Destiny of a high mountain village turned international ski resort. The village of yesteryear : 9 months of winter, 3 months of hell.
Birth of a ski resort : visionary pioneers
Ever since his first visit in 1929, Jacques Mouflier became an ardent admirer of Val d’Isère, and he was convinced that it was possible to create a ski resort here. Nicolas Bazile, the mayor at the time, saw insurmountable obstacles in the harsh climate and the remoteness of the village. Nevertheless, their meeting in the summer of 1931 sowed the seeds for the project.
From 1932 onwards, the development of essential public services opened the way: the post office, the advent of electricity, running water and improved road access, but equally the first hotels.
En 1936, the first chamber of commerce was established, representing all the economic activities of the resort. It adopted a town planning policy that safeguarded the character of the village and split the terrain of the commune into two zones (sports and accommodation).
En 1937, two ministers stranded by a blizzard and the opening of the road up the Col de l’Iseran made Val d’Isère a household name throughout France.
Opening of the pistes and the establishment of a ski school
During the winter of 1932-1933, two Austrians provided ski instruction for the occasional tourists, but four of the locals quickly learned the technique being taught by the Austrians. Charles Diebold offered The first ski lessons, the Cours Vosgiens.
In the winters that followed, these young instructors perfected their technique and started giving ski lessons. The first Ecole de Ski Français, with a dozen instructors, was founded during the 1936-1937 season.
In 1937-1938, the central training school opened its doors at Joseray and awarded its first instructor diplomas. The Chamois de France was created.
All systems go, development of the ski area gets underway
In 1938, the creation of the Société des Téléphériques de Val d’Isère paved the way for a huge mountain development programme. The long term aim was to establish a ski area at an altitude of 1850 to 3300m where you could cruise for 34km without taking or yours skis and without tackling the same run or riding the same lift twice.
Work on the Solaise gondola started in May 1939 and finished in December 1942. After the war, the lift system was expanded into higher areas. At the start of the 1960s the resort boasted a dozen drag-lifts and two cable cars.
From time to time Val d’Isère reminds us of the harshness of the climate here : in 1957 the Isère river broke its banks, and in 1970 there was a massive avalanche. As a result the river now largely flows through a channel and avalanche protection barriers are in place.
First steps on the road to international fame
The Critérium de la première neige
In 1955 the Club des Sports decided to organise a race during the month of December to attract skiers in training. From the 1960s onwards, the positive results of the French national team encouraged skiers from other countries to include the Critérium in their schedule. Today it’s a stage of the Alpine Skiing World Cup. Races are held on the Oreiller-Killy (OK) race course as well as on the Face de Bellevarde.
Albertville Winter Olympics
The idea for this was dreamed up at the 1981 Critérium by Jean-Claude Killy and Michel Barnier (deputy for the Savoie region and president of the Conseil général). When it was launched in 1982, the candidature for Albertville would make it the third French winter games – following Chamonix in 1924 and Grenoble in 1968.
Val d’Isère was awarded four men’s disciplines on the Face de Bellevarde : the Downhill, Giant Slalom, Super G, and the Combined.
Alpine Skiing World Championships
In 2009, the world’s top skiers competed in 11 events on Bellevarde and Solaise. The championships provided the opportunity for a major makeover: the re-opening of the Face de Bellevarde as a downhill course, the construction of the Rhône-Alpes piste on Solaise, the revamp of the press centre and arrivals arean…a true success story with 20,000 spectators present during the 12 days of racing.
The Story of Le Fornet
At a heady altitude of 1930m, the hamlet of Le Fornet has managed to maintain its unspoilt appearance over the years. From here, skiers can reach the highest slopes in the area by riding the 1972 Le Fornet cable car that provides the link towards the col de l’Iseran and the Pissaillas glacier. Le Fornet is a formidable playground for anyone who likes skiing off-piste, while less experienced skiers can enjoy a wide choice of green and blue runs.
Le Fornet is also the departure point for numerous ski tours, notably that from the Pont Saint Charles. In summer, the most experienced walkers can explore the Malpasset gorges all the way to the refuge du Prariond and even reach the Col de la Galise and the Col de la Lose en route to our Italian neighbours. For the most courageous, the glaciers that feed the source of the Isère river provide an opportunity for ski touring.
Origins of the name
Le Fornet takes its name from the lime kilns (les fours) that used to operate just above the village on the banks of the Isère. If life in Le Fornet is usually tranquil, the same cannot always be said for the mountain above it, which has not always been kind to the inhabitants. The village was originally located lower down on the left bank of the Isère before it was destroyed by an avalanche. The villagers quickly decided to rebuild upstream. Carvings discovered on the woodwork of some of the old buildings date the first construction of the new village to 1750. In summer, you can spot the ruins of the old village now known as Lower Le Fornet.
Around 70 people live here all year round. While it is not the highest community in France, it’s certainly among the top five. Many of the original families still live here and numerous chalets are rented out during the winter season. If you ask the old-timers what they like best about Le Fornet they will always reply: the tranquility. The hamlet is easily accessed, but situated away from the centre of Val d’Isère. Le Fornet has only one hotel and two restaurants – one with two Michelin stars and the other run by one of the hamlet’s pioneering families. Over the years, Le Fornet has steeped itself in authenticity and that is not about the change.
Hand-crafted Local yummies
The Chevallot baking family has been in Val d’Isère since 1965. Patrick Chevallot, who became Master Pâtissier of France in 1993, continues with the family tradition. You really can’t stay in Val d’Isère without a visit to his two shops: the first is situated on the main Avenue Olympique and the second one – it has recently been entirely renovated – is in the heart of the village. Once there, you have to try local cakes and pastries such as Ancolie and Bear’s Foot, or simply taste the home-made hot chocolate. Also, you just have to sample the local cheeses produced on the Adroit farm.