On the piste with Joe Brolly in Andorra - 'Think Ibiza on ice'
I was out in Dublin the Friday night before the All-Ireland and bumped into some of the Irish rugby boys in Rob Kearney's club, Lemon & Duke.
They were having fun, rugby style. One thing led to another and in the small hours, we ended up rickshaw racing through Dublin city centre. All 130kg of Tadhg Furlong, the human wrecking ball, was squashed into a rickshaw along with Kearney.
As the rickshaws bounced up and down off the footpaths and weaved through traffic, we roared encouragement at the drivers, who whooped and honked their horns as they went faster and faster. I stumbled out of our rickshaw wheezing with laughter.
The next morning, I stood in the shower, tears of mirth running down my face at the memory. I got a text from one of the boys reading: "That was f*****g epic.''
The last time I saw Tadhg before that, I was sitting in a packed bar on a mountain top in Andorra, roaring him and his teammates on as they pounded the English in the Six Nations finale.
If you were parachuted into the Peruvian Amazon, after a few miles of wading through the jungle, you would surely stumble on an Irish bar. When I went into that bar in Andorra with my fellow ski students, there was a mural on the wall of Sam Maguire, with a caption underneath reading, 'What do you think about that, Joe Brolly?'
Like every bar in this tiny principality, it was vibrant, like a Bacardi Breezer ad. The gorgeous waitresses and hunky waiters drink shots behind the bar. When you order your first drinks, they bring out trays of shots, just to get the motor running. Cool music beats out constantly. You find yourself dancing, along with everyone else.
The world is left behind. Think Ibiza on ice.
It was my first package holiday. Everything was so easy, like being a small child on a school trip to the zoo. The Topflight reps were standing at the airport waiting for us when we arrived. Basically, from that point on, we didn't have to do anything. They checked us in, sorted the luggage, boarded us. We didn't have to fret or hang about. We just followed their instructions.
Disembarking was just as easy. They sorted the luggage, we got on the bus sitting at the airport doors, then marvelled at the panorama as we ascended into the mountains. We were dropped at the hotel, then the luggage was brought and dropped at reception.
For our package, the ski gear was included. The first morning, we were taken to Ski Pas by our rep Tom, a fantastic kid and passionate Evertonian. Going through the door of Ski Pas is to enter a different world. Chris Gardiner, an English dude who looked like a white Jimi Hendrix, gave me five and introduced me to his side-kick.
"Jesus, I don't believe it, it's Joe Brolly."
It was Sean Lafferty, a Derry man who went on the ski circuit several years ago and stayed on it. Chris, meanwhile, is a skiing legend on the circuit.
"Do one of your tricks for this man," said Lafferty. Chris took a long drag on his cigarette, pulled on his ski boots and said: "OK, but only one."
He stepped out onto the slope, took off downhill for five metres and performed a perfect forward somersault, landing on his skis. He turned, bowed and came back into the shop. "Easy," said Lafferty, patting me on the back and laughing.
There were around 20 of us in beginners' school. I was confident, thinking to myself that I would work ferociously at it and be skiing backwards in no time, firing off a machine gun like 007. Groups of five and six-year-old kids were skiing beautifully as we took the escalator to the baby slope. We got our initial instructions. Then, one by one, we were sent off.
Ever see a Labrador on skis? I was a disaster. I couldn't slow down, so I had no control. I spent six hours on the piste that first day, and I was getting worse. I was like Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em flying down the hill in the hospital trolley. I crashed into everything: snow boarders, other skiers, fence posts. I kept hurtling into the protective nets at the bottom of the slopes, getting snared in the webbing like a lion in a hunter's trap.
As the others in the group, including my glamorous partner, quickly got it, I was falling further and further behind. I can't remember ever feeling such humiliation and rage, certainly not since my early years with Derry when winning an All-Ireland became an all-consuming obsession.
After a few hours, I fell silent. Didn't speak. Just kept hauling myself back up the slope then slaloming down out of control. At the end of the three-hour class, the instructor, an Argentinian who could eat his dinner with a fork and knife while skiing downhill, said, in front of the group: "We must split into two groups tomorrow. Joe... and everyone else." For the first time in an hour I spoke. "Are you sure these skis are working properly?" He looked at me sympathetically, and said: "Sometimes it is the arrow, sometimes the Indian." Everyone laughed.
As they trooped off happily, I went back to the slope, with murderous intent, alone. When the slopes finally closed, I trudged, exhausted, back to Ski Pas. "Jesus man, look at your face," said Gardiner. I had stayed out too long in the mountain sun. I looked as though I had stuck two sausages onto my lips; they were swollen to twice their size. He hugged me and said: "Let's have a drink." I could have wept.
The next morning, our rep, Tom, who was incredibly attentive throughout, had arranged a one-to- one instructor. I arrived on the slope ready for battle. The instructor, a girl from Argentina, said hello and shook my hand. "OK Joe," she said, "you are so tense, you must relax. Give me your hands." She moved gently backwards on the slope, and I slid downhill with her. So far, so good. Then she let go and I flew past her before crashing into the nets.
By this stage, I was ready to start throwing punches. "Joe," she said, "you are at war with yourself."
With great patience, she used all her ingenuity to show me how to stop and how to turn. All of a sudden, it clicked. Within half an hour, I was skimming down the slope, turning left and right, changing the angle of descent and coming to a dead stop. For two hours, she expertly coaxed and coached. At lunchtime, she bade me goodbye and I headed for the bigger slopes.
That evening, I rejoined the world, speaking and socialising. The social life in Andorra is fantastic. The atmosphere is jolly and vibrant. The best tasting beer in the world is the one after skiing. The food is basic enough but good, and you are so ravenous after a day on the piste that the large plates of dinner quickly disappear, like hangovers. The air is so fresh and cold that in the morning, your head clears almost as soon as you go outside. By St Patrick's Day, we were jubilant. When we came off the slopes, together, it was like Christmas morning. We went to the bar in a group. A huge tray full of shots was brought over to us and we were up and running. We watched the All-Ireland club finals, cheering and roaring. Then we drank and sang and danced until there was nothing else for it but to sleep.
On Saturday, there was no class, but by then I was almost hypnotised by the slopes so was on them at the crack of dawn. It's not that I loved skiing. Or even that I found it exhilarating. It is that there is something inside me that drives me on. Something that felt as though I had let myself down. It is an affliction. I thought I had gotten over this years ago, but there it was, lurking deep inside me all along.
We got on the flight and as soon as we sat down, I turned to the glamorous brunette and said, "Let's go back next year."
"Let's not," she said.
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
The true highlight of the holiday was when I said goodbye to the beginners’ slope and began taking the stairlift to the high slopes. It is as you move silently above the mountain close to the clouds, that you begin to feel pure awe.
The bars rocked. There were no high-brow lounges with mahogany snugs. Nor were there any trendy whiskey bars, or gin palaces where they poured strawberry gin from china tea pots into china cups. But they were alive and happy. I never heard an angry exchange. Brotherly and sisterly love was all around, a sort of snowbound San Francisco.
Joe travelled to Andorra with Topflight, Ireland’s award-winning ski tour operator. He stayed at the four-star Hotel Magic Pas in the resort of Pas de la Casa. Topflight also features the resorts of Soldeu and Arinsal with weekly flights from Dublin.
Prices for this hotel start from €719 per person sharing in January 2018 and includes return flights from Dublin, airport transfers, accommodation for seven nights with breakfast and evening meal, 20kg baggage allowance and all taxes.
Topflight offers a wide selection of Andorran holiday options, including many self-catering apartments right up to five-star luxury hotels. All ski pack elements can also be booked with Topflight — talk to the team to discuss your personal requirements.
For further details and to discuss Topflight’s holiday options, call 01 2401700, visit topflight.ie or drop into your local travel agent. Topflight’s new ski brochure is out now.
Read more:Top 10 ski deals for 2017/18 - get on the piste at every price point!
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