The Seventh Circle of Hell

Let’s Go Skiing

« Let’s go skiing, » said the wife

« Are you mad? » I retorted

« There’s loads of snow. »

« Even more reason not to go.”

“Come on” said the missus in conciliatory coaxing tones. “You”ll love it”

« What about avalanches? » I cried « Imagine we go hors piste and get killed »

Around 40 skiers a year get killed in avalanches in France. A sobering thought, that would deter many a would-be skier.

My wife reassured me that nothing dangerous would happen, adding, that as a first-timer, I’d probably never make it off the nursery slopes – well away from avalanche territory. She then told me that she had booked a week’s skiing in the Auvergne. My heart sank.

A few days later, I’m speaking to Joanne, an ex-pat friend and work colleague.

“Oh, you’re off to the Auvergne!” Joanne sounded surprised. There was a short, stunned silence.

“Why are you going there?”

“We’re off for a week’s skiing” I replied

“Why the Auvergne though?” persisted Joanne

“Well it’s not far and it’s cheap”.

“I suppose a week is enough,” said Joanne.

“I personally, I think it’s a week too much.”

Joanne had 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 – The Seventh Circle of Hell

The Auvergne is in 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. If you have the misfortune to live there all year round, there are various other “leisure activities” open to you including drinking, wife-beating, depression, incest or suicide.

The locals, known as “Auvergnats”, live off a diet of cabbage, potatoes, lentils and fatty pork. The local delicacy is the “potée Auvergnate” – boiled cabbage and potatoes supplemented by chunks of fatty pork.

Nothing much grows in the Auvergne. The bleak hillsides are home to sheep and cows. There is a lot of cheese in the Auvergne, mostly hard salty cheese that will keep through the long winter months in the cellar.

Cellars are damp places and occasionally mould gets into the cheese. When my cheese goes mouldy, I chuck it out. In the Auvergne, because the inhabitants are mean and never miss a chance to make money, they call their mouldy cheese “Bleu d’Auvergne” and sell it as a “delicacy”.  “Bleu d’Auvergne” is no more than a pale, downmarket imitation of that other Blue cheese – Roquefort.

I know I have been very negative about the place. Other “travel guides” are a little more up beat,

“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.”

The Auvergne – Skiing for Grockles

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.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=grockles

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.

How basic is basic?

Off skiing in Superbesse – circa 2006

I hate the Auvergne, and as we drove on the A71 down to Clermont, all I wanted to do was turn the car around and drive home.

After Clermont, the A71 merge with the A72. This then became the A75. The main motorway to Montpellier. The road to the sun. I badly wanted sun. The car was being buffeted by 80km an hour winds, and it was pissing rain from endless grey skies.

My wife rummaged in her handbag. She pulled out a worn manila envelope, and a dog-eared map.

She told me that we were heading for the mountain village of « Besse, », near the ski resort of « Super Besse ». I had already been to Besse nearly twenty years before. It was bloody miserable. I assumed with a name like « Super Besse » the ski resort might hopefully be less miserable.

« The woman said the accommodation is a bit basic, but there is a telly. »

« How basic is basic? »

We left the motorway on junction 6 and took the D996 to Besse. The further we got off the beaten track, the worse things got. Twisting mountain roads with sheer drops. One false move, we were dead.

It started to snow. Not nice Christmas card snow, but thick porridge. God knows what they would make of this in London where all normal life ceases at the sign of the first snowflake.

All along the road, other motorists had pulled into lay-bys. They were fitting up with snow chains. We didn’t have any. We would just have to slip and slide around in second gear until we got to Besse.

In the end we didn’t do much of either. A few kilometres from Besse, the traffic ground to a halt. The authorities hadn’t closed the road, this was merely a vast jam of other « holidaymakers » trying to get to Superbesse.

It was normal. It was Saturday lunchtime.

For those who have no first hand experience of French holiday habits, the French always go on holiday on a Saturday. All holidays lets, (gîtes, self catering, bed and breakfast) whatever the region or the season, run traditionally from Saturday to Saturday. The further you live from your holiday destination, the earlier you leave home.

In summer, Parisians who go to the Côte d’Azur, will leave home on a Friday evening and drive all night down the A6 to get to the sea. They will normally arrive in the South of France around dawn. They will then sleep in their cars, or go to the beach, until 3pm, the time at which they can legally take possession of their holiday accommodation.

Around two, we were still sitting in the traffic. We were entering the village of Besse. Thankfully, we had reached the end of the road. For all those going to Superbesse, 10km further on, there would still be a couple of hours of petrol fumes and rising blood pressure.

Every year, though thousands of people come to the region to ski, it has never occurred to the local authorities to build a decent road up to the resort.

This Saturday afternoon, Besse was like Paris in the rush hour

We arrived at our guesthouse. A four-storey, grey stone monolith, with red shutters. The monolith bore an uncanny resemblance to a haunted house from a cheap horror B-movie. There was something vaguely “satanic” about the place. You just knew that something nasty had happened here

Before we could actually park the car, I had to get out and shovel away several tons of snow.

The landlady and her husband stood close by and watched. Occasionally they uttered words of encouragement in their thick local dialect.

Sod the snow. All I wanted to find out was just how « basic » our basic accommodation would be.

Into the guesthouse. Black and white marble tiles, whitewashed walls, pot plants and the irresistible smell of sausages cooking in the back kitchen.

We struggled up a couple of flights of wooden stairs. The landlady unlocked the door to our « apartment ». 40 square metres of bright orange walls, creaking parquet and some very heavy, post-war utility-style furniture. One double bed, a put-u-up sofa that had seen better days, and two « home made » bunk beds. In the kitchen, a couple of modern electric hobs, a fridge, a microwave and an oven. There was a small bathroom with a shower cabinet, and a separate toilet in a curtained off alcove in the main room. Basic, but warm,  if not a little uncomfortable. It would do, and it was cheap; 300€ for the week.

Advice from the landlady. If we wanted a shower, we would have to wait a while get any water, it had to come up the mountain. Besse is at 1000 metres. High enough to make your ears pop when driving up

Time to unpack. There was one huge wardrobe to shove everything in. We hauled on our cheap and cheerful « Decathlon » ski suits and headed off to the slopes. We had to rent our gear.

By now, so much snow had fallen, that it was impossible to drive up to the slopes without chains. Our landlady told us we might get a set at the local supermarket. We would have to walk (or rather climb) to the town to buy some.

For a large village of a couple of thousand inhabitants, the local supermarket turned out to be well stocked and even reasonably priced, except of course for chains. Just over 100€ for a set. We had no choice. No chains, no holiday, besides they were obligatory to drive up to Superbesse.

Chains are a bugger to fit. They have to be fitted over the main driving wheels of the car. The front wheels in most cases. They cannot be attached from the front; they have to be fixed on behind the wheel. All chains are sold with a large pair of plastic gloves. I soon found out why, when after half an hour of struggling with the chains, both my arms, up to my elbows were covered in a greasy, snowy oily « shit. »

We never made it up to Superbesse that day. We spent an hour in a traffic jam, going nowhere very slowly and finally turned round and headed back to the guesthouse as night started to fall (6pm)

Tired from the rigours of the day, we uncorked a bottle of Sancerre and collapsed.

La Petite Ferme -Back on the Slopes

Skiing memories circa 2008.

Up early, pack the car and off we go.

Two and a half hour drive to the slopes at Super Besse in the Auvergne

Motorway all the way.

Very little traffic, the advantage of leaving on a Monday and not a Saturday.

Arrival at our « hotel/auberge » around midday. (This year we’ve decided to go upmarket)

“La Petite Ferme”,  a slightly crumbling imitation Swiss chalet.

Date carved in stone above the entrance indicates that the place was built in 1921.

32 rooms from doubles at 65 Euros per night per room to five bed family rooms at 100 Euros per night. No telly (One aging TV in the large communal family room.)

2 stars, clean and comfortable without being luxurious

Wood everywhere – in the foyer, restaurants and bar

Bedrooms late nineties decor.

Family-run hotel like you only get in deepest France.

A mixed atmosphere. « Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday » meets « Fawlty Towers »

Arrive too early to take possession of room « still being cleaned » says manager, slightly flustered at our early arrival

Manager is also the chef. He greets us, uniform spattered with red wine. Must be from the « Coq au Vin » (chicken on a lorry) for tonight’s dinner.

We finally take possession of our room

Keys kept on small hooks at the reception desk.

Our lodging is clean and comfortable.

Modern bathroom with silent plumbing

Green/yellow artex style wallpaper.

Adjoining room for the offspring with two bunk beds.

Pleasantly surprised, we have a large balcony and a fantastic view of the rugged, rolling lunar landscape that is Auvergne.

In the bathroom, loo is very high off the ground. You can sit, shit and swing your feet

Downstairs

Family room – mid eighties decor

Games for the kiddies

Snooker table and the TV.

We try to make it work. We are informed that the aerial has blown off the roof and is now in the dustbin.

Off to ski.

Into the car. 4km drive up to Super Besse.

Thank God that there is no snow on the roads. We won’t have to fix chains to the tyres.

Just hope that there is snow on the slopes.

Arrival in Super Besse.

One horse « ski » town pale imitation of Switzerland.

Looks like Aviemore in the early seventies.

Glance at the slopes.

60 centimetres of « manufactured » snow from the resort’s 250 snow cannons.

It will do for skiing, but stopping is going to be more difficult than on the real stuff.

Manufactured snow is like half melted crushed ice cubes. It crunches under your skis and is more « slippery » than the real stuff due to its high ice content

Off to hire the gear.

Boots, skis, poles, helmet for the offspring

Ski boots are a bugger to wear. They are heavy, painful things that block your ankles and keep your body locked in a forward position. When you wear them you feel like you are walking on the moon, and walk in them you do. At Super Besse, unlike the Alps, the hotels are not situated on the slopes, you cannot ski out your front door, but are forced to walk about 500 metres or more in your ski boots, carrying skis to get to the slopes. Super Besse is rudimentary (but affordable.)

First time back on skis for two years.

Green slopes this afternoon, just to get back in the swing of things.

Back to hotel for 6.30.

Dinner from 7 onwards.

Whatever you do, don’t dress. The place is very relaxed and teeming with kids.

This is a family hotel so there is a set menu.

Tonight

Starter – « Salade Auvergnate » Local cheese melted on small pieces of bread and served on a bed of lettuce. Cheese in question St Nectaire and a local blue cheese. Smelly when melted. The salad smells of feet. Very tasty.

Main course – Dry but copious « Coq au Vin » with pasta. Kids get a slice of ham if they don’t like the chicken.

Cheese board. – As much as you want. Four local smelly cheeses, very copious.

Desert – « Home Made » instant chocolate mousse. Very thick. Wafer stands to attention in the middle of the mousse.

Wine – a local « Gamay ». Slightly brutal, but after a session on the slopes, this stuff hits all the required parts.

Our fellow diners

All families with two or three kids. One family with baby in a pram beside the table. Also families with grandparents. Looks like these people have been coming here for years.

Restaurant decor, similar to early 70’s « Pizzaland » restaurant. A touch of high class chic, with folded napkins. Nice thing here is that they actually leave you enough time to eat, and if you don’t finish the wine, they recork it and leave it for you for the next evening.

This is a hotel like I haven’t stayed in for 30 years. All very pleasant.

I like these family places. Homes from home run for families by familes who have a passion for hotel management. Staying at La Petite Ferme is a bit like spending a few days at a friend’s house. Great welcome, try to watch your P’s and Q’s but do make yourself at home.

« Not many of these places left now. It’s all hotel chains with standardised synthetic service. » I lament in a quick chat with the manager cum head chef. He nods his head knowingly.

Super Besse is in the same image as the hotel. This is low key family skiing on a budget.

Only one restaurant actually on the slopes. Lunchtime for most people is home made sandwiches on the slopes with a bottle of mineral water.

Affordable Franco-French skiing. Super Besse is a local affair with most skiers from Tours, Orleans, Blois, Bourges and Limoges, all within three hours driving distance.

A few Brits on the slopes. Mostly second homers from the surrounding area.

Super Besse ain’t posh. It’s basic. You can tell by the skiwear. There are a few youngsters wearing silly hats and swishing around on snowboards. Standard skiwear comes in two forms. Anorak and waterproof trousers for the oldies, if not, your « bog standard » ski suit purchased from the local « Decathlon » or « Intersport » shop. Occasionally a touch of class with « Dior » or « Raybans » sunglasses.

The atmosphere is very friendly. Skiers stop to help each other up when they fall. Expert skiers respect learners on the slopes, they don’t ski through them or insult them. Families ski together. And even in this nation where there is no notion of queuing, people don’t push in front of each other as they line up for the draglift. All very courteous.

On the downside, less snow than in the Alps. Only 30 miles of ski runs, many of which are far narrower than their Alpine equivalent. Expert skiers who want thrills, spills and exciting après ski might do better to look elsewhere.

What is Après ski in Super Besse? Chatting to the other hotel guests, reading a book then lights out for 10pm.

Excitement at La Petite Ferme is discovering the next day’s set menu. Always written up before breakfast. Food is simple and substantial. Very reassuring, you can ski all day knowing that you are coming home to good solid fare in the evening.

Day two begins with an enormous buffet breakfast. The blackboard in the dining room informs us that we are having « potée Auvergnate » for dinner – thick local sausages, pieces of boiled pork and cabbage, all served in a kind of « stew ».

I tell the owner that I’m not a fan of cabbage. No problem, he can do me boiled carrots and potatoes. That’s fine. I can ski all day on the slopes knowing that my individual leguminous needs have been catered for.

At dinner, the waiters move deftly and discreetly. They are incredibly thin. I guess that is to get between the small spaces separating each table.

After dinner, off to the family room. A new aerial has been « found » just in time to watch the big match on the telly – Olympique Lyonnais versus Manchester United. As the only Englishman in the room, you get the friendly ribbing about English football and our failure to qualify for the Euro 2008 Championships. It remains good-natured, creates conversation and furthers good relations between guests, all of whom greet each other with a wave and a friendly smile on the slopes the next day. Super Besse ain’t big.

I guess we’ll go back next year.

http://www.auberge-petite-ferme.com

Of course, if hotels or boarding houses are not your thing, you can always take the camper van. There were about two hundred of them there when we went. All parked up on a special area with full facilities for emtying the chemical loo and filling up with fresh, clean water. People come to Super Besse in camper vans and live for up to two weeks in them at the foot of the slopes.

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