I’m embarrassed to admit that, for a moment in the bar on the top floor of the new Hyatt Centric hotel in La Rosière, my history failed me. I couldn’t for the life of me work out the point behind the Elephant theme. Here we were 1,850m up in the snowy French Alps and there was an elephant mural on the wall, model elephants both in the bar and on the terrace, and the house beer was Carlsberg Elephant. Then the barman explained. The Col du Petit St Bernard – the mountain pass where La Rosière is located – is where Hannibal began his crossing of the Alps in 218 BC.
And if your history fails you still, then Hannibal was the extraordinary general from Carthage (modern-day Tunis) who marched from Spain to Italy with up to 50,000 men – and some 40 elephants. His mission? To exact revenge for Carthage’s humiliating defeat by Rome a generation earlier. Rome had neutered the Carthage navy and Hannibal’s only option was to attack overland. His trans-continental march was one of military history’s most brilliant surprise strategies and he celebrated by spending the next 15 years ravaging Italy. All but one of the elephants died, he never took Rome, and his war finally ended with defeat by the Romans in North Africa. Nevertheless, his remarkable daring is still being celebrated in a ski resort in France exactly 2,200 years later.
To be strictly accurate, historians disagree about the exact route which Hannibal followed. But the pass which runs up from Bourg-St-Maurice through what are now the ski resorts of La Rosière in France and La Thuile in Italy, is one of the most likely. (You can drive it in summer by following the D1090 from Bourg across the border and on to the SS26.)
I was not, of course, particularly interested in crossing the Alps in order to launch a punishment raid on Italy. But La Rosière and La Thuile are linked, and I really liked the idea of staying in France and being able to ski over to Italy for lunch. There is something about Italian mountain cooking – the polenta, the hams, the pasta, the truffles – which goes exceptionally well with a day out on the slopes. And I always enjoy structuring a day’s skiing by going on a journey, rather than rotating around the same slopes and lifts.
La Rosière was new to me, though I had driven past the access road en route to Val d’Isère and Tignes many times. It’s on the opposite side of the Tarentaise valley to the super-resorts of Les Arcs-La Plagne and the Three Valleys, and has a reputation as a low-key family resort.
It certainly can’t compete with the vast network of pistes on offer from its more famous neighbours. Most of the pistes here are gentle reds and blues that criss-cross the south-facing slopes above the tree line – though there are a couple of longer runs down into the valley. The best of these has a vertical drop of 1,200m down to the village of Les Eucherts. And this season two new consecutive, six-seater chairlifts will open up a new bowl-shaped area, called Mont Valaisan, adding half a dozen new pistes. But overall, this is definitely family-friendly stuff, not enough for a week of varied high-mileage skiing.
The reason why Hyatt, like Hannibal, came to La Rosière is because of that route across to Italy. From a skier’s point of view, it vastly increases the attraction of the resort – more than doubling the amount of skiing. Dubbed the Espace San Bernardo, the two resorts combined offer about 150km of pistes, with the Italian side offering plenty of north-facing slopes to contrast with the sunny French side.
In reality, for Hannibal, the link proved perilous. Having made good progress up the French side of the Alps, he found himself on the edge of a precipice. Only by building his own emergency rubble track could he get his army down the other side. He must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Today, the only problem with the link across to Italy from a skier’s point of view is that it involves two rather long, rather slow, rather flat drag lifts. (It’s a good idea to cross before mid-morning, to avoid the queues.)
From then on, you have a choice of routes. There is a wonderful long red run that snakes away though the wilderness to the right (follow 18 and 6), while to the left the number 7 piste skirts a long and equally scenic route around the opposite side of the resort. There is plenty of skiing in between, and more below the tree-line – which I always like. And from the upper slopes there is a fabulous view of the Mont Blanc massif towering over the northern skyline.
But, best of all, there is lunch. We headed to a little restaurant called Pepita, which we would never have found without a local recommendation. There was a certain amount of palaver involved: you have to phone for a minibus when you get down to the resort. But once the truffle tagliatelle and a glass of brunello arrived suddenly all seemed well with the world. After a second glass, I briefly considered marching on Rome, but thought better of it and skied back to France in time for dinner.