Considering that Spain is the 4th most visited country in the world, not a lot of people realise that it’s home to Europe’s third highest mountain range. Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains (which span Europe and Asia) and Mount Blanc in the Alps are the only peaks higher than Mulhacén in the Sierra Nevadas. So it’s hardly surprising that my friends seem a little puzzled when I inform them that it’s one of the countries in which I choose to take my skiing (and more recently, snowboarding) holidays.
I discovered the Sierra Nevadas as a ski resort because my boyfriend at the time (who incidentally is now my boyfriend again – but that’s a long story and possibly one for an evening down the pub over a few beers!) had family who lived nearby – in the pretty little Spanish village of Murchas, situated on the edge of the Sierra Nevada National Park, between Granada and the coastal resort of Motril. The location was perfect to be honest: Granada – with its Moorish architecture, bohemian vibe, and maze of narrow, cobbled streets in the Albayzin – was just 38km away, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Pradollano (the resort village at the foot of the slopes) could be reached in less than an hour by car, and after just over a 30 minute drive in the opposite direction to Granada, you could be enjoying fresh seafood on the beach or swimming in the waters of the Alboran sea (that’s the one to the east of the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco).
The proximity of the ski resort to Granada was one of the major draws for me. I love Granada. I’ve spent countless hours wandering through its labyrinthian Albayzin. Yes, it’s impossible not to get lost here but that’s half the fun. It makes discovering the attractive, tranquil plazas, and incredible viewpoints, all the more worthwhile. One of my favourite spots in the Albayzin is the Plaza de San Nicolas. The church itself is nothing spectacular – it’s rather run down and could do with a coat of paint – however the adjacent plaza is where you’ll always find a gathering of gypsies from Sacromonte, who bring their guitars, accordions, bongo drums, tambourines – whatever musical instruments they can lay their hands on – and play some traditional Spanish music for their attentive audience. Yes there are generally a number of tourists milling around, as this plaza is also the best spot from which to view the Alhambra, but I’ve also been up here in winter when – aside from myself – their only audience is a stray cat or dog, who has taken up residence in the immediate vicinity. Maybe it was their own, or maybe it had also gotten lost in the Albayzin’s confusing, mysterious streets, and just fancied sitting down for a while.
I also love strolling along Carrera del Darro, the attractive street that runs parallel to the Darro river. It’s lined with ethnic shops, cafes, and tapas bars, and you’ll often find students perched upon the wall scribbling notes into a journal, sketching, snacking, reviewing photographs, or simply watching the world go by. I don’t know why or whether I’ve just been lucky, but no matter what time of year it is or how cold it is up at the ski resort, it always seems to be sunny down by the river in Granada. I remember one occasion when I’d returned from temperatures lower than -5 up on the ski slopes, to find myself in scorching 26 degree heat along Carrera del Darro – at the beginning of February! And another when I’d arrived back into Granada, hung my fur-lined winter coat over the wall alongside the river, and then picked it up later in order to catch the bus back to the airport following a ski trip, only to discover a lizard still nesting inside. For a lizard to have been out on the wall in the first place – in January – meant that the weather must have been synonymous with the climate that they’re comfortable in.
I love the fact that it’s possible to ski all day up in the Sierra Nevadas and then spend the evening meandering through Granada’s streets. Whether you choose to while away your evenings drinking tea and smoking shisha in one of the city’s numerous tea shops, or enjoying a beer and taking advantage of the free tapas, there is definitely something more quintessentially Spanish here than you’ll find up at the ski resort. Granada is one of the few places that still serves tapas as it was originally served – free of charge, one for each drink you buy. At one particular tapas bar on Carrera del Darro, not only did the quality of the tapas improve, but the portion sizes also got larger with every drink we bought, so after 3 small beers each we’d eaten the equivalent quantity of food that we may have paid 10-15 euros for at a restaurant.
So, aside from its proximity to Granada, just what is the appeal of this lesser-known (to people outside of Spain) ski resort?
It’s quiet and queue-free
Being a British citizen I should be tolerant of queues. Far from it – I hate them and have no patience with them! So this is a huge bonus as far as I’m concerned. The resort caters mainly to locals, few of whom stay as long as a week. So whilst it’s busy at weekends, there are rarely any queues mid-week outside the main Spanish holidays (first week of December, Christmas through to the 6th January, and Easter). Despite the fact that the resort is mainly used by the Spanish, English is widely spoken, so you shouldn’t have any trouble organising your ski/snowboard hire and lift pass.
There’s always plenty of snow
Due to its high elevation, there is always plenty of snow, and this also means that the ski season here is long (late November through to early May), and lends itself to the enjoyment of long, sunny days of skiing. As the whole resort is above the tree line, it also means it’s possible to ski virtually anywhere on the mountain. Whilst abundant snow is usually conducive to good skiing conditions, it can sometimes be detrimental if the snow falls whilst you’re waiting for the lifts to open, or – worse still – actually on the slopes. I’ve managed to spend the best part of a day in Pradollano, building snowmen, making snow angels, sledging, and drinking hot chocolate (which in Spain, is much like drinking a jar of Nutella, if you were to heat it up) whilst waiting for the snowfall to cease. I’ve also found myself stranded on top of a mountain in the middle of an epic snowstorm, when the visibility has been so bad I could barely see a few metres in front of me. Making it down to the bottom in conditions like that can be enormously challenging and very, very frightening.
There are ski runs for every difficulty level – and lots of them!
The Sierra Nevada ski resort is home to 100km (62 miles) of alpine ski runs: 16km of green (beginner) runs, 40km of blue (intermediate) runs, 50km of red (tricky but not impossible) runs, and 9km of black (you have got to be joking!) runs. As you can probably gather, I did not attempt to tackle the black runs, but being an intermediate skier who has also skied here as a beginner, and with a skier who I would describe as very competent, I feel that I am making the above statement with some level of confidence. I also found the runs to be accurately and clearly labelled and signposted, as well as providing a variety of piste styles . My favourite areas to ski are Loma de Dilar – where there are some beautiful blue runs that wrap themselves around the edge of the mountain, and afford some stunning views back down into the resort – and Rio Monachil, where you can ski some pleasantly wide slopes interspersed with a few challenging gradients.
You can witness some awesome sunsets
I’m a sucker for sunrises and sunsets. There have been countless occasions whilst I’ve been travelling, that I’ve forced myself to wake up at a time that only normally exists for me on a really good night out, in order to catch that perfect sunrise. Sometimes I’ve been lucky but more often than not, stubborn low lying cloud has thwarted my chances. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is one of those attractions that blew me away, and one which I’m especially gutted about having missed both sunrises and sunsets, as a result of poor weather. By virtue of the Sierra Nevada’s high elevation, even down in Pradollano, you can witness some spectacular sunsets. Whether you’re staying in the resort or catching the last bus back to Granada (I’ve done both), due to the time of day that the sun sets in the winter months, it is possible to catch the sunset regardless of which option you have chosen.
So you may be wondering how the price compares to other ski resorts in Europe…
Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s not as cheap as it used to be. Resorts in Eastern Europe, such as Pamporovo or Bansko in Bulgaria, are still substantially cheaper. However the prices here are comparable to other Western ski resorts in France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland. Using the example of a 7-day ski pass in high season and hire of all equipment, the prices are as follows:
Lift Pass – 273 euros
Hire of skis, boots and poles – 84 euros
As regards to accommodation costs, we were able to get a studio apartment for 2 people, in the resort itself, with a fully equipped kitchen, supermarket right opposite, and bars and restaurants nearby, for 50 euros per night (25 euros per person)
Comparably, a private room for 2 people in a hostel in Granada, within walking distance to shops, bars and restaurants, will set you back 18.29 euros per night (for a room with a shared bathroom) or 24.57 euros per night (for a room with an ensuite bathroom).
Obviously these prices rise the nearer you want to stay to the Albayzin. Yes, it is substantially cheaper to eat out in Granada, and if you visit any one of the city’s numerous tapas bars, the price is then cheaper still (the supermarkets in the resort can afford to keep their prices high, as tourists have little alternative), however you’ll need to take into account the cost of getting to and from the ski resort each day. There is a good bus service, but you may want to hire a car for a higher level of convenience (pack your snow chains though!)
I realise that the Sierra Nevadas is only one of hundreds of ski resorts to choose from (and the list is continually growing), but it’s a little corner of my world I wanted to introduce you to. The Sierra Nevada ski resort is still fairly unknown to those outside of Spain, it doesn’t appear on any of the ‘best ski resorts’ list, and you won’t find it in any of the skiing holiday brochures, and I’d kinda like it to stay that way, because that’s a huge part of its appeal. So, just don’t tell too many of your friends, okay? 😉