Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cyprus - a threat to Les Arcs?

Everything's gearing up nicely for the winter season at Les Arcs: 40cm of snow above 1600m, and a fair amount of excitement about the Mille 8 project at Arc 1800. It includes a new fun piste in the trees, toboggan run,  obstacle courses and the most important part, the new Centre Aqualudique, with several pools, water features and relaxation/spa facilities. Les Arcs, like other large ski resorts is trying hard to cash in on the '4 - 7' period after skiing at the end of the afternoon and to enhance overall the tourists' experience in the hope they'll keep coming back! More about all this once it's all open after the beginning of the season on 13th December.

Plan of Mille 8
However, I do think there's a small cloud over Les Arcs dazzling plans. Lift pass prices are up again, by about 5% as far as I can work out. Last year saw a drop in lift pass sales, accommodation occupancy and 'skier days' of around 2% - that doesn't sound like much when you remember that in previous years that figure has been closer to a 4% drop and multiply that over 10 years you're basically looking into a financial abyss.... Why not freeze lift pass prices (at least) to build some client fidelity rather than grandiose investments, I wonder. To top it all, entry to the new Centre Aqualudique or the piste de luge is NOT included in the lift pass, you have to pay between €5 and €15 euros per visit depending on which facilities you use. Mille 8 had better be good!

After my visit to Kazakhstan earlier this summer and the impressive Shymbulak ski area (perhaps one day it will become an alternative to Europe's crowded and increasingly expensive resorts?) I was intrigued to discover that you don't have to go that far to find cheap, family friendly skiing.

FFS piste et Troodos
Experienced snow-boarder and travel writer Holly Mantle has been telling me about skiing in Cyprus.  It  isn’t  yet famous as a skiing hotspot, and  doesn't  feature on any top 'ten list' of skiing locations in Europe. But, because it's still relatively unknown you can expect to find deserted slopes, untouched snow and no skittle-run pistes crowded with snakes of ski school learners. At Troodos, the main resort, prices are much lower than big european ski factories,  and it  retains some of  the atmosphere and elegance of the Swiss Alps of yesteryear; they’ve still got cosy cafes whipping up hot chocolates and refined skiers in salopettes gracing the slopes in style.

There is a good range of skiing, especially for those looking to progress. The different runs are all named after Greek gods which makes the experience more fun - telling people you’ve tamed Zeus (the big one) for example, will be sure to impress back at home. Holly points out that there aren’t too many flat sections that will force boarders to hop across the snow as you attempt to make it towards the next drop.

Troodos piste map
Skiing at Troodos, which is located in the northern slopes of Mt. Olympus (1951m), dates back to some portable lift installations set up by the British Army in the 1960s, presumably to keep the largely idle 'green line' soldiers and their families occupied. Steady development of the facilities and a new breed of local skiers led to Cyprus' participation in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and they're still going strong in several events.  Troodos has 4 main lifts and dozen or so slopes of  for all levels. The longest piste is nearly 1km long, and most of the skiing is above 1800m. The season runs from December to March, but expect the best snow in January and February. It gets pretty warm in March!

You can rent ski and board gear from the Cyprus Ski Club – they have a mixed range of equipment from the latest models to the ancient. Snowboards are a little harder to get hold of than skis, so if this is the main reason you’re travelling to Cyprus then it’s better to bring your own gear (especially if you’re a snowboarder or skier who likes to look good on the slopes). There are three main schools offering lessons and guiding.

Larnaca airport is the closest to Mt Olympus and its slopes. Flights from London take around 4 hours 40 minutes. Cyprus Airways fly into Larnaca, or Easyjet will speed you over to Paphos. In order to get up to the mountain, a 4x4 with snow chains would be the recommended option.  

Paphos Archaeologial Park
Consider combining your ski trip to Cyprus with further exploration of this fascinating island: The Paphos Archaeological Site is easy to get lost in for a day and has lots of ancient relics, mosaics and monuments dating back from prehistoric, Roman and medieval times. It’s just 4.5 euros to get in, and the mosaics in particular have been receiving rave reviews from tourists since the area became listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

There’s no need to stay at resorts close to the ski slopes, which can be expensive. The island is very small, so you can easily travel between hotels in other areas of the island by bus or car. For a taste of the ancient civilisation of Cyprus  go to the tiny village of Agros (which only has four hotels) and is famous for its rose festival and sweets cured in syrup. There are some great nature trails around that area through the mountains.

If you’d prefer more modern ciivilization, then Paphos is the best place in terms of things to do. Bars, restaurants and cafés there cater to a year-round tourist influx so you won’t be left cold and hungry, even if you’re heading out in the midst of winter.

Lift Pass Prices
Ski Lift Pass: Afternoon 12,00 euros , Full day 20,00 euros
Ski Equipment Rental: Adults Daily 12,00 euros, afternoon 9,00 euros
Cross Country Skis – Boots: Daily 8,00
Snowboards – Boots: Daily 18,00

All a bit cheaper than Les Arcs, but perhaps you really do pay for what you get when if comes to skiing.

Many thanks to Holly Mantle who supplied most of the information about Cyprus and some of the text.

More information:

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Discovering Kazakhstan

Running a ski holiday business in the French alps can lead to some unexpected  adventures: I was most generously invited to visit Kazakhstan by our regular chalet guests from that country (and Russia) for a 10 day tour of this vast, largely unknown Asian territory stretching from the Urals to China.

First, a few facts and figures about Kazakhstan. It's the largest land-locked country in the world (9th largest overall), roughly the same area as Western Europe but with a population of under 17 million. So it's possible travel hundreds of kilometres without seeing anyone, or indeed any trace of human activity.

The southern part of the country is mainly desert, and in the east  the Altai and Tien Shan mountains form the borders with China, Mongolia and Russia.The central areas in known as the 'steppe', a vast grassy plain which was home to the nomadic Kazakh tribes before they were mostly forced to settle under Tsarist and Soviet regimes.. Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, after the collapse of the USSR.

Astana - the new capital
The capital of Kazakhstan is the glittering new city of Astana, more or less in the centre of the country and in the oil-producing region (KZ is set to become the world's 8th largest oil exporter). However, my destination was the historic city (and former capital) of Almaty in the south-eastern corner at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains. It's in area once famed for apple production, hence the name translates as 'Apple-like'; indeed it is claimed that apples were first found here.

Glaciers on Mt. Chklov from top of Shymbulak ski area

First on the agenda was a visit Shymbulak Ski Resort, half-an-hour from the centre of the city. Built for the 2011 Asian Winter Games,  it rises up the Medeu valley to the Tagar Pass (3180m), under the glaciated peaks of  Mt. Chklov. With 7 modern lifts and over 20km of pistes it's a popular weekend choice for the burgeoning middle classes of Almaty. Facilities are being constantly improved: I noticed recently installed snow-canons and plenty of smart eating-places and accommodation. You can even see two enormous ski jumps from the centre of Almaty, also built for the Asian games.

Back in down-town Almaty it was time for a beer at the soviet-style pleasure gardens of Kok-Tobe, with its own rustic 1950s cable car, amusements, small zoo and, surprisingly, a life-size statue of the Beatles, whom are apparently venerated by the country's young people.

Kazahk Beatles in Almaty park
Uzbek dancing girls
The evening was spent in an out-door Alasha Uzbek restaurant, with a cabaret of Kazakh and Uzbek traditional dancing and an acrobatic display. The food wasn't bad either, with  my first chance to try besharmak (lamb slow-cooked with pasta and onions with its stock an accompanying drink) and the central Asian favourite of plov (stir-fried lamb, vegetables and rice).

Next day, and time to visit my hosts' flagship store - their business operates 40 multi-media shops around Kazakhstan, together with a a chain of cinemas and D-I-Y stores. They also stock toys and children's goods, so currently they have a big  'Back to School' promotion, advertised in English, Russian and Kazakh. The government wants all three languages to be spoken, although the majority of the population is Russian-speaking.

Zenkov Cathedral Almaty
Nearby is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, built in the dying years of Tsarist imperialism (1905), and stunningly restored during the more liberal Soviet period of the 1970/80s. KZ is not a highly religious country, but two-thirds of the population claims allegiance to Islam, the remainder mostly to the Orthodox church.
Hydro-electric dam
In the afternoon we flew 1000km north, to the mining and metallurgy town of Oskomen (formerly Ust-Kammenogorsk), which was quite a contrast to the fast-growing lavishness of Almaty. A short taxi and motorboat ride took us to my hosts' lakeside guest-house, on the southern shores of the virtual lake created by the damming of the Iyrtush river for hydro-electric power in the 1950s. It was here, looking over the hills and moutains surrounding the lake that I began to get a sense of the size of Kazakhstan and its vast swathes of virtually uninhabited and (as yet) unspoilt terrain.  
Azia-Auto helicopter

Among the vital industrial and mining industries of Oskemen (uranium, lead, zinc, beryllium etc). new enterprises are emerging to satisfy the growing consumer hunger. Notable among these is  Azia-Auto car assembly plant, which is producing 120,000 vehicles every year.  The amiable owner of Azia-Auto, Anatoly Balushkin had kindly offered my hosts his 15 seat helicopter to fly, the next day, to Rahkmany Springs, 1000km east towards the Chinese border.

View towards Altai Mountains
Rahkmany Springs (1800m) has been renowned since the 18th century for the supposed health-giving qualities of it's radon-rich springs. It was developed in Soviet times as a kind of  health farm, with guests (or patients perhaps) staying in wooden cabins near the large, wonderfully fresh water lake. Meals are still provided in a communal canteen, which according to my hosts, serves authentic Soviet-style meals: large portions of stodgy but tasty food, with no choices and unsmiling waitresses, all washed-down with endless cups of strong tea.
Rahkmany Springs lake

Since the wholesale privatisation of state assets in the early years of Kazakhstan's independence the Rakhmany Springs 'resort' was bought by Mr. Balushkin for redevelopment as a wider  tourist centre. The log cabins have been improved or replaced with more luxurious 'chalets', and spa/health facilities upgraded, a bar and amenities for children introduced. But much remains the same and overall it has the comfortable feel of a USSR holiday camp in the 1970s.

The lake itself has been stocked for leisure fishing, but sadly this has resulted in the further decline of the 'singing frog' gracixalus quangi, a rare species threatened by the non-native fish who devour the frogs' eggs and tadpoles. This is a national park area, but there is little evidence of the kind of environmental sensitivity and awareness you'd expect to find in an equivalent European or American location.

Mertvoe river
However, it is a beautiful and unspoilt place, with treks around the lake and into the mountains and forests on foot, with horses or on mountain bikes, all of which can be hired locally.

AA rides out!
I rode a horse for a few hours (for the first time in my life!) to visit a nearby scenic waterfall.

 Mr. Balushkin kindly laid on a helicopter trip the next day, in the esteemed company of the local Orthodox bishop (they are planning to build a church at Rahkmany to complement the existing small mosque) to fly over the Belukha (white) Mountain, rising to 4500m  near the point where the Russian, Chinese,
Glaciers on Mt. Belukha
Mongolian and Kazakh border meet (known to some as the '4 corners of the world').  It is heavily glaciated and highly dramatic, the glaciers being among the oldest in the world (up to 5000 years old). The surrounding foothills reveal more gentle countryside, with meandering streams and herds of wild horses - but few villages, roads or other traces of human civilisation. 

The route back from Rahkamany to Oskamen took 12 hours by 4-wheel drive down a rough track, strewn with boulders and swimming-pool size pot-holes. Until recently ambitions to modernise and improve the road have been resisted by the government in order to preserve the environment, but I have read that a large sum of money has now been allocated to this project.  Let's hope a consequent influx of tourists doesn't ruin the pristine environment that attracted them in the first place.

My 'chalet' at Rahkany springs
The route, along the Berel river, is stunningly scenic, marred only by the derelict industrial and agricultural buildings that seem to so surround each village on the way. Relics of the Soviet times, it seems, but being such a spacious county no-one seems to renovate or knock anything down: they just build something new alongside. Planning control seems to be an unknown concept in Kazahkstan, so architectural 'style' is extremely random. Perhaps this also stems from the nomadic instincts of the people, where permanence is not regarded as an attribute for survival.  

Dispensing the kumis
We made a brief halt at a group of roadside yurts (portable nomadic tent shelters made from felt) , where local honey and kumis, fermented mares' milk,  is available for sale on on-the-spot consumption.  Our Landcruiser also needed refreshment, but all the petrol station around Katon-Karagy (the only town on the 950km route) seemed to have run out of fuel. Eventually our resourceful driver pleaded that he had an "important French delegation" on board. Apparently right on cue, without knowing what was going on, I got out of the car speaking a 'strange' language, which convinced the garagiste to supply us from the reserves that have to be kept for government vehicles.

Bukhtarma lake
Katon-Karagy is at the confluence of the White Berel and the Black Berel rivers, which then become the Irtysh, which meanders east towards China. In the 1950s the Soviet government constructed three large hydroelectric plants and dams on the river around Oskomen to provide power for the fast developing metallurgy industry.
This resulted the huge Bukhtarma Reservoir, which is 500km long and up to 35km wide, more or less the size of Wales!

My hosts' vessels and former Pioneer camp in background
My next destination was my hosts' riverside house at Clear Springs, once the site of a Soviet Pioneer camp but sold of to private owners in the early years of Kazakhstans' independence.  The old camp buildings are still there, surrounded by new holiday homes of varying degrees of luxuriousness.

The terrain around the lake (which reminded me of the Scottish islands) contains some of the oldest rocks in Kazakhstan, beaten and weathered by the capricious  continental climate in to weird and wonderful shapes and formations.  Much of Bukhtarma freezes over in the winters (they can expect 3m of snow here) but in the summer it's pleasantly warm with frequent thundery storms. In front of their new and spacious house thrives a vegetable garden, with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, fruit trees and bushes, grown for the consumption of visitors. The Bukhtarma is teeming with fish, I even had a go at fishing myself!  We had plenty of delicious meals, with freshly-caught carp and bream from the sparkling clear waters of the river.

My hosts' house at Clear Springs
It was a long, bumpy ride to get to Clear Springs, so travelling by water is a much better option. My hosts' ex-soviet patrol vessel,  which was formerly used to keep an eye on the Chinese border a few hundred kilometers upstream, proved to be an excellent way to get around.  We visited several isolated beaches in beautiful settings, but almost everywhere there were piles of litter and old bottles from previous picnics. I spent my last morning there helping collecting and burning rubbish on one particularly nice beach, doing my bit for the Kazak environment.

Almaty - growing fast!
Later that day we flew back to Almaty, arriving late but still able to visit a highly-westernised 24 hour deli-supermarket full of sumptuous imported Italian and French food and wine. Everything was written in English and obviously aimed at the emerging affluent middle class, quite a contrast to the rain-soaked stalls and soviet-era shops of Katon-Karagy. But the Kazakhstan is a country of contrasts and transition, and the President Nazarbayev's aim to make put it in the top 30 richest countries by 2050 seems highly achievable given the richness of its resources and the openness and energy of the people.

On the flight back to London I realised that more than half of its 8h hour duration was over Kazakhstan itself. I could gaze down at the vast steppe, straining to spot the rare traces of human habitaiton or activity.  What a contrast to the visibly crowded territories of Germany, Denmark and Holland. Europe's development is complete, it's gone as far as it can go, perhaps. Certainly that is not the case for Kazakhstan and, I imagine, the other dynamic new countries of central Asia.

Many thanks for my hosts, Igor and Alexander Deriglazova and their families and especially to Arseny Deriglazova for interpreting, and Dualet Yermagambetov, my guide in Almaty.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tignes Semper Vivens part 2 - visit to the old village

General view toward the barrage
Good Friday seemed like a good day to descend into the ruins of the old village of Tignes.  Sixty years ago the thriving community, with its ancient traditions of agriculture and its modern vocation as a ski resort was engulfed under 180m of water, sacrificed for electricity and the greater good of the French nation. 

Pont de Chevril (1924)
We set off from the hamlet of La Reclusaz, at the Val d'Isere end of the lake. From there we followed the old road, still clearly defined with much of its tarmac surface in tact. Below was the dramatic Pont de Chevril, spanning the Isere gorge 60m below.

Eroded landscape
From here one can clearly see the layout of the Vallon de Lac, with the remains of the hamlets of La Raie, Villard-Strassiaz, La Chaudanne and Tignes itself discernable under a deep layer of uniform grey sludge. Decades of underwater erosion has left the roots of hundreds of trees (felled for timber as the waters rose) on the sides of the basin, twisted and gnarled into un-natural shapes.

Meteorite or other alien object?
One large piece of rock catches our attention – it's like nothing else here and I wonder if could have been a meteorite or something? It wouldn't seem surprising to find such a thing in this silent, alien landscape

No sign of life...
I was struck by the total lack of any life here. not a single plant, bird or animal could been seen giving the scene a moon-like quality. I struggle to imagine how there had once been fertile meadows beside the Isére, with dozens of cows and sheep grazing peacefully while the steep sides were rich with pines, firs and wild fruit trees.

Old house remains
From a distance the ruins of the dynamited, bulldozed and burnt buildings just looked like muddy humps, but on getting closer I could see that the lower parts of many were still relatively unscathed. We pushed open the thick wooden door of one, entering a cellar room lined with hooks and brackets for shelves of cheese and drying hams. 

Through the plain grill of the window you could for a moment share the view that those villagers once saw daily; the soaring mountains above and the powerful river beside.

Further on we crossed small bridge across the stream flowing down from Villard-Strassiaz, which in the 1930s a saw-mill owner called Planton had used to generate electricity for his machines and to illuminate the village – the community's first taste of the new energy that gave it its place in history.

The density of the ruins multiplies as we got closer to the centre of the le bourg, where several hotels and a restaurant used to flourish, products of the village's reluctant acceptance of tourism as its future as the ancient, inefficient agricultural practices yielded to the post-war world.

Aubrevoir - still full of water
The abreuvoir, where once animals drank and women washed clothes still sits proudly at the heart of the village. A section of iron railing marks the edge, perhaps, of one of the flourishing vegetable gardens slotted between the old chalets.

Remains of Church of St  Jacques
Soon we came upon the largest ruin, that of the 17th century church of Saint-Jacques-de-Tarentaise. Sections of its thick walls lie jumbled upon each other, perhaps here and there are chunks of the old tower that once soared above the valley. 

The church was was the last building to be destroyed, straight after the last Mass was said here on 20th April 1952. On the same day Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new church replicated at Les Boisses, at the heart of the new community that rose from the lake.

A little further on we reached the ruins of a large building, of which the lower floor was still intact. 

Rooms and corridors...
Stone sinks


The network of rooms and corridors could be accessed through the muddy doorway, still furnished with large stone sinks and a stone-slabbed bench, perhaps for some kind of food preparation.

'Le Mur'
Now we are at the end of village, as close to the huge wall of the barrage as one can get. The hum of the turbines in the power station above and its rushing out-flow waterfall coupled with the strange but peaceful atmosphere make conversation difficult. Much has been said about the drowning of Tignes, then and even now there's still much being written and discussed...

Soon the waters will retake its remains and spirit once more, and the lingering generation will pass on.  In this age of global warming and 'energy security' worries we should all be grateful for the reluctant sacrifice made this community and the astonishing achievements that this sacrifice led to.

Tignes Semper Vivens

Many thanks to Rob and Liz for coming with me and taking the photographs.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Tignes semper vivens part 1: the old village re-emerges

Tignes in 1950
For a number of reasons I decided to pay a visit to Tignes yesterday: I'd been reading Cédric Broet's excellent new book Tignes, histoire d'une station de sports d'hiver 1946 - 2000 (in French), and a friend had alerted me to the fact that the Lac de Chevril has been completely drained.

Although the snow's still pretty good in Les Arcs and La Plagne for this stage in the season (and more snow is expected this weekend) I had heard conditions in Tignes were especially good and worth making the journey for.

L'aguille Percée - yet another photo!
My trip exceeded my expectation in every way! Firstly the snow was good, the glacier hard and fast and the plenty of (rather grainy) untracked fresh snow around the Col de Ves. The pistes back to Val Claret and Le Lac all seem to be wide and smooth, and even the sun-exposed Vallon de la Sache black run from the Aguille Percée (is this the most photographed piece of rock in the world, I wonder?) to Les Brevières only presented a few slush and gravel difficulties on the steep section above the village.

Isère bridge clearly visible
Secondly, I had noticed when crossing the top of the dam that the Lac de Chevril is indeed very empty, I think with even less water in it than during the 'official' inspection vidange in 2000. The old Isère bridge, the village streets and the dynamited remains of various buildings including the church can be clearly seen, and people were once again strolling there in the brilliant sunshine  as they might have back in 1952!

As I sat enjoying my Salade Savoyarde at the excellent La Sachette restuarant in Les Brevières I found myself thinking over the remarkable story of the village of Tignes. Its destruction and subsequent renaissance bear witness to two of  the 20th century's greatest industrial achievements, electricity and tourism.

 By the 1930s the agricultural community of Tignes had already begun to reap the benefits of the newly emerging winter sports industry; Val d'Isère, a few kilometres further up the valley had already a number of hotels and ski lifts and Tignes begun to follow suit. The Great War had disrupted centuries-old traditions of subsistence farming (based on domestic production of milk, cheese, pork and cereal) as young men sent to fight had seen more of the world and were exposed to new influences.

However, it was probably the Second World War that crystallised Tignes' future. As France rebuilt its industries and cities there was a desperate need for energy, in the form of electricity. A plan to build an hydro-electric scheme at Tignes had been around since 1920, but ironically it was shelved as the cost of the obtaining the required land  through compulsory purchase was seen as to high  in relation the price of electricity. However, the scheme was revived and expanded in the  late 1940s, with the aim of building the world's largest hydro-scheme by damming the Isère downstream from Tignes, thereby  putting the village under 180m of water.

The outflow from the new reservoir, which was to be fed by a number of diverted mountain streams, would power generators at Les Brevières and Viclaire before emerging from the a tunnel 350m above Bourg St Maurice in two gigantic conduit forcée feeding 5 turbines in the  Malgovert power plant. Overall the scheme would produce nearly a thousand megawatts, enough electricity for 150,000 homes (such as city the size of Grenoble).

Tignes Le Lac
Understandably there was much opposition from the people of Tignes, which in 1950 was home to 76 families, several farms and a handful of hotels, shops and restaurants. At a national level there was much debate about the whether it was right to sacrifice an ancient community in the name of progress and the greater good of the state. In compensation the EDF (Electricité de France) planned to rebuild Tignes above the lake at Les Boisses, including an exact copy of the church and a new cemetery for those exhumed from their original final resting place. The package of compensation and redevelopment sowed the seeds for the ski resort as we know it today, starting with the new 'hamlets' of Le Rosset and L'Aune which became part of  'Tignes Le Lac'. The higher part, Val Claret, was not really foreseen at this time, and didn't happen until the 1970s.

Anti-EDF graffiti -' rape and pillage'
However, a few stalwart Tignards resisted until the end, even as the water was lapping around their houses. In the end the prefect called in the CRS (kind of riot police) to dynamite and set of fire the whole village while literally dragging the last few from their homes. Distressing scenes indeed, and there is still much bitterness in the local communities about how this was handled (although now it is hard to see how it could have been done differently).

Many of those families who were displaced but chose to stay in the new Tignes have since prospered with the development of the truly world-class ski resort. In the end, when one thinks as all the 'carbon-free' electricity being produced and what a great place it is to ski perhaps that sacrifice was justified.

I'm taking my team to do a 'photographic essay' there tomorrow, as I think this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the old village of Tignes. Hence this is part 1, part 2 will deal with the growth of the ski resort in the 1960s and 70s in comparison to the development of Les Arcs... coming soon.

Meanwhile, here's an excellent short video of the last days of Tignes: TIGNES, L'EAU MONTE

Also highly recommended: Tignes, la naissance d'un géant [Broché] by
Denis Varaschin

A detailled account of the construction of the barrage and associated works. Strong on technical detail and historical accuracy.

See part 2 of this blog post for an account of my descent into the ruined village

Monday, April 14, 2014

ZAC des Alpins (the old barracks): future or fiction?

Michel Giraudy, new mayor of Bourg
Congratulations to M. Michel Giraudy and his team of councillors elected from the 'Agir pour l'avenir' group, on becoming the new mayor of Bourg St Maurice. Giraudy is a genuine tourism professional, having been head of the Val d'Isere and Courchevel tourist offices for many years and now running his own consultancy business. He also worked at Club Med and was involved in organising the 1992 Albertville Olympics.

I think M. Giraudy is going to be glad of all this valuable experience when he tackles his mayoral in-tray. Top item will be the 'ZAC des Alpins' project, upon which, we are led to believe the future prosperity of Bourg St Maurice largely depends. This huge scheme to redevelop the old Barracks on the southern edge of the town is likely to provoke much controversy and need a huge amount of imagination, commitment and acuity if it's to succeed, qualities which have been lamentably lacking in dealing with recent failed projects such as the Centre for National Ski Studies, the Renoveau fiasco and the mineral water bottling plant farce.

Le Quartier Bulle, now ZAC des Alpins
To recap, in 2011 the 7th Brigade of Chasseurs Alpins departed the barracks, which they had occupied since before the First World War.

The soldiers were highly respected by the town community, and contributed greatly to the economy, and social and sporting activities.   Bourg suddenly lost nearly a third of its population (1500 out of 5000), but gained a sprawling complex of hangars, yards and logements spread over 7 hectares. This was 'sold' to the town for €1 euro by the Ministry of Defence, perhaps anxious not to have to find the €400,000 per year needed just to maintain and secure the site while empty!

At the time Bourg was expecting to host a new National Centre for High Level Skiing Studies  (CSNHN, a kind of ski university - see previous blogs), and the old barracks were to be its home. However, owing to spectacular bungling and vaccillation by the council under the then-mayor Damien Perry, the FFS changed its mind and chose Albertville instead. So, the old barracks became a bit of a white elephant.

Detailed proposals of the new 'UTN ZAC des Alpins' project have recently been made public and presented to the councillors. The scheme involves retaining some of the more interesting (and older) buildings, demolishing the ugly ones and building some new ones. . The aim is to construct a 'Development Zone' in which will be the following:
Architect's impression
  • Four star hotel, luxury tourist accommodation and short-term tourist lodgings totalling 1500 new beds
  • Conference centre
  • 'Wellness' health centre with spa, fun-pool etc.
  • Shops, cafés, etc. and an entertainment venue
  • Craft village
  • Memorial to the 7th BCA regiment
In addition there will be new housing for saisonaires and 'parkland' within the complex. A striking feature is the proposed series of waterfalls fed by the adjacent Arbonne river. But, remember this is Bourg St Maurice, so there has to be the obligatory 300 new car parking spaces and two new access roundabouts on the main road!  

Acknowledging that the ZAC des Alpins is on the 'wrong side' of the town as far the transport/mountain access/commercial infrastructure is concerned, the proposal includes the provisions of 2 shuttle bus services (reaching the funicular in 2 minutes, apparently) and a possible new walkway to the station  

The proposals, which have been put together the Society for the Development of Savoie details the benefits to the town: eventually  the local economy will enjoy an extra 20m euros of income per annum from a mixture of increased lift-pass sales (2.4m), accommodation (10 - 14m) and spending in bars, shops, restaurants etc ( 5 - 7m). The project would create about 500 new jobs, about half of which would be permanent and the rest seasonal (winter I assume).

It all looks very slick and impressive, but there are obviously quite a few question marks about Bourg's ability to bring off a project like this. Firstly, the town is going to have to find 12 million euros to fund the project, spread over a period of 3 or 4 years. The government is expected to pitch in another 3 million, but it will take 10 years for the cashflow to become positive and half the money the town will provide will be borrowed. This is on top of the its current debts of around 40 million, but SAS reckon that initial interest repayments on all these loans can be made by making cuts to services and 'management savings'. This all sounds rather risky for a number of reasons.

The location, location, location of the site is undoubtedly a problem. Who would be prepared to pay to stay in a sumptuous 4 star hotel which then involves a bus ride and then the funicular to get to the snow? The SAS figures quote an average annual occupancy rate of 75%, whereas in the last few years the figure generally in Bourg St Maurice has been 46% (from Vivre en Tarentaise). It's strange that the Dutch hotel group Valk are mentioned a possible exploiter of the new hotel: they have dozens of 'resort' hotels in Holland, a few in France and Spain but none in Alpine or mountainous environments. I hope this doesn't mean some of hotel groups active in the Alps haven't already shunned the idea!

Another threat to the high street?
Secondly, the plan to put in shops and craft workshops can only detract from the struggling town centre, and make it a less attractive proposition for casual visitors from the Arcs resorts. It contradicts much of the councils policy and actions to try and 'redynamise' the town centre - there is already enough pressure from the supermarket end of town, with all its parking, cafés and choice of large shops. Even if the proposed commerces within the ZAC were well patronised by the new clientele, this would hardly have any positive effect for the town centre: it's too far away for people to want to stroll down to the Rue Pietonné if they have shops etc. on hand in the ZAC.

Thirdly, I can't really see how the a conference centre in a fairly inaccessible town like Bourg is going to do well when there is already an abundance of such facilities in all the local cities, and the increasing use of virtual and internet based systems will make 'real' conference events increasingly redundant.

I think its a sign of the desperation of the local politicians that some of these questions were barely raised at the presentation of the plan, except by Councillor Bocianowksi, to her credit. The SAS presentation offers no exit strategies or worse-case scenarios, only a rose-tinted view of increasing prosperity despite the multiple challenges faced by the tourist industry here (visitors to Les Arcs fell by 9,3% between 2009-2012), and in particular skiing which whether you like it or not is main motor of the local economy.

It is, I realise, easy to criticise a new project like this, and if it does go ahead I really hope it will succeed and not become a nightmarish drain on the town's finances. But I am pretty sure no council would have chosen to buy a site like this for redevelopment, rather it's been thrust upon as and something has to be done with it. Let's hope M. Giraudy's the man for the job!

You can see full details of the proposals here (in french but mainly pictures and diagrams):