There are certain childhood experiences that bind a nation. For the French it is birthday trip to see Casimir, the first beach holiday at Le Lavandou or the school ski trip to the Jardin des Enfants of Bachat Bouloud Sneaking from bed at midnight to look out over the winter wonderland of the plateau d’Arselle from the bay windows of the dormitories. The contrast with the grey-grim apartment blocks of the Parisian “banlieu” could not have been more stark.
Now the faded names on the buildings, Mantes la Jolie, Sarcelles… and the broken glass and rubble make it seem as if the disaffected cites have come to the mountain but this is no riot scene but an example of regeneration and just possibly a better future for French resort development.
The old children’s refectory
Chamrousse is the crucible of French skiing. Henry Duhamel and his friends from the French Alpine Club were sliding down the slopes of the Roche Beranger over a century past. The resort also held the blue-riband events of the 1968 winter Olympics where the “dream team” of Goitschel and Killy shared 4 gold medals. Since then Chamrousse has been resting on its laurels.
Cladding removed before refurbishment
The area gets its name from a certain Pierre Bouloud who had the right to graze four cows on pastures near the Croix de Chamrousse in the middle-ages. He was kicked off his fields by the church and moved to the bowl (Bachal in local patois) above the Arselle plateau. In the late 1950s Laurent Chappis, one of the pioneers of Courchevel, was a persona non-grata in the Savoie. His ideas, which would be called durable development today, were out of favour with the property speculators building the resorts in the Tarentaise. The Savoie préfet Maurice Grimaud suggested he take a look at the Bachat Bouloud site which was scheduled for a winter childrens’ ski camp. His resulting design won acclaim from around the world and during France’s boom time, the trente glorius, was many childrens’, particularly poor kids from the fast growing cities, first taste of the mountains.
By the 1990s all that had changed. France was in perma-recession. Unemployment was fixed stubbornly around 10% and the French had fallen out of love with winter sports holidays. A week in Morocco was both much cheaper and more relaxing. The minutes of Mantes-la-Jolie council tell the story. Costs of sending kids to Bachat Bouloud were spiralling. It was hard to find the volunteers to look after the groups. The number of skier days dropped from over 12,000 in 1999 to 7,700 in 2000. Times had changed. The town took the painful decision to close its center and by 2005 the buildings, albeit structurally sound, were heavily vandalized. The sector was more Kabul than Kitzbuhl in appearance.
One of the new apartment blocks
The ski resort is run by Chamrousse Development (CD), (formerly SAC – Société d’Aménagement de Chamrousse) part of the Transmontagne group that also manages the award winning Dubai snowdome. Helped by a doubling in real estate prices they asked property developers to redevelop the site while preserving Chappis’ inspired layout. At the same time Transmontagne decided to invest a considerable amount of money in the resort removing the two old Bachat Bouloud drag lifts and building a high speed six seater chair to serve the domain as well as a 4 seater chair starting from the Totem piste. The resort is also aiming for ISO 14001 environmental certification with greening of ski runs, drainage projects, reduced visual impact of ski lifts and a reduction in noise pollution.
Outside swimming pool
For David Giraud, managing director of Haute-Savoyard MGM group “skiing is no longer enough, accommodation has to be comfortable with options such as fitness centers, swimming pools and spas. People are not prepared to live in rabbit hutches just for the pleasure of skiing. Apartments must have a minimum surface area of 45m², be well appointed and look nice with good services on the doorstep. People come to the mountains to recharge their batteries.”
There are smaller apartments, a 27m² one bedroom property sells for €72,000 with 63m² three bedroom properties going for a healthy €174,000 about a third of what you would pay in some of the Savoyard resorts but still poor kids from the cities won’t be discovering the joys of winter sports at those prices.. To avoid the resort being empty for much of the season and the lifts being underused Chamrousse Development is keeping a significant number of apartments for rental. CD is also capable of managing a winter sports holiday from A to Z owning restaurants, ski lifts and equipment hire. PisteHors visited the apartments in summer and winter. The plateau offers both downhill and cross-country skiing as well as marked snowshoe trails and ski touring over to the Grand and Petit Van and beyond. Pretty much everything a winter sports enthusiast could wish for. In summer there are open air pools (7 pools will be built as part of the development), walking, climbing and mountain biking The environs are superb and the redevelopment respects Chappis’ vision. However the smallest apartments are pretty cramped to be honest and we noticed that the wood cladding had become discoloured over the 6 months between our inspections. Maintenance costs (charge de copropriete) would be something to look into closely. The rest of the resort, particularly the Roche Beranger looks pretty shabby and dated besides the domain de l’Arselle. The resort has plans and is it trying to encourage other apartment blocks to renovate their exteriors.
Some quality problems?
Chamrousse Development hopes the quality will attract British Tour Operators which are increasingly using nearby Grenoble airport. The resort is expanding the snow making capacity despite a fight over water rights with the growing village of Vaulnaveys-le-Haut down in the valley. However the skiing, although extensive and varied lacks some runs to pass that all important 100km frontier. A lift down to the lacs Robert was supposed to open up the Sorbier sector but any expansion in that direction will be ferociously resisted by a powerful alliance of ecologists, walkers and ski mountaineers from the crucible of French ski touring, Grenoble. The ghost of Henry Duhamel still walks the slopes.
The Totem Pole