There are no hip hotels, boutique chalets or pizza parlours. The après-ski amounts to a cognac in front of the fire while a club usually involves pétanque. France’s Auvergne region is a long way from the hustle and bustle of ski resorts of The Alps but for an alternative winter holiday it definitely hits the spot.
Nestled in the heart of the Massif Central, the Auvergne is a national park of 80 volcanic craters and glacial lakes. A rambler’s paradise in summer months, in winter it is transformed into a scene out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale, complete with gingerbread houses, a thick blanket of snow and old-fashioned hospitality.
I stayed in Pailherols, a tiny hamlet perched atop a high plateau – reached by a two-hour train from Clermont Ferrand and subsequent taxi ride along the winding road from Vic sur Cere. With only one bar-tabac (open when the owner fancied), a smattering of houses and an organic farm it’s a far cry from the resorts of Meribel and Tignes.
Although there are plenty of slopes for downhill skiing by far the most popular way to explore is by cross country skiing or using raquettes (snow shoes). As a first-time skier au fond I was a little apprehensive, particularly as to how I would be able to hoist myself up the inclines but was pleasantly surprised.
Cross country skiing, albeit tough, is surprisingly fun when you get the hang of it and it allows you to glide along the paths taking in the stunning and rather dramatic surroundings. Once you’ve mastered the ungainly walk uphill there’s no stopping you and there are ample downhill sections to get that adrenaline flowing.
One day of my week séjour was spent hiking 10km in raquettes to a remote auberge high up in the mountains. With no electricity it was rather impressive how its little old lady owner managed to prepare one of the tastiest stews I’ve ever tried. The 10km return hike wasn’t exactly a walk in the park (walking in raquettes is like having tennis racquets strapped to your shoes) but certainly rustled up an appetite.
The cuisine in the Auvergne is typically rustic so forget the usual ski fare of club sandwiches and fondue. Traditional dishes such as aligot (mashed potatoes with creamy Tomme cheese) and pounti, a sweet and sour soufflé of prunes are served alongside salmon-trout, veal and rabbit. After a day’s huffing and puffing up slopes you can certainly indulge but you may wish to go easy on the very rich food.
The Auvergne doesn’t spring to mind when planning a skiing or snowboarding trip but it may just be France’s hidden secret. There might not be the glitz and glamour of Val d’Isere but there are no queues for ski lifts, a day’s ski pass costs between €20 and €25, you can take a ride in a horse-drawn sledge and, most importantly (and excuse the cliché) you feel like you’re seeing the ‘real’ France.
Have you been to the Auvergne? Have you tried cross country skiing? Share your thoughts below…