How To Take A Tropical Baby to the Alps!
Its been over six months since my last post – so, what happened, you ask?! Toddler happened! My crawler suddenly turned into a walker and now a runner at 18 months. She also added at least 500 new words to her vocabulary across the three languages we speak. I was enjoying the energy of this new phase so much that I sort of got lost in it. But now that I have settled well into it, I am back! And I have a lot to write about! A train trip, a ski trip, a work trip, and a wedding trip… But in the spirit of starting with a bang, I thought I would start with the ski trip to the Alps.
Now, in case you missed my intro blog – we are avid snowboarders and do our best to make at least one trip to the mountain every year. This was our annual ski trip (I don’t know why we call it a ski trip even though both of us snow board), and we wanted Arya to get familiar with the cold and the snow for next year when she is old enough to start skiing (maybe – usually ski schools take kids in at 3, but some of them make exceptions). So, for the busy bees I have summarized my top takeaways first. For those of you who want the play-by-play including the story about our car breaking down on New Years Eve please read on.
Preparing for the trip: In all honesty… it takes a village
Help/Baby-sitting: So, if you have been following my blogs you know that we are blessed with amazing families who have been supportive during our adventures. This time, we recruited my sister Radhika and Saurabh’s cousin Prerna to come along. Both in their twenties, I thought they would get along could help babysit Arya while we snow board. Plus they get to experience Europe by car in the winter. I cant say this enough – they were a huge help! When we took Arya to Europe she was 15 months old and in a transitional phase from being a baby to being a toddler – which for those of you who have toddlers know can be a tough phase. And Radhika and Prerna handled Arya very well. Now I can understand that you may not have the luxury to take a family member along – I also did a lot of research about day care facilities at the ski resorts most of them accept babies older than 1 year. Some even take 6 month olds. You need to make sure that the travel insurance you buy covers your baby and includes something called “Civil Responsibility Insurance” which in plain language means that if you baby breaks something expensive the insurance will cover it. Plus – I am told Swiss and French nannies are so good – there is no baby who does not like them!
Lodging: As always, I booked Airbnb/Chalets for the whole trip – which makes arranging food for baby much simpler. Also saves a lot of money if you are a big group at ski resorts where restaurant food is double the price in a city. You could easily spend EUR 100 per person per day on food alone if you eat all meals out (and no, that does not include Dom Perignon to go with your oysters, I am talking Beer, Burger and Fries)!
Baby Safety: A lot of parents wonder if it is safe to take babies to high altitudes. The answer is that babies are as much prone to the different types of sicknesses associated with high altitudes as adults. The difference is that they are unable to communicate when they experience symptoms like headaches, or dizziness. I recommend that all parents read about mountain sickness and its symptoms before planning a trip. Slow ascent and descent ensures that baby’s body does not experience a drastic change in conditions. We drove the entire trip – which ensured this slow transition. And we ensured that Arya largely stayed in the ski village which is the lowest altitude point in the area, and did not take her with us on the ski lifts that go to higher altitudes. Mostly, she was under 2500 meters in altitude, which the relatively safer limit.
Clothing: Bottom line – babies and adults both need three essential layers to be fully protected and comfortable in the cold: an outer layer of down feather or similar material which is both warm and water proof, a middle layer of fleece or wool, and an inner layer of soft body-hugging thermal material. All of these layers are easily available in India
through e-commerce sites. If you plan to take the baby on the snow, you also need wool socks and snow boots. If you don’t travel frequently to cold places I recommend only 1-2 items of each layer. I would buy a few additional items in the middle layer because while you are indoors you typically remove the top layer which leaves the middle layer most vulnerable to food spillage.
Food: Ah! The big F again… I have a separate blog on food while traveling. But in a nutshell – bring a couple of baby favorites from home and pick up basics like egg, bread, pasta, milk, cereal, rice at the local grocery stores. If you do not book an apartment and have to make do with a hotel room – I recommend carrying some packaged foods like cheese sticks, wheat puffs, and fruits for snacks, and order baby friendly side dishes (mashed potatoes, rice, veggies) in the restaurants.
Now – For Those of Your Who Want the Play-by-Play
We planned the trip about three months in advance and decided to land in Milan because it is a good shopping city (and the air tickets are relatively cheap). We have been to Milan a few times now and know the area around the Duomo like the back of our hands now (ok, maybe not that well), but it was new for Radhika and Prerna, and generally a fun city. We arrived at 6am at Malpensa Airport and realized that the car we had booked may not hold all people and luggage we were carrying: 4 large suitcases, a baby seat (mandatory in Italy), a stroller, two snowboards with helmets, four adults, and baby. So we decided to upgrade to a bigger SUV – which wasted about an hour and a half at the car rental place but was totally worth the wait. Arya ran around the airport lobby pointing out all the lights (new word in her vocabulary then) while the rest of us enjoyed our morning coffee. We reached the apartment, which was about half a km from the Duomo, at about 9am, settled all the luggage in and set out to be tourists!
Radhika and Prerna took a tour of the Duomo while Saurabh, Arya, and I fed and chased pigeons in the square and enjoyed the food and wares at the sprawling Christmas market at Duomo square. It can get a little annoying for my co-travelers but I like to eat/taste everything available at these markets and street vendors. We enjoyed some warm mulled wine with baked goodies. By the afternoon the adrenaline and dopamine from the excitement of Milan were starting to wear off and the crankiness from being on the flight all night was creeping back. After a few friendly squabbles and snapping at each other we decided to go shopping our own ways. Saurabh watched Arya while the three girls shopped. Shopping bags in hand we went back to the apartment, enjoyed some warm coffee and got back in the car for our appointment to view the The Last Supper (you have to book in advance or you will pay arm and a leg to local tour guides for tickets!) All arted-out, we got back in the car and headed to the Armani bar. Saurabh and I had been here before but thought this would be a treat for Radhika and Prerna who were in Europe for the first time – and they loved it! Arya slept through most of it in her car seat that we parked next to us. We got a few stares when she woke up and started crying in the middle, but I ran out in the lobby with her and patted her back to sleep.
The next morning, we enjoyed the view from the balcony of our apartment with some coffee for some time, then packed our bags and left for the first ski resort – Val d’Isere via Turin. On the way to Turin, with all the Christmas songs on the radio I was starting to get super excited about Christmas. While Diwali is hands down my favorite time of the year – I think Christmas comes second – and in Europe it is just a hundred times better! So we decided to do Secret Santa – I set a limit of EUR 10 to make it fun andfair. We tried to play car games like “20 questions” and “Guess the movie” but they all got boring after the bit. Getting Arya to say funny things was definitely more fun! We got her to say “We are on a Holiday!!!” and “Santa Claus is coming… To Town!”
Two and a half hours later, we were in Turin. Turin (or Torino) is one of the largest cities in Northern Italy – and unofficially the food capital of Italy – this is where the first Eataly opened (it was closed the day we went)! We parked near Piazza Castello and explored the piazza and all the activity – including, guess what!, another Christmas market!! I love those! And perfect place to shop for Secret Santa! We decided to split up and meet back at the piazza in an hour and a half for lunch. We walked around some more towards where the restaurants were, had some coffee and beer, and changed Arya’s diaper. To keep it fair for everyone – Saurabh and I took turns changing the diaper when we were outdoors, and Radhika and Prerna took turns when we were away on the slopes. I thought that was fair – but I had a few complainers…ahem (can’t please them all!).
It took us another 4.5 hours from Turin to Val d’Isere – well we added one hour because we followed the GPS (despite Google Maps showing the correct route), that led us to a supposedly shorter route – only to find out that road was snowed in and hence closed! And wait – this wasn’t our only driving adventure! We get to Val d’Isere, get the keys to our apartment from the rental office, and head to the apartment – which was up a steep and icy slope. The car not only refused to go up, it actually slid back – I think the girls were a bit shaken up by all this. Saurabh and I have been in “car stuck in snow situation” a few times now so we were used to it. Saurabh (with this excellent driving skills) managed to park the car at a safe spot and carried all the stuff up the slope to the apartment – that was more exercise than some people in our group (I wont name names – you know who you are) get in a week!
All settled in the apartment, and Arya asleep, we decided that two of us would go out to fend for dinner (it was a bit late, so we were afraid most of the restaurants would be closed). We found a great smelling café/bakery that had pizza, chicken pastries, and other good stuff. Luckily we had picked up some groceries when we stopped at one of the convenience stores – so we were set for next morning.
Next day, I made some scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast for everyone and Radhika brought out the two staples of any desi group on holiday: bhujia, and hot sauce! I had to f
eed the girls before I prepared them for their first day alone with Arya. I even left them some pasta and bottled sauce in case they were unable to step out. But I told them they could go out if they wanted – they just had to put some clothes (umm three layers) on Arya to make sure she is warm. Saurabh and I headed to the slopes and had a great day there – enjoyed a couple of coffees during our breaks, and had a wholesome pasta lunch (with the most delish Bolognese sauce) at one of the mountain restaurants. For those of you who want more details on skiing/snow boarding conditions at Val d’Isere – please write to me separately. Don’t want to bore the rest with that.
As a ski resort – Val d’Isere is a quaint village but had a lot of character – and great crowd. It has mostly European cuisine (and some American food). We tried a French restaurant and a pub/bar food place for dinner. On Christmas night I cooked up what the girls said were the “best burgers they had ever had.” We bought some beer and Champagne to go with it. Saurabh and I were too tired from the riding all day and stayed in the apartment with Arya and a couple of beers all the three nights. Prerna and Radhika went out to the night club and the bars and said they were great.
After three days there, we were to drive to Courchevel. But we decided to add Geneva to the itinerary for the girls. We left at around 8am and arrived a little before 11am. We parked in Old Town within a walking distance from St. Pierre Cathedral. We walked up to the highest point from where you could see Lake Geneva and Jet d’Eau. Radhika and Prerna went up to get a view of the city from the church tower while Saurabh, Arya, and I played outside with pebbles. We then descended to the main street parallel to the lake where all the expensive stores are. All of us admired in silence the most beautiful footwear in the world at the Louboutin window display – that’s it my pilgrimage was done – I could die now! Then we looked at the prices, looked at each other, laughed, and resumed walking across the lake to a Mexican restaurant Saurabh had found. Lunch was the most delicious burritos I have ever had (or maybe I was really hungry)! Arya snacked on corn chips, and looked out the window facing the street while the rest of us indulged in porky burrito goodness. The plan was to walk to Jet d’Eau after lunch but food coma got the better of us. We decided to head back to the car and head to Courchevel instead.
We arrived in Courchevel by 6pm, and got the keys to our beautiful condo. This was perhaps the smallest condo I had stayed in terms of area but it definitely was one of the most well designed and utilized ones I had seen. The owner Svetlana was a sweet and helpful lady who gave us a tour of the apartment and explained all the equipment to us. She had even bought a folding tub to bathe Arya in – how thoughtful! – if you have tried to bathe a baby in a shower you know how difficult that is! We settled all the luggage in and Saurabh and I decided to go grocery shopping for dinner. I decided to cook everyone dinner. Saurabh picked up some beer and cigars and I picked some salmon and flat noodles with some spices to cook up some Asian style mustard-wasabi salmon and chili noodles. Again, everyone relished the food, and with Arya asleep after some shenanigans we kicked back with some beers.
Courchevel is one of the poshest ski resorts I have been to (others super posh ones are Lech in Austria and Zermatt in Switzerland). It is the regular haunt of rich Russian families. It is very family friendly with a bunch of non-skiing activities to keep everyone entertained. I have never seen anything quite like the Aquamotion Center there – an indoor water resort complete with a kiddie play area, water slides, indoor surfing, and salt water hammams. The town center also had a free kids play area, pony rides, a carousel, and candy and popcorn vendors. While it was more kids friendly, the snow conditions in the week of Christmas were less than ideal with mostly artificial snow on most of the open tracks. This was the first time I rode down a mountain on icy tracks with bare ground on both sides of me. It was a bit scary when my board lost control a couple of times because of lack of traction and there were other people in the way. Regardless of the ski conditions – we did have fun with the apre’ ski scene – everything from quaint pubs to Michelin star restaurants.
On our second night there Saurabh decided to surprise me with a dinner date at the Michelin star restaurant at Le Chabichou Hotel. Since we arrived slightly early we decided to get a drink at the bar. This was a truly old school bar with live jazz music and we were possibly the youngest people there – but I enjoyed the experience. With a number of delicious accompaniments served with our drinks – I think I was full before dinner even started! We decided to go with the chef’s four course menu at the restaurant (really 8 courses if you include the amuse bouche, the palette cleanser, the cheese course and the chocolate course!) – and it was divine! The chef had a modern take on some French classics, and it was a fine display of carefully chosen ingredients (ok, I was a fine dining critic for a day).
With holes the size of Russia in our pockets, but satisfied smiles from ear to ear we made our way back to the chalet – to find that Radhika and Prerna nearly passed out from exhaustion! Arya had apparently driven them up the wall with all her antics and refused to sleep despite it being way past her bedtime. She finally fell asleep minutes before we arrived. We love you girls! J
The next day, I decided to give snow boarding a skip and joined the girls at the Aquamotion center while Saurabh went on the mountains for a half-day. I checked myself into the spa (mommy needs pampering!) while Radhika and Prerna took Arya to the pool. After my treatment I went up to the café and watched the girls fight over holding Arya in the pool (even after last night’s drama!! – I guess the cuteness makes you forget the pain they put you through!).
Since it was New Years Eve, and nearly the end of the trip – Prerna and Radhika decided to treat us to a fun filled evening at home – they prepared the appetizers and ordered the main course from a restaurant, brought some good champagne and even thought up funny party games! Somewhere in the middle of all this we found out that our car had broken down. We had a 9pm flight from Milan next day so while we did have some time to figure everything out, we realized it was New Years Eve and panicked a little. While the towing company took the defunct car away, they didn’t have a replacement to send us, since it was New Years Eve and they were both short staffed and sold out.
Just as we were trying to sort this out, an old French man, who lived in the condo above us stopped by to say that he was sorry our car had broken down and would be happy to help us any way. This was the best hospitality I had seen in France! He helped us figure out that the closest big train station was Chambery from where we could get a train to Milan next day. He also called and helped us negotiate the lowest last moment price we could get with one of the local cab companies. He was truly a God-sent!
Unfortunately, this meant our New Years Party had to be cut short a little because we had to clean up the house and leave very early in the morning – pack all the suitcases, snowboards, and baby equipment too. Brightside: the girls got to see the fabulous Milan Centrale Station, and Saurabh got to eat his favorite type of food – greasy Chinese takeout – for lunch. Milan Centrale has a luggage check-in service which allowed us to leave all the luggage and explore the area around the station before we headed to the airport.
Overall – I think it was a great trip! And Radhika and Prerna made it that much better. I can’t wait for the next ski strip – she will be two years old this time, and we may even be able to try some skis on her!
Feel free to share your mountain and Europe experiences (and any other travel tips) in the comments below – I love the tips shared on my previous posts!