Esme Fox heads to Europe’s southernmost ski resort, the Sierra Nevada, for a winter holiday with a difference, combining time on the slopes with a city break and even a visit to the beach.
As I looked out of the plane window at the cloud-covered sky, I began to picture the smooth snowy slopes and the tips of my skis carving through the soft white powder.
I wasn’t on my way to France, Switzerland or even Austria though – I was going to Spain, approximately 200 kilometres from the North African coastline. This may not be the first destination that comes to mind when booking a ski break, but the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, just below the Andalusian city of Granada, are home to one of Spain’s best ski resorts.
Earlier that morning, I had made my easy departure from London City Airport, the only UK airport that serves Granada directly. Now, as the plane dipped lower and the clouds parted into brilliant blue, I could see rows upon rows of olive trees dotting the hillsides, so many in fact that the landscape almost looked as if it were a pointillist painting.
I first made my way into the historic city of Granada, passing churches, small cobbled alleys and a lively array of tapas bars. I had opted not to stay in the Sierra Nevada ski resort, but instead in the city itself, lying just 31 kilometres to the north. From my hotel window, I could see Granada’s famous Moorish fortress, the Alhambra Palace, framed by the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada beyond, and I couldn’t wait to explore them both.
I hopped on a bus and in less than an hour it was winding its way through the Sierra Nevada National Park. The mountains rose steeply on one side of the road, while deep valleys plunged to the other. A large ibex stood staring at us from atop the mountain, its immense horns curving from the top of its head. The snow-capped mountains now completely surrounded us and I knew the ski resort was close.
The Sierra Nevada is Europe’s most southerly ski resort and gives access to over 105 kilometres of pistes and a total of 120 runs, ranging in difficulty level from green to black. It also features Spain’s largest snow park available for snowboarding and freestyling, slopes for sledging, children’s play areas and plenty of chances for snowshoeing and off-piste skiing. Like any good ski resort, it also has plenty of shops and equipment rental places, as well as 15 ski schools.
I spent the rest of my first day carving my way down the wide groomed slopes, riding the lifts and admiring the views over the valley. It was hard to believe that just that morning I had been sitting in a sunny plaza, munching on my favourite Andalusian breakfast – pan con tomate (toasted baguette with crushed tomato and olive oil).
It was February, yet the sun shone so fiercely that I actually felt hot. Many skiers were only wearing T-shirts and tank tops, rather than thermals and padded ski jackets – a surprising sight. Apparently, some even ski in their bathing suits when it gets really hot. Well, it is ‘Europe’s sunniest ski resort’ after all.
The lower part of the resort is not very big, and while there are a few eating and drinking options available for refuelling, the best après-ski experience can be found back in Granada itself. Granada is one of the only cities left in Spain where tapas is still served free with every drink purchased, so the city gets very lively after dark, accompanied by street flamenco performances and the lilt of the Spanish guitar.
Having been to Granada several times, I knew all the best places to hit for dishes of battered aubergine drizzled with treacle (a Granadino speciality), succulent tortilla (Spanish omelette) with salmorejo (a local and thicker version of gazpacho, a cold tomato soup) and plates of crispy fried fish. Taberna La Tana (Placeta del Agua 3, +34 958 225 248) is one of the oldest and most atmospheric wine bars in the city, while La Pajuana (Calle Virgen del Rosario 12, +34 958 228 829), a sleek and modern gastro bar just opposite, serves up innovative tapas, such as filled pancakes or stuffed pasta shells.
The next day, after my morning ski session, the weather was so nice I thought I’d try to head for the beach. Within 45 minutes from Granada bus station, I had reached the sea and the small town of Salobreña, on the Costa Tropical. Surrounded by fields of sugar cane, the charming whitewashed town is topped by a sand-coloured Moorish castle. It may not have quite been sunbathing and swimming weather, but it was certainly warm enough to sit outside without a coat on, enjoying a meal of freshly grilled seafood in the sunshine. Sitting here in front of the cerulean waves of the Mediterranean, the powder-white slopes felt a world away.
On my last day, I skipped my morning on the pistes to spend more time exploring gorgeous Granada. You can’t come here and not visit the Alhambra. Built by the Moors, parts of the complex date as far back as the ninth century. Wandering through elaborate Arabic arches and serene rooms of trickling fountains, I was mesmerised by the exquisite details of thousands of geometric tiles and ornately carved inscriptions from the Quran.
In the afternoon, I ambled my way around the Moorish district of Albayzín, browsing the many Moroccan shops for glittering glass lamps and carved leather handbags, then stopping for a spiced-infused brew at one of the many Arabic teahouses.
It’s incredible to think that in just three days, I had been able to glide down some of Spain’s best slopes, enjoy a meal by the sea and explore an ancient Islamic fortress. Where else in Europe could you do all this within under three hours’ flight from London?
Where to fly to: Granada Federico García Lorca Airport
Transfer time: 2 hours 40 minutes to Granada, then one hour by bus to the Sierra Nevada
Best time to go: The ski season in the Sierra Nevada lasts from late November to early May