The First Tourists

Based on an account by José Reymond

Before the Second World War, the road to Tignes and Val d'Isère was often closed to motor vehicles when the snow was particularly deep. Travellers were obliged to stop their cars or coaches at Les Pigettes or Sainte-Foy and continue their journey by mule or horse cart. This caused great competition between Tignards and Avalins - the residents of Val d’Isère - who provided the convoys of carts.

José Reymond, old Tignard and chronicler of the Haute Tarentaise, remembers one such expedition. His father was the postman at Old Tignes, so the family had a mule and cart. There had been a lot of snow during the previous few days and a group was organised to collect tourists from Les Pigettes. The bus driver had telephoned from Bourg Saint Maurice to say that a great number of people had arrived by train from Paris, so the Tignes convoy set out to welcome them.

Everyone queued in single file in front of the water butt at Les Pigettes. The drivers fed the mules and covered them with woollen blankets. Zake the hotelier made hot wine with cinnamon, and everyone drank it gratefully as they waited for the bus.

The bus full of tourists arrived and the villagers played their parts as polite and persuasive coachmen:

"Messieurs-Dames, may we offer you a pleasant and comfortable sleigh ride to Val d'Isère? May we help you with your bags?"

There was some chaos when it came to allocating sleighs to tourists. Lanky Salin, in his usual way, had earmarked a fine Parisien Princesse and quickly installed her comfortably in his sleigh. Salin's mule was ugly and thin, but the great lady pretended not to notice and accepted this ridiculous sled with grace. Salin’s friend Louis du Tessu filled his sleigh with the Princesse’s luggage, and the two colleagues laughed to themselves at the thought that they had bagged such a noble client. They envisaged great generosity when it came to paying the bill and giving a tip.

Each sleigh had by now taken its passengers, and the caravan moved off, with Salin and Louis du Tessu at the head. They travelled in a procession because it was impossible to overtake the sleigh ahead. The tracks made by the mules and the sleighs ran across the top of the snow, packing it down as they went. Making the first tracks was difficult, but gradually a firm path developed with, to each side, two parallel tracks, equally hard-packed, for the wide runners of the sleighs. Mules and pedestrians walked in the middle track. If a mule wandered of the middle track, he could find himself up to the chest in deep snow, and it was an incredible job to get him back onto the correct path.

Meanwhile, on the Brevieres plateau, coachmen and passengers sat comfortably as the sleighs glided along softly. By now it was late afternoon, the valley was already in shade and a chill was descending. The drivers put warm blankets on the knees of the tourists.

Night fell as the procession climbed up to the village of Les Boisses. Here the road climbed at a gradient of more than 15%, and to ease the climb, the passengers were asked to alight and walk a little "to stretch their legs and warm themselves up". The whole procession was now on foot, and the tourists thought walking on the snow was delightful.

At the Chevril bridge the Old Tignes basin appeared as if someone had opened the doors of a cathedral. The tourists gasped. The village lay beneath in the night, a dark mass punctuated by lamp lights, the bell tower standing straight as a pencil.

There was a traffic jam on the village square as the Tignes sleds arrived and met the Avalin sleighs which had come down from Val d’Isère for the last leg of the journey. While the majority of the Tignards had mules, the Avalins had horses, beautifully harnessed with bells on their collars. Their sleighs were magnificent - painted with bright colours, and with padded chairs.

The passengers changed sledges, and the sight of the horses lifted their spirits. In one hour they would cover the six kilometres to their destination. The Avalin coachmen lit torches, giving a festive air to the procession. Salin and Louis Tessu accompanied the Princesse to her new sledge. Hoping for a tidy sum of money from the Princesse, the two Tignards feigned indifference to the question:

'What do I owe you?'

'As you wish, Madame'.

And the lady, not knowing the rate at all, thought she was being generous in giving them what was in fact just half of the value of the journey. They did not dare protest.

Excerpt from "J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans” by José Reymond.

Emma Forrester works for the ski chalet specialist YSE in Val d’Isère.

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