For his 60th we took over the first floor of our favourite Italian restaurant; for his 70th we cruised the Norwegian coast ‘hunting the light’, the Northern lights…and saw them plus took a husky ride around a frozen lake within the Arctic Circle…
So for his 80th I thought that ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ would be up for another adventure so explored possibilities focussing mainly on the Glacier Express, a train that follows the mountain tops between Zermatt and St Moritz. He wavered for a while but ultimately decided he didn’t want a fuss despite his nephew being very keen on a grand fete, so I resigned myself to a quiet celebration, if any!
One of our traditions since retirement has been to spend his February birthday raquette walking on the snow, wherever we can find it within France. We have clumped around parts of the Pyrenees, the Jura, the Alps and, nearer to home, the Auvergne.
La Bourboule, a frequent destination in recent years, scores well due to the variety of its walks, the number of good restaurants in the town centre and that it is only two hours away by car so I wasn’t surprised when himself decided that a short break there would be his choice of a birthday treat. We have a favourite hotel that is close to the centre, has a swimming pool that I enjoy and most importantly for ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ a covered garage where he can attach the tyre chains, if needed, in the dry rather than on the side of a snowy road.
The hotel has a long history going back to the 1930s when it was mainly a restaurant catering for the early glider pilots who flew their planes from the Banne d’Ordanche, a strange volcanic ‘lump’ that can be seen looming above the town. There are many nods to that aviation past and not just in its name. The lobby is decorated with jazz age style stained glass depictions of planes as is the bar.
Lovely comfy armchairs echo 30s style and are great for curling up in with a book. Or with your phone when the internet is temperamental in your room!
Just before we left home on the Thursday I booked our preferred restaurant for the Friday (birthday) evening as I suspected the town would be busy. As it was we spent our first couple of hours in La Bourboule rediscovering the town and finding somewhere to eat that wasn’t ‘complet’ that night. In fact, when one place reluctantly turned us away we took the opportunity to book for the Saturday to avoid disappointment.
The pressure on the various eateries was very apparent when we succeeded on finding a table but only because we were just two and happy to eat at seven. Sitting in sight of the door we watched as a succession of people were turned away throughout most of our meal. It was hard not to feel smug!
All the cafes and restaurants in La Bourboule have similar menu choices, heavy on the potato, meat and local cheese. Oddly, our first evening was spent amongst a very extravagant Spanish decor, the dirty dishes disappearing up a staircase into a mock finca. Go figure? But the waiting staff were welcoming and cheerful despite the pressure of the holiday season. February school holidays in France are always two weeks and everyone who can goes off to play in the snow. A small girl on an adjoining table had a cupcake arrive to sound of the waitresses and waiters singing Happy Birthday, in English, despite her being French. She was two, her parents told us. I whispered to her we were celebrating a birthday the next day…
Typically we woke up to pouring rain on the birthday itself. But, no matter, we needed to sort out a possible slow puncture (no) and pump up the spare tyre if necessary (yes) by which time the rain had turned to gently falling snow. After a coffee and some sandwich buying we drove up to la Stele espace nordique, our favoured walking area.
The road was mostly clear and we caught sight of snowy trees as we climbed…a good sign?
After a picnic lunch in the car (too cold outside) we set off through the forest on the multi-activity piste.
The snow wasn’t deep so walking boots were fine. We had our raquettes in the boot of the car but hoped not to need them as we find wearing them a tad exhausting now. A stick each for the tricky bits and we were fine. The sky even cleared a bit and showed us some blue.
Invigorated by our walk but ready ‘to rest his eyelids (birthday boy) we drove back down to the hotel for a cup of tea, me, and a nap, for him. The WiFi was intermittent in our room but the aforementioned lounge on the first floor had much better reception so I caught up on the national news and my word games.
That evening we tried to contact our grandson but with poor WiFi and in a rush to get to our restaurant we only managed to receive birthday greetings and the news he had something to show us. We promised a proper facetime in the morning.
Our favourite restaurant didn’t disappoint and we were served by a chirpy waitress who tried out her English skills with us. I opted for a kir flavoured with the local speciality birlou, chestnut liqueur, as my apero. Himself has acquired a taste for Ricard since we’ve lived here. A clear yellow liquid that takes on a sinister cloudy appearance after the water is added. I haven’t got used to it, too redolent of aniseed balls that I hated as a child.
Les Thermes (spa baths) were illuminated and looking beautiful as we left although the usual sparkling trees were in darkness despite the lights that we could see hanging amongst the branches. Energy saving, I suppose.
A sunny Saturday morning and we collected the hotel picnics that we had intended ordering on Friday but forgot until it was too late. As promised, we facetimed le petit fils and were told about his lost tooth, his first, that came out on Dada’s birthday as he chewed his lunchtime sandwich. The tooth fairy had already been and left a pound. A richer tooth fairy these days!
We had decided to go up to the lac de Guery and after a routing error that took us out to the heart of Le Mont-Dore ski centre, which was heaving, we finally found the narrow road out of the middle of Le Mont-Dore town. Later, I discovered the road number differed from the one in our Michelin map of France. Don’t blame the navigator! 😊
Sadly, as we climbed we lost the sunshine but were surprised that, once there, there was less snow although we were at the same height as yesterday’s walk. The lac de Guery is the highest lake in the Auvergne at 1244m. The ‘piste pietons’ was signified by a fox and we remembered virtually crawling up a steep slope beside a waterfall the last time we were here before deciding we must be following the wrong balises. Today we would be more alert despite the plethora of signs!
Less snow but more mud so we were glad of our sticks on the stickiest parts. There were fewer people about than our last visit so we could hear the few birds braving what was becoming quite an icy wind in the more exposed places and the sound of water from the many little streams of snow melt. The lake was still frozen at the end nearest us and there were repeated signs about not skating although I had seen a set of charges for skating so it must happen when the lake is really solid.
Halfway up a slope we came to a junction with ‘our’ fox indicating a right turn whilst a yellow butterfly indicated left. I remembered that butterfly which we followed last time. Not today! We could hear a family higher up and hoped they were more agile than we had been. (later, back at home I discovered that the yellow butterfly marks a walking route that is only open when the espace nordique is closed which makes sense as it would be much drier in the summer months)
Back at the ‘point de depart’ by the chalet that includes the toilets, ticket office etc. ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ thought it would be good to walk on the track up to the plateau that we had also walked last time. Today, as then, the whole espace was open to everyone as the snow cover didn’t allow for ski de fonde. But after a few hundred metres he decided it was too cold. I was mightily relieved as I remembered it as a wide open expanse that was very windy last time.
Once again it was a picnic in the car, the hotel pack proving excellent value for 10 euros each. The car park is beside the Col de Guery at 1268m and provides views of the two bizarre volcanic features of Tuiliere and Sanadoire.
Tuiliere is the remains of a volcanic chimney and its rock has been used as roof slates in the surrounding area while Sanadoire is part of the volcanic cone. It is called Sanadoire or the singing stone because of the ringing sound it makes when struck. Up until 1477 when there was an earthquake in the region that swept the summit away there was a castle on the top that it is said housed English mercenaries during the 100 years war!
Opposite where we were parked there was a footpath sign pointing into the forest that read 6km to the lac de Servieres. That seemed a tad too much to tackle as it would be 12km in total by the time we hiked back. I repaired to our Michelin guide to France (stupidly neither of us remembered to bring our IGN map of the area) and spotted the lake was quite near to the road further along from where we were. So off we drove past the two rocks and over the Col. The road to the left of us opened up onto an amazing sweep of scenery that gave the impression we might be able to see Paris on a clear day, or at least the motorway home. No layby so no attempt to capture it on camera.
We dropped down from the Col and soon found the lake signposted to our right. It looked oddly circular on the map page and so after we had parked up I went off to read the sign and find out why. Himself was too snug in the car by now. The lake turned out to be in the crater of an ancient volcano and is called a ‘maar’. As I walked towards it, cursing that I was no longer in my walking boots and had left my thick woolly ‘bonnet’ in the car, I was approached by a jolly lady who asked me if I was going to see the lake. A bit nonplussed, I concurred (why else would I be there?) ‘C’est tres chouette (nice)’, she replied. An enthusiastic local, I decided.
Hugging my coat as closely as I could and hunching into the collar, I walked the few metres to the lakeside. Wow, was I glad we hadn’t walked up to the plateau back at lac de Guery. The circular shape was clear on the ground too and there was a sign saying how the site is protected due to the rarity of its plants. Once more, swimming was interdit as was the lighting of fires. It was a 2km walk around the lake, easy but for a less windy day.
The car park had filled up in my absence, albeit brief, and Lou commented on the number of people milling about. The jolly lady’s role suddenly became clear. She must be a guide and had mistaken me for an early arriving member of her group. I didn’t envy them as the wind was getting stronger and icier so I was very happy to opt for the warm car. Then it was back over the Col and past the lac de Guery, formed by a lava flow blocking the river ‘Mortes’ as it left the plateau, the same stream that fed that waterfall of our last visit?
After tucking up the car in the hotel garage I went off for a swim while himself settled down to watch the six nations on French TV.
Another hearty dinner that final evening. I opted for saucisse d’Auvergne thinking it might be a lighter option but the sausage would have fed both of us and as for the chips…! Once again, the place had a ‘complet’ sign on the door as we arrived so our impromptu decision to book had paid off.
In the morning we were told as we checked out that despite the sunshine the wind up at la Stele was 50km an hour and the temperature minus 7. Defo time to go home!
NB I have reread the blog I wrote following our last visit to La Bourboule in 2020. We walked a lot further that trip. Was it the warm sunshine and dry ground under our feet? Or the fact we were three years younger?
It sounds a lovely, if chilly, way to spend a special birthday. We visited La Bourboule about 30 years ago, but that was in late summer. Our hotel was directly opposite the spa. We did some lovely walks around there. We tend to favour Cantal these days, but perhaps it’s time for a return visit.
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