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The Summit

The Powerful History of Tignes

Smuggling, dams, resistance, compensation and even hercules - how one of the most snowsure spots in Europe became a ski resort.

Tignes is one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe, a high-altitude, snowsure resort connected to Val d'Isere to form the L'Espace Killy ski area.

Surprisingly, considering its success, Tignes was created by accident. The resort was built on compensation, after the French government destroyed the original villages by building a dam in the area.

The dam never fulfilled its purpose. Yet, in a sense, this blunder led to the creation of one of Europe's most popular ski resorts. 

Back in the 1200's, Tignes consisted of only two villages (Les Brenieres and Tignes), rather than the five which make up the resort today. The villagers subsisted partly from farming, making cheeses such as Abondance, Chevrotin, Tomme de Savoie and Vacherin de Bauges, all of which can still be tasted in Tignes today. They supplemented their income by smuggling, probably highly-taxed export goods, from Italy into France.

The villagers of Tignes (Tignards) had little reason to disturb their routine for hundreds of years, until rumours began in the 1920's that the government was planning to build a hydro-electric dam in the area. You can imagine how these rumours occupied chats in the village square, some Tignards doubting them, others certain, some shrugging and others fiercly opposed.    

In 1952, after the second world war, these rumours became a reality. Despite vehment resistance from the Tignards, a dam was built, flooding both villages beneath the waters of the Lac Du Chevril (see images of the lake and eviction notice above). You can still meet a few of the older residents who remember the original villages and resisted their destruction; there's even a couple who will tell you a tale about their time spent in jail, after attempting to blow up the dam that would wreck ruin over their homes and livelihoods.      

The dam was supposed to supply 10% of all electricity used in France. However, shortly after its construction, France went nuclear and the hydro-electric power generated by the dam has never been used to light French houses and warm their stoves. It seemed as though the villages has been lost for nothing.

The French government were heavily in debt to the wronged Tignards and contributed generously to compensate for the destruction of Tignes. This compensation allowed Tignes to reinvent itself and become the world-class ski resort you can visit today. In 1967, developer Pierre Schnebelen and the Savoie Department used funds intended for a 50 000 square metre development at Lavachet to build the Tignes ski resort. Schnebelen was given a thirty year lease on existing lifts and the authority to build the resort, including 7 hotels and 646 apartments. Schnebelen's lease was cut short in the 1980's, when he built the Grande Motte cable car in the Vanois national park without state permission.  

Despite this transgression, Schnebelen's work in Tignes was invaluable; he developed one of the world's best ski resorts and 'virtually created the contemporary ski resort concept' (zoominfo). Today, Tignes and Val d'Isere make up the L'Espace Killy, a high-altitude, snowsure area named after Jean Claude Killy, the famous French skier who won three gold medals in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble. L'Espace Killy has 300km of pistes and 96 lifts that can carry 149 425 people each hour. Tignes regularly hosts races and competitions, such as this year's X-Games.

Nowadays, the hydro-electric power generated by the dam is used to charge a storage battery, ready to supply Tignes with electricity in the event of a power cut. The dam has been improved by a gigantic depictions of hercules (see image above). Once every ten years, you can see the ruined villages, when the Lac Du Chevril is drained to allow maintenance work on the dam.

You can even stay in the chalet that Schnebelen built for himself! This luxury ski chalet is in a ridiculously good location, right on the slopes with views directly on to the pistes (see image above). Make sure you check out the queer room on the 7th floor that overhangs the rest of the building, the result of Schnebelen's office extension. If you want a ski-in, ski-out chalet in Tignes, you'll find no better spot, more steeped in history than 38 Le Bollin (pictured below).  

Schnebelen's chalet    

 

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