Wednesday, January 29, 2014

RN90 Project - road to nowhere?

Whether you make your way to Les Arcs by road or rail you will probably notice a great deal of heavy construction work going on just after Moutiers, as the RN 90 and the railway beside it begin their tortuous ascent through the narrowing Isère gorges to Aime, Bourg and eventually Val d'Isère at the head of the Haute Tarentaise valley. A reader emailed me to ask me if I knew what was going on there, so here goes:

Image of the new road, note old road on the right

The 46 million euro scheme is called the Deviation de la RN90 á Montgalgan, and involves diverting the road to the other side of the  Isère river, below the site of the now disused Loyettaz Quarry, over a distance of 1.75km. A second viaduct will take it back to its original trace at St Marcel, just before the Tunnel de Siaix. It's a massive project that's going to take 4 years to complete. The end result will be a four-lane dual-carriageway and the widening of the bed of the Isère river to 18m (now 12m) by scrapping part of the 'old' road.  The old quarry, which really is a scar on the landscape, will be 'naturalised' and re-planted with indigenous forest trees that were destroyed in 1898 with the rush for industrialisation in the Tarentaise valley.   Rubbish and pollutants will be removed from the bed of the Isère to encourage it back to its natural state, and by making it wider possible future flooding will be avoided (remember global warming?).

JCB buried by falling rocks in April 2013
All this ecological virtue is fine, but it's hardly the main reason for undertaking such a huge scheme. What's really behind it are increasing problems of rock falls and landslides onto the road from the geologically-unstable Montgalgan cliff, visible in the top right of the picture above. At the start of the project there was a huge eboulement that effectively buried a large JCB excavator, thankfully without any casualties. Anyone who uses the RN90 as regularly as I do will be used to seeing piles of rock at the side of the road, and while stuck in the  frequent Saturday traffic jams find plenty of time to admire the complex spider-web of netting, ropes and fences erected over the years to protect the railway and road.

Viaduct de Centron during construction in 2005
The RN90 carries up to 45,000 vehicles on a typical busy Saturday during the winter school holidays Many of the world's most famous and popular ski resorts are served by this road, and apart from the railway there's no other way into the valley.  In 2005 a similar project was undertaken at Centron, a few kilometres up the valley, with the construction of the imposing viaduct at the end the other end of Siaix Tunnel sweeping the RN90 to the right bank for exactly the same reasons as the Montgalgan project.

The new road is going to give a better view of the rambling 'Metaux Speciaux' works at St Marcel, where chlorine, vandium and various nasty-sounding 'alkaline metals' are made for the nuclear power industry. The plant takes full advantage of the adjacent railway line, dispatching its products in huge rail-tankers during the passenger-free hours of the night. Many of these large industrial complexes were established in the early 20th Century in order to take advantage of the possibilities of hydro-electric produce the huge amount of energy required to turn rocks into gas. Metaux Speciaux managed to produce so much electricity from its own hydro-power plants that for a time the excess was used the power the Lyon city trams!

But is the Deviation de la RN90 á Montgalgan all a huge waste of time and money? Certainly the environmental pressure group Vivre en Tarentaise think so.  From the congested 2-lane giratory system around Moutiers one will be able to speed toward the inevitable traffic jam that will occur when the wonderful new stretch of road funnels into one lane in the Tunnel de Saix, before joining the next embouteillage as the two lanes of the Centron viaduct converge at the tricky corner above the narrow Gorge de Centron. And then it's solid all the way to Bourg St Maurice and beyond....

Vivre en Tarentaise raises the question again of why not spend this money on the railway instead? The official answer is the the hundred-year old railway is already 'saturated' at peak times, with  no more space for any more trains. Most of it is single track and in tunnels.  Deep inside the mountain adjacent the Montgalgan scheme is the extraordinary  railway 'boucle', a long spiral tunnel by which the line rises from 480 à 520 m over a short distance. Like the deviation, it took 4 years to build in 1913.  
Boris enjoying the London cable car
Perhaps engineers and politicians today should try and emulate the ingenuity and determination of those earlier road and rail builders - if expanding the road or railway isn't going provide a solution to the problem of access why not look for a more radical solution? 60 years ago a massive telepherique was built to ferry concrete from railway trucks arriving at Bourg St Maurice station 23km up the valley to site of the Tignes hydro-electric dam at the Lac de Chevril (you can still see the footing of one of the pylons by the allotments in the park next to the funicular). Cable transport is taking off round the world as a cheap, safe way of moving people - there's even now a cable car across the Thames in London. So why not a huge cable car system with stops at all the main resorts/towns from Moutiers to Val D'Isere to transport people and their luggage silently up the valley. Just think of the view and how much CO2 could be saved.... something to dream about while stuck in those inevitable traffic jams of the future.

More information (in french):

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Smoking boars, hunting lodges and graffiti - new places to eat on the mountain

With things finally settling down snow-wise both on the mountain (a good few centimetres last night and more on the way) and in the chalets (staff problems resolved, I hope!)  I hope I can get back to some regular blog writing again.

Les Arcs has been criticised in the past for its lack of mountain restaurants. It is certainly true that in comparison to La Plagne they are rather few and far between, with only a handful actually located 'on the piste' rather than awkwardly placed within the resorts. So it's good news that two new establishments have spring up this season, plus the long awaited opening of the new Aguille Grive restaurant and hotel at Arc 1800 (it never managed to open last season because of problems with the EDF over the electricity supply, apparently).

Chalet Grillette interior
The Chalet Grillette  is also above 1800, beside the Grand Melezes piste and right under the Transarc lift.  It's a reasonably attractive stone-and-wood chalet-style building, but it's a  shame however it doesn't reflect the Arcadien  architectural radicalism that is gleefully demonstrated in the new Aguille Grive constructions.  The inside is more interesting, with graffiti-style murals by the local artist Pierre Grellon, who describes himself as a 'self-taught tagger'. Grellon's art-deco style alpine depictions have also been used  for Paradiski publicity and he also did the mural inside the tunnel leading to the Snow Park. More on the food when I've found a guest to take me there for lunch!

Le sanglier qui fume
Local skills and metiers are also much in evidence at Le Sanglier qui Fume (The Smoking Boar) at Arc 1600, just below the Chalet Beguin and under the Mont Blanc lift (access from Cachette or Mont Blanc piste). The restaurant has been built by a local firm, Charpentier Bute, using traditional techniques and materials. The menu looks really interesting, featuring of course boar sausages as well as home-made foie gras and a 'smoking boar burger'. Again, I can't wait to try it once I've saved up (cheapest thing on the menu is about €15 euros). The whole place has a bit of an unfinished look about it (there's not even a proper sign yet), but the huge south facing balcony ought to become a popular place to watch the sun descend below Le Cheval Blanc.

The Hotel Beguin in about 1965, with the old Biollet drag lift
The newest restaurant at Arc 1600 is located a few metres down hill from the oldest, the Chalet Beguinone of the few facilities pre-dating Les Arcs that is still going. It was once a small hunting-lodge, owned by the Montrigon-based Beguin family for generations. When the first lifts were constructed  to form the 'Courbaton 1750' ski area in 1961 (see previous blogs about this) Louis Beguin constructed a small drag lift himself, called Le Biollet, and refurbished the hunting lodge to provide 'shelter and nourishment' for skiers.  As one of only three eating place within the Courbaton 1750 area it quickly became successful, and in 1965 Beguin further enlarged the establishment to create a  30 bed hotel, bar and restaurant.

The Les Arcs revolution was then beginning, but Beguin was a skeptic, believing, along with others, that the development of Courbaton 1750 would be a better plan than Blanc and Godino's radical scheme for Les Arcs. Perhaps because he was an influential municipal councillor  he managed to avoid compulsory purchase (almost every existing building within the new Arcs domain was bought out, sometimes forcibly, in line with the Godino's 'total ski' management concept). With the success of the ski area and his hotel-restaurant Beguin was able to quit his hated job as an engineer and became a full-time hotelier. The Chalet Beguin still has the feel of a hunting lodge, and the 1960s about it: it's also a nice place to step back in time, sit and watch the sunset.