Meet the French people obsessed with mountains
I’ve had the same conversation over and over again with French people when it comes to vacation. While discussing what your upcoming plans are for your millionth week of paid vacation that year (I kid, I kid… I sort of kid), it’s common to hear the French say, “Je suis plutôt montagne que plage…” or vice versa. This translates to being more into the mountains than the beach. Other variations include being more into the countryside than touring big cities, preferring to go sailing in Brittany rather than absorbing the sun off the Mediterranean, etc. …. Again, it’s easy for them to know because they, as a country, have lots of time to travel (pre-pandemic, of course).
I have to admit, I’ve never been plutôt montagne. But this is likely because I grew up in the American Midwest, far from the snowy peaks, and learned to ski at the terrifying age of 30. So my early experiences in the mountains were… not ideal.
I should back up and explain that nearly all French people travel to the mountains sometime during the year. And by sometime, I mean at the exact same time. Nearly the entire country has two weeks off in February for les vacances d’hiver, when schools close up and everyone takes the exact same highway to reach the Alps. If you are leaving Paris, you will sit in traffic for hours trying to get to your ski destination on time. Every rest stop will be packed full of restless children and weary parents that are just ready to get there.
The first time this happened to me, I took it in as a cultural learning experience. But year after year, when I’d leave to go skiing with friends, the drive down became too much. My last year, a snowstorm hit half of the country so hard that the main highway to the mountains closed down and my companion and I were left searching every nearby village for a hotel room to stay in. It sounds cute, but remember that most French families were doing the exact same thing as us at the exact same time - bref, I’ve never related to the nativity story more in my life. We found a tiny room somewhere between Paris and Mont Blanc; I guzzled the wine we had bought specifically to go with our raclette and vowed I’d never make this trip again.
But, in speaking with The French Collective’s founder, Julien, I’ve realized that there’s an entire side to the French mountain experience that I’ve been missing. So don’t listen to me - listen to the OG montagnard - montagnard meaning mountain person.
Julien was born in a tiny village near the top of the French Alps and explains that you basically come out of the womb wearing skis. But unlike those cramped two weeks in February where we city folks cram into ski resorts, les montagnards have the entire winter season to perfect their skiing and snowboarding skills, an experience Julien describes as “basically preparing for the Olympics.”
And when it’s not time to ski, you have the beautiful mountain landscape to hike, rock climb, and explore. Julien himself learned how to climb the peaks as a young child, rope-free.
One thing that he and I can agree on is that mountain food is awesome. That’s because it’s almost ALL CHEESE. Do you like fondue, raclette, and tartiflette? Thank a montagnard. These cheesy delicacies are what they gorge on, particularly in the winter months, to stay warm and fed in the midst of so much cold and ice.
Julien leaves us all with one little tip to remember when it comes to visiting the French mountains: the villages that exist at the tops of those mountain heights were there long before skiing ever existed. So, if you want to ski and snowboard and all the rest, enjoy. But also go to absorb the local culture and history of these truly remarkable - yes, even I can admit it - landscapes.