Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Courbaton 1750: war, peace and power

Ariel view of Courbaton, note the barrack-like buildings
There's a forgotten corner of Les Arcs which has always fascinated me. Nestled in the forest between Arc 1600 and Les Granges is the 'village' of Courbaton, consisting of a number of large, barrack-like buildings and few much more recently built luxury chalets. Like many things connected to Les Arcs and Bourg St Maurice, the older buildings at Courbaton owe their existence to electricity: they were constructed in in the early 1950s as living accommodation for several hundred of the workers involved in construction the Malgovert hydroelectric scheme, the key feature of which is the enormous dammed lake at Tignes which is connected by 17 km of tunnels and pipes to the power station, directly below Courbaton at the edge of Bourg St Maurice. The 'Cité de Courbaton' as it was then known included cafeterias, medical facilities, a place of worship, a bar and other facilities for the EDF workers, many of whom were immigrants, including the legendary 'Spanish tunnellers'.

Ice stalactites in the spooky tunnel
The twin pipes and tunnels run directly below the plateau of Courbaton, and nearby you can see the impressive concrete conical structure which acts as a huge pressure valve for system. It's about 40m wide, and just as deep (carefully fenced off, but if you climb up the rocks nearby you can see inside). There is also a long, spooky tunnel cut into the mountainside below the plateau (follow the cross-country ski route to find it) which I assume accesses the bottom of conical structure.  Beyond the heavy iron gates you can see little, but hear distant gushing water. In the winter this tunnel breeds the most amazing stalactites and stalagmites of ice,  some a couple of metres high.

Once the scheme was completed, in 1952 Courbaton became a   holiday camp for EDF employees, where they could enjoy ski and summer holidays partly at their employers expense. It's now in private hands  and been extensively renovated for holiday lets.

The guardhouse of the fort at Courbaton, still largely intact
Long before all this Courbaton also had a strategic military signifigance. It's situated on a small plateau at about 1500m, looking north across the Haute-Tarentaise valley to the Col de Petit St Bernard and the Italian border (today only a few kilometres as the crow flies). After the annexation of Savoy by France in 1860 there was continuing anxiety about the behaviour of the Italians, culminating in 1914 with uncertainty about which side they were going to be on in the 1st World War. An elaborate batterie was constructed, with 6 large guns trained to repel any Italian advance and also to help defend the Fort du Truc, on the other side of the valley and right in the path of any putative invasion attempt.  Much of the batterie is still there, you can get to it on skis or foot from Arc 1600 (more of this later). Towards the end of second world war it was used by the German army as a reconnaissance point (again to keep an eye on their allies and later enemies in Italy). Most of Savoie was liberated in August 1944, after some extremely protracted and bloody fighting. That same year the American allies  installed a powerful artillery battery  to help dislodge the last German forces, clinging on grimly above what is now La Rosière, across the valley (they were finally defeated in the spring of 1945).

Marketing poster, 1963 -
"from the train direct to the snow"
Still in the throes of economic depression after the completion of the Malgovert scheme and the subsequent departure of its workers and their spending power, Bourg St Maurice began to turn to tourism to boost it fortunes. In 1961 two chairlifts were built, from the Pont de Montrigon (near the bottom funicular station) to Les Granges, and from there to Courbaton. There were six or seven pistes, including a rouge that descended back to Bourg (still skiable today). The ski area became know as Courbaton 1750, and even than a marketing feature was ease of access from the railway station, aiming to attract skiers from Chambèry, Lyon and even Paris. More lifts were constructed, extending as far as the present day Cachette and eventually up to the top of the Arpette and the Deux Tetes.

Some opponents of Les Arcs campaigned for the enlargement of Courbaton 1750 as an alternative to the initial development of Arc 1600 in 1968, without success. The chairlift from Bourg continued running until 1974 when the  telephèrique (cable car) was built, the top station of which is still clearly visible (and scanadalously derelict) next to the top station of the Funicular, which replaced the cable car in 1989.

Courbaton 1750, on the Granges piste. Note the chairlift.
It still possible to ski down the old 'World Cup'  red piste, one of the gems of Courbaton 1750. It starts on the right of the Mont Blanc piste, a few hundred meters below the site of the old Mont Blanc lift. It's a bit overgrown, but the route is quite clear. You have to cross the road twice (the piste was abandoned when the Arc 2000 road was built) before you reach Courbaton, bearing left beside the village where you can see the remains of the batterie.  The 'Coupe de Monde' then gently descends through the meadows around Orgière, before reaching Les Granges. A taste of Courbaton 1750, and the early days of skiing on these extraordinary hills, pre-Les Arcs.

1 comment:

  1. I am really enjoying this blog, having spent so many holidays (and a season) in bourg and les arcs.

    Especially enjoying this, as had no idea until now that the 'off piste' run to side of the mont blanc piste, that we have been down many many times, is in fact an old piste.

    really fascinating stuff. :-)