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

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andrew. Fascinating blog but I'm curious as to why they drained the lake now? Part of the wider EDF malgovert renovations? Very envious of your staff getting the opportunity to see the lake empty. Angus