20/07/17

Serre Chevalier

Hautes-Alpes

Serre Chevalier is one of the major ski resorts in the French Alps. It is owned by the Compagnie des Alpes, who, as is now customary, use snow cannons to augment the increasingly unreliable and insufficient winter fall.

Rather like Briançon, its close neighbour, the rather predictable nature of the town - winter = ski, summer = cycling/walking tends to lead visitors to forgot what extraordinary events took place in the past.  

Louis XIV (le roi soleil) had a turbulent frontier to the south-east of his kingdom. In the latter half of the 17th century this area of France was dominated by rebellious Protestants, les Vaudois, sometimes called Waldensians in English. Started in Lyon in the 12th century they spread all over Alpine Europe, particularly the French Alps and Piemonte.   At the time of Louis XIV they controlled the French/Italian frontier.  

To the north, Louis saw his hope.  He had sent generous financial assistance to the Irish Jacobites, providing 6000 French troops for the fight.  In 1692 Ireland reciprocated and seven Irish regiments were sent to the French Alps to fight for Louis against the Vaudois, who had by that time, been joined by other Protestant forces.  For 25 years Louis poured money and resources into this seeming deadlock, which finally ended, 30 years after his death, at the Battle of the Col d’Assiette.  At this, the French army was roundly defeated, with 6000 dead, against Vaudois and Sardinian losses of 140.  This remains, for the men engaged, the greatest French defeat. Napoleon, ever the pragmatist, offered the Vaudois freedom of religion in return for their dropping their resistance to France.  They accepted.

Illustration of the Passes of the Alps, London 1828
Illustration of the Passes of the Alps, London 1828

After the English victory at Waterloo,  Protestant missionaries were sent to the Alps to try to revive the faith and it was these evangelical souls, challenging the Catholic orthodoxy,  who began the tradition of English  tourism in this area. Tourism which, a century later, so informed the romantic art of Wollstonecraft, Coleridge and Shelley and painters like John Robert Cozens. 

We are pale inheritors of these intrepid folk who. in some way as a reaction to the Enlightenment, placed such worth on nature.    With only a stout pair of brogues from Lobb of St James  and a good suit they ventured up passes and into remote valleys where now we worry if there is no reception on the Garmin. Sometimes, in these valleys, even in high summer, you can suddenly find yourself alone, with only eagles and butterflies for company, no noise to indicate humanity.  It is the most wonderful balm for our over-busy constantly stimulated souls. 

John Robert Cozens: Between Chamonix and Martigny (1776)
John Robert Cozens: Between Chamonix and Martigny (1776)

Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Wooden statue in the church of Saint-Etienne
Wooden statue in the church of Saint-Etienne

The little villages in the valleys around have some of the most striking Renaissance churches in France.  Saint-Eitenne in Vallouise is particularly beautiful, with frescoes and screens of a beauty and complexity normally only seen in much bigger city churches.

with many thanks to Olivier Joseph

Header photo of door to the Eglise Saint-Etienne in Vallouise

For a small village, there are quite a few places to eat.  This is unpretentious, has a lovely outside terrace in the sun.

Restaurant Poivre et Sel   Place de l"Eglise   05290 Vallouise

tel: 04 92 23 54 35

and, for a summary of stage 17, Lionel, Richard and François:

Credits

Name Role
Penny Averill Photographs