A French perspective

Misery loves company, or so the saying goes. So in tough economic times, people feel a kinship if others are hurting, too. At the very least people want to know how others are doing.

Even in good times, how other mountain towns are doing things has been of interest to Whistlerites interested in their town's future. Looking at others and looking in the mirror is a favourite pastime, all the more so as the Olympics near.

The towns of the French Pyrenees have never been a model for Whistler, but a couple of weeks exploring them provided an interesting perspective.

The first thing that stands out about many of the Pyrenees ski areas is that they are decentralized operations. Hotels are likely to be individually owned, restaurants belong to private restaurateurs and the ski lifts may be owned and operated by a small, local company. There are often multiple villages in the valleys, so accommodation is not concentrated in one area. Indeed, some ski areas are located at the end of a road, without any hotels or villages to "support" them.

One valley will be dedicated to alpine skiing and snowboarding, while the next valley will have a network of cross-country trails. In the summer, the cross-country areas are inundated with hikers. There are a growing number of mountain bike trails, and a few of the alpine ski areas have mountain bike parks. But the small Pyrenees roads and the cols they climb are a mecca for road cyclists.

The ski areas aren't that well known, outside of southwestern France and Spain. La Mongie, Luz Ardiden and Cauterets don't compete with Val D'Isere and Chamonix for skiers. We were told the residents like it this way.

Of course there are centuries of history here. The Romans built roads through these mountains that are still followed. The Pyrenees have influenced wars, presenting an insurmountable obstacle to some armies and halting their advancement, while providing cover for others in retreat. Opponents of Franco hid out in these mountains. Some were executed for assisting downed Allied airmen during the Second World War.

There is a 12 th century church at the centre of every little town.

History and population are where European mountain towns differ from North American mountain resorts. People have lived and worked in the Pyrenees and the Alps since time began. It's only relatively recently that they've ventured into the tourism business. And now there are tens of millions of people living within a couple of hours travel time of these mountains.

There are few signs that the economy is hurting tourism in the Pyrenees, because there are few outward signs the Pyrenees people are chasing tourism. Advertising campaigns, special deals, coordinated efforts to market hotels and resort areas together don't seem to be a priority. The only campaign in evidence was one to stop a proposed tunnel that would provide another link between Spain and France, and increase accessibility. Many apparently see the tunnel's negative impact on the local culture and lifestyle outweighing any increase in convenience.

A similar "Non" campaign against a tunnel in the Piedmont region outside of Torino was in evidence during the 2006 Olympics. Cultural integrity is important to the people who live in the Alps and Pyrenees.

But that doesn't mean these mountain people are completely independent. Farming is a big part of life in the Pyrenees, with the seasonal migration of sheep and cows to summer pastures in the mountains - the transhumance - the most obvious example. It's a charming part of vacationing in the Pyrenees.

Farming is also heavily subsidized, at least in France. It's, again, part of the effort to maintain cultural integrity in each region. But it also means there are lots of farmers riding around on brand new tractors.

France spends a lot of money and effort to ensure it looks charming and picturesque. There are subsidies available to people who want to renovate old buildings and turn them into tourist accommodation. There is the independent Les Plus Beaux Villages de France association, promoting small, picturesque French villages.

The history, compact geography, political culture and population of Europe are so different from North America that it is difficult to make comparisons of mountain towns there with purpose-built towns like Whistler and Sun Peaks. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. And each town is evolving, albeit at its own pace.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Pyrenees, perhaps it's the old adage "be yourself." Of course that isn't in the same realm as discovering the secret to cold fusion or how they get the caramel in the candy bar, but it implies understanding who and what we are. And what we aren't. That's something that, from time to time, Whistlerites need to think about.

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