Skiing for Grockles

Just fancy skiing
Just fancy skiing

Home from the holidays – a few days skiing in the Auvergne. Yes, you have heard of the Alps and perhaps even the Pyrenées – but the Auvergne ???

You are in that part of France that is known as the «massif central». –  which one website qualifies as “an elevated region in south central France.” – The Massif Central is that “elevated region” that extends from the middle of France to the sea. This is the region that I call “The vortex”.  No one lives here and there is no good reason for living here, unless you like absolute and not so splendid isolation.

The Auvergne is bleak. It looks like the Scottish Highlands on a rainy day. The Auvergne is a mountainous area formed from extinct volcanoes. Everything in the Auvergne is built from dark volcanic rock. This gives every building a sinister, grey appearance. The climate is lousy. It is freezing in winter and cold in summer. People who like this region would call the weather, « bracing ». The landscape is a moonscape and there is nothing to do. It is perhaps for these reasons, that the Auvergne sells itself to tourists, as a peaceful, unpolluted wilderness, where you can get back to and be at one with nature.

In the Auvergne, you can ski in winter and go hiking in summer

“The best hiking country in France” spouts one guide, whilst others vaunt the merits of this “natural wilderness”. They are all though unanimous in qualifying the region as “isolated” or “remote” or (my favourite) “off the well beaten tourist track.”

My ex-pat friend and former work colleague, Joanne lived for five years in the Auvergne. During that time she had two kids, two nervous breakdowns, a drink problem and three friends who committed suicide. She once compared the place to “the seventh circle of hell.” – That place in Danté’s Inferno, guarded by the Minotaur and reserved for (among others), blasphemers, and sodomites. On entering the Seventh Circle, sinners are apparently immersed in a river of boiling blood and fire, to a level, commensurate with their sins.  Makes you think twice about heading there on a short break.

The Auvergne – Skiing for Grockles

Grockle on the Piste
Grockle on the Piste

For those unfamiliar with this derogatory English term, here are a couple of definitions:

“Anyone who is not a member of the upper class / middle-upper class (vast majority of the country then). Can be described as “common” and also relates to ‘riff-raff’ and ‘pleb’. Derogatory meaning, basically a more diplomatic word for chav or simply someone of a low social standing, not very well-off financially and not accustomed to the finer things in life.”

“A holidaymaker, or one from out of town. Particularly used in the South of England, generally as a mildly derogatory term.”

Ski holidays are an expensive business. We can’t afford the Alps and besides our ski gear is so old and so unfashionable, that the Parisians would laugh us off the « pistes ».

When we go skiing it is to the Auvergne. In  winter, the Auvergne is the place to go for cheap skiing. Cheap, because there is not always enough snow to ski.

The Auvergne has three main ski resorts – Le Mont Dore, Super Besse and Super Lioran, though there is nothing particularly super about the two latter resorts. Compared to the Alps the Auvergne is cheap and is full of the kind of people who can’t afford the Alps.

On the slopes in the Auvergne you meet people who ski in quilted nylon anoraks and bobble hats. (I must admit, I still feel quite fashionable in my twelve-year old Decathlon ski suit.) Skiers in the Auvergne take Tupperware boxes filled with sandwiches on to the pistes. They carry thermoses of hot chocolate in their knapsacks. Skiers on the Auvergne do it on a budget. Skiers in the Auvergne are all the locals within a two hundred mile radius who could not afford to go to the Alps. This down-at-heel feel does have certain advantages. You are always sure to meet someone you know on the slopes, probably your neighbour. There are very few Parisians, no drunken brits and no loud -mouthed Germans, elbowing their way into the queue for the drag lift. The Auvergne is highly unfashionable and very rough and ready. So unfashionable is it, that not even Parisian social workers will bring their charges to grace the slopes.

Let’s put it this way. Après ski in the Alps is hanging round in bars, going to discos or using the pool at the hotel. In the Auvergne, Après ski is drying out your wet ski gear using the miniscule fan heater in your self catering studio, while you wait for the frozen shepherd’s pie to cook in the microwave.

Oh yes, I make it all sound so miserable

In fact readers, we had an excellent few days on the slopes of the Auvergne. There was plenty of snow to ski on, as much as 1.70 metres on the lower slopes,and as for frozen microwave dinners, this time round we decided agaisnt the self-catering option and stayed instead in a «small family run hotel» offering small family prices for small families such as mine.

So, what is the attraction of skiing – that «sporting activity» where you clamp two strips of laminated wood of your feet and slide down slippery, snow-covered mountain at breakneck speed?

Unless you actually try skiing, you will never actually know how much fun it is – even for a lousy skier like myself. Sliding down a slope is just exhilerating, and when you get to the bottom without falling over, colliding with other skiers or killing yourself, you feel a real sense of achievement.

There are of course several things that might put you off ever wanting to try the sport.

First and foremost, there is obvously the weather factor. Who in their right mind would want to spend all day on a snow covered moutainside in sub zero temperatures?

Well if you wear the correct clothing, weather is not an issue, but clothing is another issue. Ski wear is very «ungainly» apparel. Once you have clad yourself in several layers of thermal underwear and managed to squeeze yourself into a ski suit, you are in appearance somewhat like an astrounaut, a bomb disposal expert or a Tellytubby. In terms of movement, you have all the grace and manouevrability of a deep sea diver. Mobility is furtherreduced when you clamp on those all encasing, heavy ski boots. Of course, ski boots are not meant for walking, they are designed to protect you ankles and also keep your feet firmly clamped to the skis. However if you do want to get to the slopes, a certain amount of walking in your heavy ski boots is necessary. «Giant steps are what you take …» Once on skis though, all this ungainly and cumbersome apparel takes on its own logic and once you have fallen over several times in wet snow, you are jolly glad to be clad in deep sea diver mode.

cumbersome ski clothing
cumbersome ski clothing

As for the skis – yep, they can be tricky, but there is no getting down the moutain without them.

Once you're up, the only way is down.
Once you’re up, the only way is down.

I suppose what might put a majority of people off skiing (apart from the price) is, the kind of people who traditionally go skiing.

Back in my schooldays, there was always the annual ski trip. Mum always used to urge me to go skiing with the school. Problem was though, my fellow skiers were all the school «jocks» – the Rugby/cricket types – all good at sport. had the school organised ski trips for overweight, uncoordinated wimps – I would have gone lke a shot. At school, I could never see the point of spending a week, falling over in the snow with the kind of people who made my everyday life hell. I didn’t actually start skiing until I was in my thirties. Just one regret. Once I had started, I just wish that I had done it years before.

Unlike summer hoilidays, where you spend a week frying in the sun, skiing is quite physical – it «empties» you both physically and mentally. This is a good sport to forget all those problems, that you might otherwise dwell upon whilst lying on the beach.

All this, makes coming home from a ski holiday far harder that coming home from a beach holiday. The feel good factor after a week on the slopes is far greater than that after a week on the beach. You moving, doing and achieving, whilst on the beach you are just doing nothing.

Ah well, we re home now, and coming back down to reality. We’ll get over our hols eventually.