As a town, Mont-Dore is entirely dependent on tourism. In fact, it only has a population of around 1,700 people, but has about 1500 or so lodging rooms. Historically, however, it has had little of interest to visitors. There are no Roman ruins or vestiges or no building constructed during the Belle Époque era. Its spa, though, has attracted interesting names in the past such as the 19th century novelist, George Sand. She fell in love with the town when she first visited in 1827 and returned every year until she died in 1876.
While Mont-Dore is a great mountain resort, it excels even more as a base for exploring the Chaîne des Puys, a stunning volcano park whose valley is located 340 kilometers from Bordeaux and 450 kilometers from Paris. Chaîne des Puys, as it is called, consists of about 80 volcanoes that are more than 10,000 years old. Its summit at Puy de Dôme stands at 1,465 meters high, providing panoramas of craters such as Puy de Pariou, natural crater lakes such as Gour de Tazenat, and jagged cones such as Puy de la Vache.
Mont-Dore is nestled in a valley at an altitude of 1,050 meters. The town, however, is slowly creeping up the slopes towards the peak of the Puy de Sancy, thanks to new developments in the past decade. The tourist office itself is situated at an altitude of 1,885 meters. Encircling Mont-Dore is an old funicular railway that was installed in 1898. Local ordinances have established a “Zone de Silence” (“zone of silence”) within the city limits to provide health-seeking clients with the peace and quiet they need to rejuvenate. The ordinance is in effect year-round, creating a town of high decorum where even the honking of horns by motorists within the precincts is prohibited. The loudest noise you’ll hear at night is the rush of the Dordogne, hardly wider than a brook, flowing past the town. Despite this tranquility, Mont-Dore manages to maintain a high-profile image of fun, attracting an influx of youthful travelers.
The streets of Mont-Dore are configured long and narrow, which is expected out of a high-altitude settlement aiming to maximize the use of its valley floor. The street layout employs four main streets that are linked laterally many times over. The buildings are all tall and progress either uphill or downhill. The grading have been executed effectively, leaving less noticeable impressions of acute slopes.
The hub of the town is the Greco-Roman thermal palace, Le Pantheon. It has an ornate public entrance that gets crowded in the opening hours. The atmosphere inside is steamy, almost suffocatingly so. The corridors, hallways, and pathways lead to numerous curative annexes, each dedicated to the treatment of a particular ailment, whether muscular, abdominal, or nasal. White-coated ladies will greet you, collect your money, and give you treatment tickets in return. At peak hours, health-seekers in overcoats and scarves crowd the halls, usually looking to leave the complex despite the cool outdoor temperatures.
Outside Le Pantheon, the streets are lined with hotels, restaurants, cafes, and flower gardens and thronged by a mix of backpackers, climbers, joggers, cyclists, and leisurely folks dressed clad in shorts. This makes for fun people-watching while you sip a drink outside at a sidewalk café.
The town’s main outdoor amusement is the Parc des Lechades, which is located just off Route du Sancy. The park has a variety of fun features such as state-of-the-art water slides, bumper cars, carousels, and junior assault courses. There’s even an Apache fort. Older crowds will enjoy the park’s green space, tennis courts, and horseback riding trails. Beside the park, there is a sporting venue where you’ll find a bowling alley, ice-skating rink, and a 9-hole golf course that covers an area of 1,250 meters.
From Mont-Dore, just next to the tourist office, the Chemin des Mille Cioutte (“Path of 1,000 Sweat Drops”) begins its path, ascending through beech woods and running parallel with the funicular railway until it reaches Salon du Capucin, a rest stop and refreshment center located on a mountain meadow. From here, the railway stops to let off passengers, who then must choose between the marked trails that diverge or the cable car that takes visitors up to the peak of Puy de Sancy. At the top of Puy de Sancy, there are incredible views along the footpaths of the other mountains as well as the Val d’Enfer (“Hell’s Valley”).
Mont-Dore claims to be a four-season resort but is more like a tale of two cities. While one half of the town is prospering in its seasonal boom, the other half is stuck in depression. Depending on the time of year, you’ll either see yeti ski boots and snow-chains or bikinis and water-wings. The only successful businesses are the restaurants and eateries, which explains why Mont-Dore has many of them. The town also has a colorful market on the higher side of town called Place de la République. Close to this area is the fromagerie, a famous cheese shop that sells king-sized French varieties, including the local specialty “Auvergne Nectaire”.
In the older section of Mont-Dore, there are still faint reminders of yesteryear when life was harsher for the indigenous people. But today, mostly opulence prevails, though there are still the occasional signs of wear-and-tear brought on by year-round visitors.
Overall, Mont-Dore is a compact resort town that surprisingly boasts a comprehensive range of facilities and activities. The town appears quite large at first glance thanks to staggered-level roads everywhere, but closer inspection will reveal that it is nothing more than an overgrown village. But it is a village that manages to maintain a burnished front, especially in the three main areas of town: the Place Charles de Gaulle, the cultural conference centre, and the Place de la République. The Place Charles de Gaulle boasts a pedestrian neo-Gothic church, a striking post office, and an ornamental pond. The cultural conference centre features lovely flower gardens and lawns that are streamed by the Dordogne. The Place de la République is lined with hip and trend restaurants, bars, and cafes and becomes a hotspot at night. All three of these areas represent the main focal points of life in Mont-Dore.
The Celts were the first to discover Mont-Dore and its thermal spa geysering from the crust of the volcanoes. The Romans came along and developed it, employing their knowledge of the therapeutic qualities of mineral water. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the hot springs were no longer used for spa purposes, but showcased as a natural phenomenon to visitors. In the 19th century, the era of the “Grand Tour”, spas and hot springs became fashionable again and the elite were all vying for the health benefits of remedial waters. The construction of the railway during the opulent Bell Epoque era made Mont-Dore’s hot springs even more accessible to the affluent and wealthy.
Mont-Dore’s architecture has a grandeur that seem inappropriate for such a small town. The city centre is dominated by tall, ornate buildings. Even the central post office has a dignified exterior that mimics the Grand Hotel just across the street. The pride of the town is the thermal palace, designed in the Greco-Roman style.
Marriott, Michael. The Dordogne. Wiltshire: Crowood Press, 1991. ISBN: 185223461X.
“Mont-Dore.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont-Dore>
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