21/07/17

Briançon

Hautes-Alpes

La vie au village n’était pas gaie, la nature souvent décevante: trop d’eau ou trop de soleil et les récoltes étaient fichues, l’herbe sèche, les bêtes dépérissaient et mouraient en grand nombre.  On arriva alors à tirer presque dix francs de toute la carcasse en faisant du porte à porte, et, à la maison, on mangeait la tête, les tripes et les abats.”

Life in the village was grim, nature was unreliable, too much rain, too much sun, the harvests were lost, grass dried out, the animals did not flourish and they died in large numbers.  Sometimes we made only ten francs hawking the carcasse from house to house, we ourselves ate the head and offal.

Briançon is the highest town in France, at 1326 metres. It is one of the gateways over the Alps to Italy, and has a long history as a fortified town.  It is the final largest pearl in the string of Vaubon forts which pepper the route over the mountains.  Near it are Serre Chevalier, a ski-station, and numerous killer cols, notably the Col d’Izoard.  But what of the town?

Alfred Hitchcock plays a supporting  role at the cinema in Briançon
Alfred Hitchcock plays a supporting role at the cinema in Briançon

Now it is principally a ski dormitory, which is a shame.  As the snow melts the town empties, Slightly bedraggled briançonnais, some with limbs enplastered, sit around smoking roll-ups, while the restaurants press the unsuspecting visitor into tartiflette, which is a mountainous revenge on normal digestion, and should never be attempted unless you have been at least 12 hours on the piste noire.

The slope down to Italy, as befits the most stylish nation on earth, is chicly fast and terrifying (I remember how Alitalia’s pilots would approach Milan, which always left you abandoning thoughts of truffle risotto and focusing on your unrepentant soul).  Within 5 km you’ve come down over 1000m.

So, beyond the town’s fortress (I think by the time you get to Briançon Sébastien Le Prestre de Vaubon really has delighted us long enough), what to do?  There are the terrible scars which you find all over the Alps, cheaply built resorts for skiers which are bad enough in the winter, but exposed to the glaring sun of summer are truly hideous. 

Emilie Carles in later life.
Emilie Carles in later life.

Venture out a little way, around 8km northeast towards the little town of Val des Près and you are in the Vallée de la Clarée.  This is where Emilie Carles (1900-1979) was born.  She is famous in France for one book La Soupe aux Herbes Sauvages which is an extraordinary work.  To non-locals raised on an idyllic image of rolling green valleys, fragrant tommes and general Toblerone paradise it was a shock, but to the people who lived in the valley, it was an utter betrayal.  She describes a grim environment, peopled by mean and unscrupulous people.  A murder which is never punished, bitter feuds whose origins even those honouring them have forgotten, harshness and philistinism.  It is more Fargo than Father Ted.  (There is an English translation, Wild Garlic Soup, which is leaden and lifeless, but you might like to dip in just for a general feel).

Emilie Allais worked as a schoolteacher in the valley and, in 1927 met and married Jean Carles, a pacifist and anarchist who had sent back the medals he won in WWI.  Together they ran a small farm and opened an auberge, the Hotel Front Populaire, to receive like-minded guests.  Jean, briefly, was the town mayor and continued to fight for this remote and impoverished area.  For people in the UK it is sometimes hard to imagine how life was in rural France until the last 20 years of the 20th century.  Emilie and Jean’s son Georges bought the first tractor that the valley had ever seen in 1968.  The early 70s, a time of enormous inward investment in France, saw plans to bring a motorway through this lovely valley.  Emilie, then aged 74, led a huge protest of farmers and their (new) tractors in Briançon, thence to Paris where her eloquence and passion succeeded in defeating the motorway scheme. 

Emilie (sitting in the tractor), leading the demonstration in Briançon
Emilie (sitting in the tractor), leading the demonstration in Briançon

Main photo shows the Allais family.  Emilie is standing, second from the left.

With many thanks to René Siestrunck for his time and kind loan of photos

and, to discuss today's stage:

Credits

Name Role
Penny Averill Photos