The Tour of Mont-Blanc

The architecture


Before walking along the tracks at the feet of Mont Blanc and discovering the richness and variety of the architectural and naturalistic heritage, it is useful to remember the etymology of the French word "chalet".  It derives from "cale" which was a rudimental shelter for animals on the high mountain pastures.

Modern wooden chalets, the industrialised dream of today's tourists who holiday in the mountains, were therefore long ago a simple shelter, a heap of stones with a fireplace between two rocks at surface level and cheese kept under the stones.

This spectacular evolution reminds us that the architectural and anthropic shapes of the landscape of the Mont Blanc massif were "forged" from the relations between man and beast.

The first requirement of the inhabitants was to construct an abode and supply food to the queen of all animals, the cow, either for fighting or milking, celebrated in the valleys every year with the inarpa and desarpa, (when the cows are taken into and down from the mountain pastures).

The traditional abode of the Mont Blanc massif, both in the mountain pastures and on the valley floor, in the majority of cases is for seasonal use and is articulated into several bodies: the alpagiste, the mountain pasture tenants, move "de montagne en montagne" (Beaufort), "de tramails en tramails" (Vallese and Valle d'Aosta) while the farms at lower altitudes are divided into numerous buildings spread over different altimetry levels: houses, barns, mayens or montagnettes, haylofts, ovens, etc.

The small towns, the villages, houses and various buildings spread over the territory witness not only an evident architectural talent, expressed in unquestionable osmosis with the territory (use of on-site or nearby materials) but represent also the construction structure of the very complex and various agro-pastoral systems. They articulate the daily life of the inhabitants according to continuous migrations and determine the juridical structure of whole municipalities.

Petite montagne, grande montagne particulière ou à fruit commun, consortage ou indivision, in any management method of the mountain pastures and valleys, correspond to buildings, migration, landscapes and typical cheese (Beaufort, Fontina, Raclette, Reblochon, Abondance, Toma).

In spite of the fact that there are many cottages and the "baitas" (Alpine refuges) have remained intact since the time when more value was give to the mountain, some of the highest valleys offer only shelters, others have assisted in the birth of real "cities" and others again have seen their old boroughs enlarge to become vast agglomerates.

For a long time, in fact, industry and tourism have in turn left a mark on the landscape of the Mont Blanc valleys.

Here, the large luxury hotels and villas that have hosted rich and idle holidaymakers between the 19th and the start of the 20th Century have given the mountain villages an urban character that was not known before, transforming them into winter sport stations: Chamonix, Saint-Gervais, Megève, Courmayeur, Champex, Finhaut, etc.

In these valleys, the power of water was tamed and has attracted the first industrial plants at the feet of the mountains which, in an unending play of daily migration, have in turn reclaimed workers of rustic extraction: Cluses, Chedde, Ugine, La Léchère, Cogne, Châtillon, Martigny, etc.

Higher up, from the 1950s and 1960s, the herds in the mountain pastures have learned to live with hydroelectric energy, collected in imposing storage capacity: Roselend, Émosson, Tignes, Valgrisenche. That same water which today is used to feed the millions of skiers and summer tourists that frequent the large stations build, during the 50s and 60s, immediately after the dams:  Val d'Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs, Verbier, Crans-Montana, Cervinia, etc. That same water supplies the programmed snow systems used to cover pastures and mountain pastures for the joy of skiers.  Water movement, transhumance, the migration of people, today like yesterday. All that needs to be done is open your eyes and look around for a few moments to help the evolution of a landscape, that of the Mont Blanc massif, where man continues intervening tirelessly.