Essex in the Alps

Simon Ashton on why Sauze d’Oulx, where a one-bed rental apartment costs as little as £2,500 for an entire year, allows many Brits to live the dream

I read recently that there are two million Brits living abroad in the Alps. That will be 1.9 million split between Chamonix and Val d’Isère, so where are the rest? For the last few years, my friend Sean has been renting an apartment that could readily sleep 10 about 100m or so from one of the main lifts in Sauze d’Oulx, Italy.

A builder by trade, he travelled out most weekends last season (long weekends) via Turin. Cheap flights, cheap parking and what I think is a very cheap rental price for the apartment means that 70 days skiing a year can be managed along with his job.

Granted, he owns a building firm so he has a lot of flexibility – but the firm doesn’t run itself and hence a mobile call in the middle of a powder run about whether a door will fit somewhere in a house in Kent is the price he pays.

Sauze is a dangerous place: a big Brit expat community actually spends the whole season there, swelled by the ranks of the weekend visitors who have a nice little gaff rented for the season.

For me, a northerner with a tendency to stereotype, anyone with a southern accent from east London or east of London is obviously from Essex, so Sauze to me has become ‘Essex in the Alps’. Now, most of the folks I met during a trip last winter were from Kent, so apologies, but ‘Essex in the Alps’ has a better ring to it, so I’ll claim artistic licence.

Whatever the age of the British visitors, they all party hard and you can easily get in a tangle in the Irish bar. Even the head of the local ski school we skied with, Guido, spoke with a Mancunian accent, apparently the fault of an old room mate.

The reason for the concentration of so many Brits is that Sauze is an hour from Turin at most, and unlike Geneva, the price of flights at weekends are not eye-wateringly expensive. It isn’t Chamonix, Morzine or any of the myriad French resorts that are an hour from Geneva, but it does have some easily accessible off piste, and while most of it is not death defying, there’s still a chance to get yourself in a bit of a mess if you wish.

It’s part of the Milky Way, so you can head off towards Montgenèvre for something more taxing or plan a day hike to find some hidden gems. Sauze is popular with the British holidaymaker who wants to party hard but not necessarily ski hard, so midweek powder doesn’t track out quickly, which is good news for people like you and me.

We went out around 9 March and it felt like spring had set in. We had to use savvy sense to find the softer snow, and any bad decision meant a rattly or breakable experience, but we largely found skiable ‘powder’, although it got progressively worse over the weekend, even though it had snowed only a few days before.

The resort sits at a respectable 1500m and everywhere else nearby was suffering the same conditions. Although Sauze tops out at 2700m, you can gain another 150m or so in Sestrière, so when the weather isn’t über-warm (damn you, climate change!) fresh snow should stay on condition for days and you’ll always find something untracked.

I can certainly see the attraction of renting an apartment there for the season, especially when you can get a one-bed close to a lift for £2500 for the year – and especially as they have now started opening lifts in the summer for mountain biking. Just below Sauze is the slightly unfashionable town of Oulx; no lifts link it to the ski resort but it’s only 15 minutes or so by car. If you don’t mind the quiet life, then an apartment comes in at the price of a garage in London.

Now, I’m not sure you can describe the weekenders as living in the Alps, so perhaps they are not part of the two million, but it seems to me they are living the best of two worlds: holding down jobs in the UK or being close to their kids in retirement, but skiing every weekend of the year if they want. It may not be the biggest or swankiest resort, but ‘Essex in the Alps’ allows many to live the dream. FL