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):