the whole group looking like we were sponsored by White Rock. Not great from a branding perspective if everyone wearing your kit has the snowboarding/skiing skill of a three legged blind yak with Parkinson's disease.
After a few hops and skips around the UK and a flight into Toulouse (including a 3am wake up call and a 5am Burger King - I should tell you, this is one of the most unwise things you can possibly do) we arrived into Pas on the first day. First impressions of Andorra were pretty good. The whole of Pas is a giant 1970's development and is not exactly what you could call scenic; there are about 10 perfume shops for every person, but we were never really expecting a picturesque Alaskan wilderness. The day after, we rocked up at Snow School at 10am sharp.
I'm sure you veteran snow travellers have no interest in hearing about the travails of a noobie snowboarder falling on his ass for 5 days in a row, so I'll keep it brief. Amid a constant backdrop of Arnie quotes (Total Recall and Predator being particular favourites), chat about the 1941 battle of Stalingrad, horrendous gas due to the amount of red meat we were all eating, and near constant enquiries as to whether a certain male member of the party had sand in his vagina due to their frequent complaining, the week progressed with everyone gradually increasing in skill.
A bad fall knocked my confidence on the second day and I regressed a bit, but my skill came back and by the end of the 4th day on the slopes I could confidently link turns on a red - and by the end of the last day I could do fakey linked turns, little ollies, go over a kicker and only fall over 50% of the time, and even managed to make my way down a black run safely without dying - heel edge only, mind. Suffice to say, I was amazed as anyone else that I could actually do something which involves both having good balance and going really fast. I think I might actually be ok at this snowboarding lark.
The slopes were excellent, with a good mix of long blues and easier reds for the beginners to acclimatise on, with steeper and more challenging slopes for the sole experienced member of our group who would go exploring on his own every morning before babysitting us noobies every afternoon. Being there early in the season was great as well, as it meant that the slopes were a lot emptier than later in the season and we had a lot of fresh snow to ourselves. I believe you chaps call it "powder" (only if it's super light and fluffy, otherwise it's just fresh snow - Ed). The lift passes were good too, allowing full access to the entire Grandvalira region, which doesn't only contain the Pas slopes - but Grau Roig, El Tarter and others.
Group activities were something that myself and my friends felt no desire to take part in, except for a pub quiz we decided upon at the last moment with half the group having wussed out (which we lost, I thought loads of people died in the Great Fire of London!) and something called bum-boarding. For the uninitiated, this involves plonking your bum onto a tiny little plastic thing about the size and shape of a child's beach shovel and hurtling down the slopes. The highlight of this was clearly the part where I managed to kick a 60 year old French woman in the face (extremely hard) after bailing off my bumboard and doing what might amount to a 1080 whilst screaming and flailing all the while.
In my defence, the silly old bint had seen multiple folk hurtling past her at a rate of knots for a good 10 minutes before I crashed into her and persisted in staying in an extremely dangerous place, so she probably deserved it. My initial guilt did in fact rather rapidly turn to indignation, helped by the fact that my mates thought it was one of the funniest things they'd ever seen. That's probably because I'm an awful human being though.
The Nightlife. Pas bon?
The nightlife wasn't up to much scratch though. Well, I guess if your idea of a good time is spending time talking about football with 2 builders from Dagenham then you'll have a whale of a time in the pubs, and the sole nightclub wasn't much better, with expensive drinks and the requisite bar skanks. A particularly embarrassing moment for me was loudly and drunkenly proclaiming that the photograph on the wall with the woman who had her chebs out in fact had fake chebs - "look, she's had them done well but they're still totally circular, plastic and minging, you can see the small scar under her armpits" - and realising that said owner of circular, plastic and minging wabs was standing at the bar and staring daggers at me. Oops. The food was ok, with a standard menu of burgers, steaks, paellas, salads and fondues in most of the restaurants. Expect a decent bar meal with two course meal and a couple of drinks to set you back about 20 Euros.
That's to say nothing of the duty free, though. I almost considered taking up smoking, they were so cheap - 14 Euros (£11) for 200 Lucky Strikes/Marlboros. You can also get litre bottles of the excellent Polish vodka Zubrowka for 7 Euros (£6.50). Take this as a given - I wholeheartedly encourage you to smuggle, because you will not get caught. The bus never (ever) gets stopped at the Andorran border and when you're in France you can just say you bought your stuff there. I certainly did, and me and my three litres of Jack Daniels had a whale of a time after getting back. Get it up ye, customs.
All in all, I think Pas is a good destination for all but the most experienced snowhounds, with plenty of tough reds and blacks and lots of off-piste across the whole Grandvalira region to hold your interest across a week. I would recommend it if you're not hung up on the classy Swiss chalet aspect of winter sports. The snow this year hasn't been the best, mind - there hasn't been a decent drop of snow since I was last there in mid-January, and I think I was probably spoiled in my learning experience due to the fact that there was lovely snow and big drops all week. Moral of the story - if you're going last minute, check the snow forecasts. Oh, and go early in the season, too - much less crowded then.
And as to snowboarding in general? Consider me officially hooked, Snowsphere.com? Consider me hooked. I also have what I think is the best idea for a snowboard mural ever. Watch this space.
Bob Cook is a punk loving techo-nerd who is currently planning his next great escape.
DO THIS TRIP: Snowboarding in Pas De La Casa Andorroa
Bob travelled from Edinburgh via London to Toulouse and got a windy bus with an insane French driver up the Pyrenees to Pas De La Casa, Andorra, with Inghams package tours. Package in total came to just over £400 for flights and accommodation. Full Grandvalira lift pass came to 190 Euros (£145). Gear hire (boots, bindings, board) came to 90 Euros (£68)
For more information see: Official Pas De La Casa Website