...some fresh French air....
A home in the mountains can be enjoyed in summer and winter – Carolyn Reynier eschews the Alps and Pyrénées to explore two stunning villages in the Massif Central
Those of you who love the French mountains – covered with dazzling white snow in winter or ablaze with colourful flowers, shrubs and trees the rest of the year – are sure to be familiar with the Alps and the Pyrénées. However, you may not know that there are a total of seven French massifs (including Corsica) and that France Montagnes promotes mountain tourism in them all. And did you know that over 40 ski resorts in France fulfil the requirements for the ‘Famille Plus’ label, which include crèches for babies over 18 months, snow ‘gardens’ where young children can learn to ski, and special beginner areas for families to learn together? Le Mont-dore and Super-besse are two such Famille Plus resorts in the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’auvergne, in the Puy-de-dôme department. This is a wonderfully preserved landscape of small extinct volcanic cones ( puys), lakes and more of those green scenic roads and blue viewpoint symbols than you can throw a stick at. It is also home to St-nectaire, one of my favourite cow milk cheeses. It doesn’t get much better.
Open Dore Le Mont-dore (1,300m) is a mountain village at the sources of the Dordogne, south-west of the préfecture town Clermont-ferrand. The
Neo-byzantine architecture of the early 19th-century thermal baths – there are no fewer than eight beneficial thermal springs – is a classified Historic Monument.
In winter, there’s downhill and cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, speed-riding and a ludopark for freestyle practice and snow scooter hire. In summer, there’s swimming in Lac Chambon, hiking on various GR ( grande randonnée) footpaths, riding, summer tobogganing and more.
To the south-east, separated by the Monts Dore and the majestic Puy de Sancy (1,885m), Besse-et-st-anastaise, built on a lava flow at 1,050m altitude, is a lively medieval Petite Cité de Caractère with a rich architectural past. Here nautical activities take place on Lac Pavin, the deepest lake in Auvergne, and the Courgoul Gorges are also nearby. Around 7km higher up, the ski resort of Super-besse (1,350-1,850m) offers, along with the usual skiing activities, panoramic views from the Perdrix cable car, an open-air summer activities park, and an Espace Super VTT for mountain bikers.
To find out about property in Le Mont-dore I spoke to the splendidly named Ezequiel Dos Santos at Agence Coudard, who markets properties here and in La Bourboule, a few kilometres to the west. In Le Mont-dore you can find a wide range of accommodation, from studios and three-bedroom apartments to houses and chalets. Most apartments are set within old buildings, former family homes or hotels which have been converted into small residential co-propriétés. Houses and chalets, rare in the village centre, are generally on the
outskirts. You can pay €3,000/m2 or more for a small studio in excellent condition with no work to be done. If you are looking for anything over 60m2 in excellent condition, expect to pay €2,400-€2,700/m2.
There is good demand for chalets because of the ‘ esprit montagne’ they inspire. Houses will take a little longer to sell. Ezequiel says the price bracket for an 80m2-100m2 house in a good state of repair requiring just a little freshening up is circa €180,000-€220,000. “Everything depends on whether there’s any land, the habitable surface etc,” he adds.
The building material here is generally pierre de Volvic, which comes from the Nugère volcano lava flow north of the Chaîne des Puys. Volvic (known worldwide for its mineral water) lies 15km north-west of Clermont-ferrand, whose Gothic cathedral was built from the Volvic stone. Roofing can be either thick, heavy lauze stone or slate ardoise tiles.
Le Mont-dore really is a typical and quaint mountain village whereas La Bourboule, originally very much geared to the thermal baths, is larger and more spread out. “They are two totally different communes,” Ezequiel explains. Although the architectural style and types of property in La Bourboule are similar, prices are not; they are 30-40% cheaper, depending on the property, than in Le MontDore. The reason is that clients are essentially buying a second home for their own use but also for seasonal letting. “You’ll rent out more weeks in Le Mont-dore – there is less demand in La Bourboule,” says Ezequiel.
Although both places have spas (with your carte vitale national healthcare card and a doctor’s prescription, the French social security system partially reimburses you for cures), Le
Mont-dore is closer to the ski slopes – around 3km from the downhill runs. So demand is more concentrated here than at La Bourboule, which picks up rental business when Le Mont-dore is full up.
If you hanker after a renovation project, you can find houses and apartments for restoration or freshening up in both places, secure in the knowledge that you can book into the baths for your own restoration and/or freshening up as and when required.
The baths came long before the skiing. The Le Mont-dore ones, built on Roman remains, were constructed in 1817; those of La Bourboule date from the late 19th century. This dual attraction of thermal baths and thermal skiwear makes buying to rent an interesting investment opportunity. “We virtually work 10 months out of 12,” says Ezequiel.
As an example, a one-bedroom apartment (35m2-40m2) with sofabed, thus sleeping four, can be rented out in high season for around €450 per week. High season includes Christmas, New Year and February holidays for skiing, and July-august for tourisme vert. Then there are the curistes who generally come for three weeks (a cure is 18 days) during a period from April to the closure of the thermes in mid-november. Investing in property here could prove a lucrative proposition; the agency helpfully offers a concierge service.
This is a natural, preserved part of the world offering plenty of activities for all ages, says Ezequiel. The landscapes, panoramas – whatever the season – are “vraiment fabuleux.”
It’s a similar story on the other side of the Monts Dore where we come to Besse-etSt-anastaise and Super-besse. Here I met
This is a wonderfully preserved landscape of extinct volcanic hills, water and more of those green scenic roads than you can throw a stick at
Camille Deschamps, who runs Super Besse Immo and is also a chasseur immobilier, offering a property-finding service. Besse-et-stAnastaise is a medieval village and buildings here come under the jurisdiction of the Bâtiments de France. So if you think, for example, that you can create, replace or enlarge windows at your whim, think again.
These ancient buildings have been divided up into small apartments, often rented out by the week to holidaymakers. Expect to pay around €60,000 for a studio in the historic centre. If you want something larger, you will find detached houses, built in the 1960s-70s, just outside the medieval centre for around €300,000 for 150m2.
A shuttle bus takes you up to the ski resort of Super-besse, which was built 50 or so years ago. In summer, you can swim in the small artificial Lac des Hermines, ideal for children, and there are plenty of other outdoor activities. “Summer is really for les sportifs,” says Camille.
Although she points out that the apartment block architecture is “not that great”, if you want to be near the ski lifts, shops and restaurants you are much better off buying in the resort centre. A one-bedroom apartment will cost around €95,000. If you want something larger, there are timber chalets on the outskirts, usually equipped with electric rather than central heating. Expect to pay around €200,000 for, say, a completely renovated 70m2 chalet (“they’re not very big”). If you’re happy to do the work you could pay about €150,000 for 80m2-90m2.
The building stock may be old but the free
shuttle bus passes by each street corner and runs up to 9pm because the slopes are now equipped for skiing en nocturne.
There are two seasons here: a wealth of lakes and walking in the summer, and skiing at the resort of Super-besse in the winter. Whereas Besse-et-st-anastaise operates year-round, Super-besse does not. “At the end of September there’s nothing; it’s closed. Things take off again mid-december,” Camille explains.
Property prices remain “très corrects” and demand is high. It may also be worth looking at other areas such as Picherande near Lac Chauvet 10km south-west of Super-besse and, to the north of Besse-et-st-anastaise, the tourist destinations of Murol and Lac de Chambon. “These sectors are much in demand,” says Camille.
To reach these Auvergnat destinations, you travel by train to Clermont-ferrand then onwards by bus. You can fly into ClermontFerrand Aulnat or Limoges airports, but the simplest may be to drive via the A89 or the A71/A75 motorways. However you choose to travel to this ancient preserved volcanic landscape, it will be worth the effort. Massifs, by definition, are not the easiest places to reach. But, oh, just wait until you get there.
There are two seasons here: a wealth of lakes and walking in the summer, and skiing in the winter
Lac Pavin, the deepest lake in Auvergne
A stunning view of Super-besse ski resort
The village of Besse-et-st-anastaise
Snowshoe walk through the Salon du Capuçin at Le Mont-dore
Summer horseriding at Chastreix south-west of Le Mont-dore