Did you know that after Switzerland, Spain is Europe’s most mountainous country? Whilst famous mainly for tourism to the sunny costas, few people are aware of the exciting prospects for skiers in Spain. The best Spanish ski resorts are in the Pyrenees which are comparable with the mid-sized Alpine resorts. Further south, above Granada in Andalucia is the Sierra Nevada which in spite of its sunny climate has hosted the World Alpine Ski Championships.
You’ll also find some delightful skiing in the mountains to the north of Madrid in La Pinilla, Navacerrada, Valcotos and Valdesquí. Further north there is skiing in La Rioja at Valdezcaray, at Alto Campoo in Cantabria and at San Isidro in León though none of these lesser known stations are geared up to large scale tourism as in the Pyrenees and to a lesser extent in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Andalucia.
Skiing is very popular in the resorts of the Pyrenees mountains which form a 500km natural boundary between Spain and France. On the Spanish side of the border the autonomous regions of Catalonia and Aragon are home to its main resorts whist the independent state of Andorra lies between these regions and is the best known ski destination in the region.
Here’s a brief summary of the main Spanish ski resorts in the Pyrenees.
Skiing in the Catalan Pyrenees
The main ski resorts in the Catalan Pyrenees are as follows:
Baqueira Beret in the Catalan Pyrenees is Spain’s most popular ski resort. It is located 200 km from Barcelona and 160 km from Toulouse in France. This purpose built resort offers skiing for all abilities including some of the most challenging black runs in the Pyrenees. Its southerly location with an Atlantic climate provides a warmer environment than in the Alps and an extra hour of daylight. In general it would be fair to say that Baqueira consistently offers the best snow in Spain in terms of quality and quantity throughout the season.
The resort lies in the Vall D’Aran which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Its infrastructure is excellent including modern lifts and many snow cannons to ensure sufficient snow on the lower slopes. This is the preferred resort of the Spanish national ski team and is regularly visited by members of the Spanish Royal Family.
As is the case with ski resorts worldwide it’s a good idea to avoid public holidays where possible as Baqueira is one of Spain’s best known ski destinations. The provision for apres ski is excellent with a whole range of bars and restaurants to suit every taste and pocket. In fact the nightlife in the whole Vall D’Aran is first class. Unfortunately the secret is out and as more people try their hand at skiing it is evident that Baqueira is becoming expensive and queues for the lifts are becoming too commonplace.
The friendly La Molina ski resort in the Catalan Pyrenees is the oldest in Spain. It lies 160 km from Barcelona and there is a special train there from the city which takes 3½ hours and connects with a shuttle bus from Molina station to the base village. It is an ideal choice for beginners and is popular with families.
The resort is ideal for intermediate skiers because you can warm up on some very good green slopes at Pista Llarga, Els Pins and Fontcanaleta then head up the mountain to take on a wide selection of blue and red pistes. Also La Molina connects with the neighbouring resort of Masella so there is a wide selection of skiing available.
With Barcelona so nearby it’s a good idea to avoid weekends as the number of skiers is much higher due to day trippers. This is especially the case at the beginning of the ski season when beginners converge on the small resort. Spanish is very much the language of the resort as few foreign operators use La Molina as a destination.
Masella is the neighbouring ski resort of La Molina. It lies 175 km from Barcelona and as such is easily accessible as a day trip destination to many skiers. Although Masella is nothing like the size of some of the more popular resorts in the Pyrenees it does have some very challenging runs for the experienced skier. The lower slopes are all between trees and the off-slope runs are excellent. There is no nightlife in Masella so not a place for an extended stay.
During the week it is a very pleasant ski station but at weekends it gets overcrowded with visitors from Barcelona. In spite of this, the four-seater Masella-Jet means you never have to wait very long to get started. There are efficient snow cannons on many slopes.
The main ski resorts in the Aragonese Pyrenees are as follows:
Candanchu in the Aragon Pyrenees is a medium sized ski resort which is ideal for hard skiing. It lies 385km from Barcelona which is the nearest international airport.
Local instructors proudly announce that if you can ski Candanchu, you can ski anywhere in the world. Runs are quite short by Alpine standards but no other resort can match its terrain which offers an enormous number of steep slopes within a small area. With more than a third of its slopes being for experts and off piste and its overall reputation for tough skiing this shouldn’t be the first choice for beginners.
As is the case with ski resorts worldwide it’s a good idea to avoid public holidays where possible as Candanchu is one of Spain’s most famous resorts. By night there isn’t great apres ski provision and many visitors prefer to stay down in Jaca and travel up to the slopes by day.
Formigal in the Aragon Pyrenees is now Spain’s largest resort with 137 km of pistes and is popular with families as well as youngsters. It lies 170 km from Zaragoza and 275 km from Barcelona. There are easy slopes for the novice and plenty challenges for the experienced skier/boarder including off piste. Most visitors are Spanish so some basic knowledge of the language would come in handy. The village is very pleasant for the evenings with a sufficient selection of bars and places to eat.
To get to Formigal you can fly into Pau and rent a car for the journey up the mountain but Zaragoza is more reliable in winter as the French road to the border is often closed! For some weeks of the ski season there is a weekly charter flight to the regional airport of Huesca-Pirineos.
Panticosa is located 170 km from Zaragoza in the Aragon Pyrenees. It is a quiet and friendly resort frequented by locals which explains the low prices in the resort. The resort has very good modern ski facilities with new lifts and adequate runs for all abilities. As a relatively unknown skiing destination it remains fairly quiet with plenty of room on the piste. Its ski school is excellent.
The village itself is quiet at night but the locals seem very welcoming to visitors so a good time can be had by all. Near the resort is the Panticosa Spa which is located in a most picturesque spot. Residential homes built in the 19th century and owned by famous Spanish families are to be found here including that of the scientist Ramon y Cajal who chose Panticosa as his ideal place to recuperate.
Cerler lies in the Aragon Pyrenees some 230km from Zaragoza which is the nearest airport. Barcelona is 290km away. The resort is not as small and unknown as it used to be. Already it has 76km of pistes and is undergoing an expansion which will make it even bigger than Formigal with 150km. This resort is especially popular with younger skiers.
Cerler is ideal for families or people looking for a flexible holiday involving a bit of skiing, some hiking and some relaxation away from the tourist hordes. It offers excellent views of the Aneto glacier nearby. There is limited accommodation in Cerler itself and many visitors prefer to stay in the nearby town of Benasque. The resort has nothing to offer in terms of aprés-ski so its market is clearly defined.