Over the centuries Val Thorens and the surrounding areas have been farmed and mined in much the same fashion as most of the Alps. There is evidence of human settlements from as early as 2000BC and remnants have been found from Iron Age communities. Over the years there is evidence that the valleys became quite densely populated and were sufficient to support a growing population of pastoral farmers. However, with the 20th century came two great wars and the population was depleted. Of those that came back from battlefields across Europe, many of them left Val Thorens to find work in the bigger cities of Moûtiers and Savoy, that were benefitting from the activity generated by the hydroelectric works and the steel industry.
At the start of the 1960’s Val Thorens was still mainly agricultural, but its potential as a resort had been noted; plans were put in place to develop it along with Val Chavière into a large winter resort. However, the plans for the development of Val Chavière encroached upon the land of the Vanoise National Park, which vetoed the project as part of their policy against urbanisation of protected natural areas.
In 1967 the lower resort of Les Menuires was built; it was constructed rapidly in the now outmoded architectural style of the 1960’s. It has long been thought of as the ‘ugly’ part of the region, but recent investments are trying to rectify that and give it a more up-market image. Les Menuires was the first location to be turned into a ski resort by virtue of the easy access by road; in 1969 that road was extended up to Val Thorens enabling the development plans to be put into action.
The 1970’s were when Val Thorens really started to take shape as a ski resort; in 1971 the first 3 draglifts were built and the following year Jean Berenger, a former coach of the French women’s ski team, set up the first ski school, the Club des Sports and the Tourist Office. His importance in the history of the area is marked by a piste named in his honour.
Between 1972 and 1973 the Péclet glacier and north slopes were equipped with several lifts, opening up glacier skiing and a wider ski domain.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s more draglifts and chairlifts were installed, making the ski area ever bigger and better linked. The Cime de Caron cable car was completed in 1982, then the largest cable car in the world.
By the 1980’s it became apparent that the first buildings constructed in the early 70’s were not going to visually stand the test of time. A project of renovation transformed the resort; outmoded buildings were replaced by traditional style chalets and ugly concrete facades were clad in local wood and stone. From this point on all new developments must conform to stricter aesthetic guidelines more in keeping with the traditional style of the area.
The development of St Martin de Belleville into a ski resort did not happen until the early 1980’s and so, happily, the lessons that had been learnt in Val Thorens were applied. Traditional architecture was maintained and new buildings were designed in keeping with the style of the area. This remains one of the more picturesque parts of the region.
Throughout the 1990’s the lift company SETAM ploughed much investment into improving the comfort, waiting time and links of the lift system – making Val Thorens one of the most modern and efficient resorts in Europe.
These days Val Thorens is a pleasant attractive resort with a lively night life, good restaurants and plenty to do both on and off the mountain. Heritage tours of the area can be organised through the Tourist Office and the back streets of St Martin are well worth a wander to get a feel of the original ‘old town’. In the summer a hike along some of the high mountain walking trails will lead you past old refuges and farm buildings from years gone by. The resort is now linked to the rest of the Three Valleys and the neighbouring domains of Courchevel and Méribel are easily accessible via the fast and efficient lift system.
History of the Vanoise National Park
The Vanoise National Park was the first of its kind in France. Created on 6th July 1963 it was primarily conceived as a protected zone for the endangered ibex. The ibex, or bouquetin, population suffered greatly from the 16th century onwards when guns became more widespread for hunting and so under pressure from the French Alpine Club and the Touring Club de France, amongst others, a national reserve was created. There was some disagreement over whether the focus of the park should be more on animals than humans and so two zones were created; the inner zone, a highly protected sanctuary for wildlife and plants, and the peripheral zone, an area where small villages and hamlets could exist alongside nature without fear of losing their culture and way of life to the changes of the modern world.
However, the history of the Vanoise National Park stretches back much further than the 1960’s. Cup shaped niches carved into the rocks as high up as 3000m suggest that the area was inhabited by humans during the Neolithic era. The purpose of these niches remains unknown but archaeologists have found a plethora of other signs of pre-historic communities – carvings of Christian crosses, human figures, animals, tools and so on. One of the most impressive examples of Neolithic civilisation is the Pierre aux Pieds (Rock of Feet), which has been classified as an ancient monument. This enormous piece of schist rock is engraved with 82 small feet, the size of which suggests that they represent women, children or just a race of very small humans. The direction of the feet has led to speculation that the carvings may have been carried out by a race that worshipped the rising sun or prayed to the glacial summits for mercy and protection. There are other examples of past communities to be seen such as the possible medieval Stone of the Saints, the Rock of the Masks and the Stone of the Devil. Indications of passage across the Alps (paves paths, low stone walls, crosses erected at paths, etc) suggest that people have been trying to pass through this region since the Iron Age.
The population of the area continued to grow and communities developed due to the abundance of minerals. During the Bronze Age copper was plentiful, from the 15th century iron was used and in the 17th the discovery of silver bearing lead created new mines. Calcium and gypsum rocks were quarried and were used for building chalets in the alpine pastures.
More recently the park was created just 41 years after the creation of the Gran Paradiso National Park in 1922. As they share a border (the Gran Paradiso lies in the Italian mountains) they were twinned in 1972, making them the largest protected site in Europe measuring a mighty 1250km².
The Albertville Winter Olympics 1992 - 20 Years On
After Annecy’s flailing attempt for the 2018 Winter Olympic bid, France can at least celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Winter Olympic Games.
The 1992 Winter Olympic Games took place between the 8th and 23rd February 1992. Host town Albertville only featured some of the skating events apart from the opening and closing ceremonies. The rest of the sporting events took place in the ski resorts of:
Val d'Isère – Alpine skiing (men combined, downhill, giant slalom, and super-giant slalom)
The Games brought a number of worthy developments into the area.
For holiday-makers the most notably development was the upgrade of the RN90 - the road running the length of the valley from Grenoble all the way to the col du Petit Saint-Bernard. The upgrade put an end to the frequent traffic jams.
La Plagne was nominated to build the bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton track which has been a resident attraction in La Plagne ever since. It has hosted a number of World and European events in recent years.
Courchevel built an Olympic size ski jump in the resort of Le Praz which now hosts annual Wolrd Cup Ski Jumping every summer.
During the Games the German team won most medals, with a total of 10 gold medals, 10 silver and 6 bronze.
The speed skiing event in Les Arcs was marked by the death of Swiss speed skier Nicolas Bochatay on the morning of the event during a training run.
Curling, although part of the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, made a come-back as part of the 1992 games and have become a regular appearance ever since.