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.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating article and pictures. I remember when working a ski season there in the 90's meeting a restauranteur and his sons, who were all born in the old Tignes village. He didn't speak English and I was limited to my GCSE French, but he told me about the whole episode, protests etc, and that now every decade when the lake is drained they original villagers who are still around all make a pilgrimage. They went to the house they were born in and the old church where his wife/their mother was originally buried. Each time slightly less is visible due to the silt build up etc. Really poignant story.