The road that winds up the vallée des chapieux from Bourg Saint Maurice has been cleared as far as Bonneval-les-Bains. This is where we’re heading with former instructor M, who has suggested we go snowshoeing away from the Val d’Isère crowds and explore the lesser-known parts of the Tarentaise.
She tells me about Bonneval, a small settlement of scattered houses on the way to the Cormet de Roselend, a popular destination in the summer. Now, in mid-February, this is where the road stops. There is nobody else around apart from a couple of cars parked on the roadside opposite the ruins of a hotel that was never completed and a derelict open-air swimming pool.
Bonneval, M says, has a natural spring, which fed the swimming pool, built in the 1930s. Shortly after that a couple of Italian entrepreuners fleeing the Mussolini regime started building a hotel. This was part of a more ambitious plan to develop a spa which would have involved a water bottling plant. The war, however, put an end to the project. The developers ran out of cash and the hotel has stood unfinished ever since. The swimming pool has also been abandoned. It is covered in graffiti and half filled with snow, its toboggan and diving board peering over an empty space, its showers and changing rooms waiting for visitors that will not turn up.
We clip on our snowshoes and move on up the path. It’s blissfully quiet, apart from the burbling of the river below, the cawing of a crow and the occasional bird. Fifteen minutes later we veer off the main path across the river and up the hill to Praz Bozon, a clutch of small farming dwellings which have escaped dereliction and have been carefully renovated. Some of M’s ancestors lived here. There are animal tracks in the snow – foxes, rabbits, deer. The snow is otherwise pristine and the sky infinitely blue. In the distance we can see Foglietta, above Sainte Foy, veiled in the midday heat mist.
On our way back we stop in a nearby village to pay a tentative visit to a cousin of M’s. Over coffee he reminisces about the old swimming pool, which he says he and other local teenagers would still go to until the mid-1970s, when the local authority built a modern swimming pool in Bourg Saint Maurice.
He also tells us that the mineral water project was recently revived in Séez, down the valley from Bonneval. It went as far as the building of a new bottling plant and apparently there were contracts to exports to the US and Greece. In the summer however, one of the main investors pulled out. The new building, a red corrugated structure, now stands abandoned, its windows smashed in. Maybe Eau de Bonneval is not meant to be.