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50 YEARS OF LES ARCS: Robert Blanc, founder of the resort (1933-1980)

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LA PLAGNE: 1939-61

More than 50 years since its opening in 1961, where next for La Plagne?

This winter's Alpes Loisirs magazine looks at the history of the resort, and talks to some of the locals.

It may not quite be a rag-to-riches story, but it's some transformation: from declining mining area (for lead and silver) to what is the biggest ski resort in the world in terms of turnover.

Today's La Plagne ranges from the famous "snow liner" at Aime 2000 - "la montagne facon banlieue" to the protected village that is Champagny-en-Vanoise.

Rewind back to the second world war, when the local mines saw the French resistance using them as a base.  The Mont de la Guerre piste is a direct reference to the fighting seen in the area - more here.

By the 1950s, the area was losing its young people.  Agriculture was in decline, and the mines weren't going to last forever (they closed finally in 1973).

Those were working in the mines had been able to make a living, but at the expense of their health.  Step forward Dr Borionne, mayor of Aime, who saw all this first-hand with his patients: "It's hell on earth in there - a cemetery".

Dr Borionne appears to have been a charismatic chap, very good with people, and able to interact with les paysans, his fellow mayors and the developers who would help finance the new resort.  He was able to bring the diverse communities that are Aime, Macot, Bellentre and Longefoy to come together behind the plan.

Inside the "snow liner" at Aime 2000
They needed help in order to work out exactly what to do in terms of starting a new ski area.  "At that time, a good skier wasn't taken seriously - they were seen as layabouts", says La Plagne pioneer, Gilbert Vivet Gros.

In 1960, ski champion and technical director Emile Allais came to look at what was then a virgin site.  "La Plagne has some amazing possibilities" he said.  "Sun and snow are guaranteed".  The plateau above what is now Plagne Centre was ideal in terms of allowing skiers to move from one part of the mountain to another while staying in the sum.  The glacier at Bellecote provided access to slopes over 3000m and even summer skiing (now defunct).  And there were forests down below, providing a natural fridge.

Michel Bezancon was the young Parisien architect (and keen skier) brought in to develop the site.  His first plan involved 7 sites and 36,000 beds.  "You'd better hide that, it'll make everyone scared!" said Dr B.  Today it has 10 sites and 53,000 beds...

Fifty years later, Bezancon is used to people calling it "Sarcelles des Neiges".  He comes back regularly to Aime 2000, where he is a proprietor.  "La Plagne has evolved in line with the needs of its clients", he says.  "In the 1960s, the middle classes were dreaming of the modern world.  This was the generation which had rebuilt France.  They were looking, above all, for a functional environment".  Here's a link to a video, created for the 50th anniversary, which charts the history of La Plagne in photos.


Sarcelles

The functional environment the tourists of the 1960s were looking for can be seen in Plagne Centre, with its commercial galeries (now being renovated - see story here from 7 June).  People could walk around in their slippers and pick up their croissant and paper....mingling with the morning's skiers as they left for the lifts.  "This was the time for pioneers", says the author of the Alpes Loisirs piece, Jacques Leleu.  "People felt part of it.  Holdaymakers could pass from the pistes to the cafe utterly seamlessly."


For another overview (in English) see www.laplagnenet.com

For a very detailed history (in French) see the excellent www.perso-laplagne.fr site

And here's a "fact file" covering key dates, published at the time of La Plagne's 50th birthday in 2011

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