Mon Tour du Mont Blanc

The economy and traditions


The country that extends to the feet of Mont Blanc has known, and in part maintained, an alpine culture that is at the basis of the cultural identity of the populations that currently live in it. It is the result of a long common history that the frontiers could not cancel completely. This culture became critical with the industrial revolution and the resulting social-economic upheaval. Great changes occurred at the start of the 20th Century in Savoie, a little later in Vallese and, after the Second World War, in the Valle d'Aosta. In this ancestral society, agriculture was the main occupation: the production of food that had to supply the necessary requirements for survival and, if possible, something extra for purchasing the essential things that did not come from the soil, such as salt. The mountain dwellers, working hard and doing everything possible, were able to manage the territory without disturbing the balance, and organise their life in such a way as to make the most of the agricultural potential, in reality rather reduced.

Rearing cattle was the main resource, the one which made it possible at times to earn the money needed to face special expenses, thanks to the sale of butter and cheese. Cereal growing followed, for bread baked once a year but only for the rich, then vines, a decoration for the sunny hillocks, from which rather sour wine was obtained for feast days or for the summer, when the agricultural work became much harder and the days in the fields became long. Fruit, above all chestnuts, were dried and ground to become flour, but also medlars that were ripened on straw;  apples and pears were grown that could be preserved for winter;  thanks to the oil produced, walnuts and almonds were used to dress food, to light lamps and as a cure for some illnesses; plums, cherries, peaches and apricots, too perishable, were a rather exotic luxury that not everyone could allow themselves.

Wool, hemp, leather and more rarely linen, were used to make clothes. The women spun and knitted and during winter the men generally wove. Pigs, chickens, and at times bees, contributed in varying the family food resources. In spite of the harshness of the places, the people moved, mainly through the hills, to emigrate temporarily during the cold season when there was very little work to be done in the mountains. The mountain dwellers became travelling salesmen, chimney sweepers, hemp combers, trunk sawers and even teachers with two feathers in their hat when they could teach reading and writing, and three when they could also teach arithmetic. They also moved for business reasons: the people from Valle d'Aosta purchased cheese in Vallese and then resold it in Piedmont, the inhabitants of Vallese bought red wine that was rare in their territory and sold it in Valle d'Aosta and Savoie, the inhabitants of Savoie resold salt to the people from Valle d'Aosta, essential for preserving food and for rearing, and they also purchased rice coming from the Padana plain.

Agriculture went into a deep crisis that reduced the sector workers by at least 5%. It was, however, able to concentrate on quality and even if the cereals have disappeared, vines have prospered: Fendant from Vallese, Morgex White from the Valle d'Aosta and the cru wines (wines from specific growth places) from the low valleys of the Arve have transformed and become  sought-after products. Their production is in full development. Even the mountain pastures show good return and products such as Fontina from Valle d'Aosta, Bagnes from Vallese and Beaufort from Savoie have an increasing market: different cheeses, but all, at least as far as origin is concerned, produced on the mountain pastures using fresh milk and following the same techniques.

The breeders, less numerous but with more important animals, always carry out their work passionately and tremble in the face of the exploits of their queen. Cow fighting is an ordinary and natural event when going up to the mountain pastures, where the cows confront each other to establish the hierarchy in the herd, and is now a carefully organised periodic event that crowns the queen of queens at the end of the season. Even artisan work has undergone a profound transformation, but in spite of this some traditional activities have survived and prosper: wood sculpting still exists, above all in Valle d'Aosta, where the Sant'Orso exhibition, held on 30 and 31 January, draws thousands of visitors from the towns and villages that surround Mont Blanc;  in Chamonix, Bagnes and Etroubles  they still produce cow bells, a decoration worn by these animals and a passion of cowherds; herbalists are becoming more popular with an increase in the search for alternative medicine; poor and rustic home cooking has been transformed into a culinary art and old recipes, for example those with a cheese base, are today served in restaurants: raclette,  fondue, valpellenentse.

Even industry, above all big, entered a crisis during the mid-seventies and only the highly specialised small companies in the Arve valley in low Valle d'Aosta continue their activity. It is now the tertiary sector, tourism and business above all, that guarantees the money necessary for the Mont Blanc population.

With the generalisation of sport, the mountain was transformed into an immense stadium for excursionists, skiers, mountain climbers and, during these last few years, those who do those numerous new sports connected with water, rocks, air or snow. Becoming fashionable, it also welcomed those who did not have any special interests, those who simply followed fashion and searched for the same commodities and same enjoyment in the mountains as they would find in the city. In short, for a long time the mountain did nothing more than adapt itself to the changing requirements of the urban population and often of the mountain dwellers, who welcomed new models and hid antique traditions as if ashamed of them. During this last period, fortunately, a new sensitivity arose and continually more tourists became interested in the people from the Alps, and in "the intimate history of the valleys" which goes beyond the standardised folklore and which is of dubious origin. This evolution encouraged the mountain dwellers to think again about their own history, to discover places, moments and activities, to propose them to tourists with a sliver of pride rediscovered. They realised, in this manner, that many things had been forgotten. The mountain dwellers, once held as being wild but kind people or idiots from the Alps, became members of a complex, authentic and original society, worthy of being recognised and understood more thoroughly. A whole new series of initiatives therefore bloomed to reunite, organise and present to the public a precious inheritance that had been lost: the restoration of antique buildings of artistic, historical or ethnographic interest; the collection of objects of material culture to be displayed in local museums; public demonstrations of ancient knowledge; the relaunching of popular holidays (descent from the mountain pastures, day in the mountain pastures, patron saint, religious processions, carnival, fireworks on Saint John's day, etc.); the recovery of old toys and games that were miraculously handed down to minority communities:  tsan, fiolet, rebatta and rouletta in Valle d'Aosta, cornichon and baculot, types of roulette, and fiolet in Faucigny and Chablais in High Savoie. The stories of evening get-togethers rediscovered in memories are collected, studied and presented by narrators: the Guivre and the dragon, werewolves and the devil, Gargantua and elf spirits, Sabbat and wild hunting, villages buried as divine punishment, fairies that were often evil and the wild man, a generous issuer of precious knowledge, good souls, the punished and the damned are no longer an expression of country ignorance but the artistic product of popular imagination.