Southern Spain is known for its exotic, passionate culture; the Costa del Sol for the sunniest climate in Europe, and Marbella for its glamorous lifestyle under clear blue skies. As a result, the region has become a major destination for golfers, beachgoers and culture vultures – many of whom may not realise that they are just over two hours from some of the best skiing this side of the Alps.
As you lie by the pool or have lunch under the palm trees your first thought would not be of snowy slopes and ski resorts, but the fact is that after a sunny breakfast on the coast you could find yourself on the ski slopes of the mighty Sierra Nevada by afternoon. Though further south than we imagine the snowline to be, the Sierra Nevada’s lofty heights typically allow for five months of skiing, and all the attendant distractions.
A series of mountain ranges
Famous coastal resorts such as Marbella, Sotogrande and Nerja occupy the narrow coastal plain that is sandwiched between the Mediterranean and the first of several mountain ranges. It is this setting that endows Marbella, and many of the other coastal areas with a particularly pleasant climate. Further inland, the successive mountain ranges gain in height as they mark the ascent from coastal plain through escarpment to the famous Spanish Meseta, or plateau.
Characteristically dry and much harsher in character than the coast, the interior plains of Spain bake in the summer heat and lie exposed to the winter’s biting cold. Situated between coast and plains, idyllic valleys and gorges cut green paths through the mountainous mass that combines lush pastures with jagged peaks and ridges. It is within this environment that the Sierra Nevada stands head and shoulders above the rest, reaching peaks of up to 3,500 metres.
The mightiest of Andalucía’s mountain ranges, its northern slopes form the famous backdrop to the city of Granada and its Alhambra palace. Southwards, the Sierra Nevada gazes down upon slopes that lead headlong towards the blue Mediterranean sparkling in the sun. On a clear day it is possible not just to spot stretches of beach, but also across the Straits of Gibraltar to the coast of North Africa. The idea that you could be on the slopes in the morning and lying on the beach by afternoon is therefore a rather unique but viable one.
As one of Spain’s best winter sports destinations, the Sierra Nevada’s ski resorts attract visitors from across the country, and indeed abroad, but it also a wonderful winter attraction for those who live on the coast. Having this facility a little over two hours’ drive away makes it an ideal weekend getaway that many local residents make the most of. From mid-November to early April families take the well-engineered roads up to resorts that are more reminiscent of the Alps than the southern fringe of Europe.
Indeed, the area has 61 kilometres of ski slopes, with 45 pistes and six off-piste routes – and is well facilitated with cable cars and ski lifts. Popular also with snowboarders, the facilities are of a high standard and include ski and snowboarding instruction in a variety of languages, equipment hire and even child day-care centres. The hotels, cafés and shops that have developed around the ski resorts cater to a diverse public that ranges from seriously sporty types to family groups and visitors looking for a little extra in comfort and luxury.
The former will get their thrills from night skiing and the near vertical descent offered by the El Rio slope, while those whose main incentive focuses more on the social side of things will be drawn by an après-ski scene that models itself on the Alpine tradition – with unmistakable touches of Spain.
A popular area with nature lovers in the summer, the Sierra Nevada is a hive of wintry activity during the winter sports season. Much of this will be focused on the resort village of Pradollano, which sports a charming mix of Alpine and Spanish highland architecture. A huge underground car park ensures vehicles are safely – and attractively – tucked out of sight.
Comfort and ambience
Instead of cars the ‘streets’ fill with people on their way to and from the slopes, the sun terraces and the lively cafés and shops. Restaurants and bars combine winter charm with Spanish heart, while many of the hotels offer heated indoor swimming pools and spas. Where the good citizens of Switzerland and Austria are likely to call it a day quite early on the gregarious Spanish will keep things alive until the morning hours, so be prepared for a lively time. Those, however, who come for pure relaxation could do worse than to find a jacuzzi looking out over the mountains towards the Mediterranean beyond – something few ski resorts can boast of.