Tignes: the disappearing village – France Today

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the disappearance of Tignes. “But wait a minute! Tignes is a world-famous ski resort”, one could retort. Yes, but before being a ski resort, it was a village in another valley and its tragic history remains a painful collective memory in Tarentaise in Savoie.

Like many of France’s iconic ski resorts, Tignes was custom-built in the mid-1960s as part of the French government‘s grand “plan neige” of 1964-1977 to build modern and functional ski resorts at high altitudes. But unlike many of its sister resorts, Tignes existed long before it became a resort. It was a village scattered along the banks of the Isère in a bowl-shaped valley at an altitude of 1700m. The Isère winds to the south-east through the narrow gorges of Val d’Isère and to the north-west through two large rocky outcrops… ideal for anchoring a hydroelectric dam.

The project, first mentioned in 1929, was first delayed by the economic crisis of the 1930s, then by the Second World War. Finally launched on May 10, 1946, the highest dam in France (181 m) creates an artificial lake of 235 million m3, Lac du Chevril, over an area of ​​270 ha. Today, it produces all the electricity needed by the city of Grenoble. But this was done at the cost of the drowning of Tignes.

Chevril Lake © Christina Mackenzie

The 473 villagers fiercely opposed the project, resorting to sabotage and standing in the way of trucks trying to access the site, to attract the attention of journalists who took up their cause head-on. The village has become a household name in France and has come to symbolize the difficult balance between tradition and modernity.

Despite their efforts, the dam was built and the floodgates were closed on March 15, 1952. But the villagers did not move. Few had accepted the offers of compensation from the electricity company EDF, preferring to stay in the village. So, first, their telephone wires were cut on March 3rd. Then, with a rise in water of one meter per day, 300 gendarmes arrived before dawn on March 17 to occupy the strategic points of the village, including the bell tower so as not to sound the tocsin! With water lapping at their doorstep, families had no choice but to leave. On April 13, 1952, Easter Sunday, the last mass took place in the church, the bells of which were already being melted down to melt six bells for the new church of St Jacques des Boisses on a plateau at the western end of the barrage. It is an exact replica of the original church.

• Saint Jacques les Boisses Church: Saint Jacques Church in Tignes les Boisses is an exact replica of the church that was demolished in the original village of Tignes © Christina Mackenzie

The cemetery is emptied and with the war memorial dismantled, the coffins are transported to Les Boisses as well as the furniture of the church, the school and the town hall. And then all the buildings in Tignes were blown up to prevent the Tignards from trying to return to their homes when the Lac de Chevril was emptied every 10 years or so to allow inspection of the dam. But the ruins were visible “just long enough to reopen our wounds” as José Reymond writes in Tignes, my submerged village. It will no longer be emptied as the dam can now be inspected by underwater robots.

The dam today © Christina Mackenzie

Only 15 Tignard families out of 87 remained in the region: the others dispersed. When the construction of the ski resort began in 1952 on the edge of a natural lake, the Lac de Tignes, at an altitude of 2100 m, these 15 families were given priority to buy land there. But few did, unable to imagine living all year round at such a high altitude and uninterested in joining the tourism industry.

Overview of the tourist unit seen from the new village of Tignes where more than 2,000 people live year-round. A second “Bec Rouge” building was constructed behind and parallel to the tourist unit in 1967-68 © Christina Mackenzie

The only building that was there was a shepherd’s hut built in 1925. It’s still there! The villagers who remained chose architect Raymond Pantz over a government-commissioned architect to design their new village because he had bought land there in the 1930s and even had a private ski lift! Pantz built the new village at the eastern end of Lake Tignes and the 10 seven-storey buildings, built between 1956 and 1974, for tourists were put on the northern shore of the lake. In 1968, Pantz designed the Val Claret at the southwestern end of the lake, at the foot of the ski lifts serving the Grande Motte glacier.

Twenty years ago, a statue of Livio Benedetti was finally erected in memory of the old village of Tignes. Oddly, “La Sarrazine” stands 3.80m high on the edge of Lac du Chevril on the road to Val d’Isère opposite the ancient village of Tignes and is nowhere near the road uphill. currently in Tignes. But if you look to your left across the lake just before crossing the only tunnel en route from Tignes 1800 to Tignes 2100, you could make it out.

Main photo credit: Displayed on a wall panel in Tignes, this view dates from around 1968 when the Val Claret, in the foreground, began to be built. Lac de Chevril is visible top right from the natural lake of Tignes in the center © Christina Mackenzie

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