A Brief history of Courchevel, France

Courchevel in France is one of Europe’s premier ski resorts, sitting at 1850 metres above sea level and forming part of the Three Valleys, the world’s largest fully linked ski area. Courchevel is split into 4 villages, each named after their altitudes. They are Courchevel 1850, Courchevel 1650, Courchevel 1550 and Courchevel 1300 (also known as Courchevel Le Praz). The history behind the creation and development of this alpine gem is a fascinating story and having spent 2 whole seasons in Courchevel myself I found my eyes opened by learning the stories behind the modern day resort. This is the first of what will become a regular feature on the history behind all of our major resorts.

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The History of Courchevel Ski Resort

The original villages in the area were the villages of St Bon (1100m) and Le Praz (1300m). St Bon was the political centre of the locality, containing the Mairie and town hall. Towards the end of the 1930s the French government started to look for a site for a purpose built ski resort to rival those of Switzerland but the start of the war meant that the political will to complete the project was lacking. Other projects such as Meribel benefited from being privately funded and prospered, but Courchevel’s progress was somewhat slower. In 1943 Laurent Chappis, at the time imprisoned as a PoW in Austria, began thinking about his own personal project to improve the Three Valleys area, which encompassed the valleys of St Bon, Les Allues (Meribel) and Belleville (the future Les Menuires and Val Thorens valley). He planned to create three linked ski resorts, with the Tovets meadows above St Bon as the focal point for his new resort. Having secured the support of the Savoie General Council’s President of Finances, Pierre Cot, the next hurdle was securing the land to proceed with the project.

 

Courchevel 1850 as it is now, with the teardrop-shaped Jardin Alpin in
Courchevel 1850 as it is now, with the teardrop-shaped Jardin Alpin in the middle

Laying the foundations

St Bon already had a small tourist industry, with the first hotel opening in the winter season in 1925 and the mayor, Francis Mugnier, persuaded all but one of the local landowners to sell land to the project. On 3rd May 1946, their land was transferred to the Department of the Savoie who immediately built an access road and began dividing the area in small plots to be sold on to private investors, with the idea that they would build according to a fixed plan. Chappis’ plans involved a social aspect, which nowadays might seem amazing given the prices of land and holidays in Courchevel 1850. He was insistent that the new resort should have one area for high quality luxury hotels, one for more modestly priced hotels and one for individual chalets.

All of the different areas would have equally good access to the skiing and nowadays the layout of Courchevel 1850 still reflects the manner in which Chappis divided the land. The Bellecote area, with its luxury hotels beside the piste remains the most exclusive destination, the budget hotels were in the Plantrey area (although most are now refurbished with prices to match!) with the individual chalets at Nogentil, further up the Bellecote piste. At the heart of the resort, Chappis proposed that an area would be preserved as a beautiful alpine garden, or Jardin Alpin. The rules surrounding this area were particularly strict, with buildings not permitted above the height of the trees and all residences (hotel or chalet) to be ski in, ski out. The commercial centre of the resort was below the Jardin Alpin and car parks were lower still, at the entrance to 1850, with the idea being that guests would arrive, park their cars and be transported to their accommodation by bus. 

What’s in a name?

The question that still needed answering as the development got off the ground was what to name the resort? Chappis’ idea was to name it after the meadows on which they built first and call it the Plateau des Tovets but others thought a catchier name was needed. After thought, the suggestion was made to take the name of a hamlet a little further down the hill called Courchevel. The original Courchevel would be renamed Courchevel-Dessous or “Lower Courchevel” but this was met with distaste  by the inhabitants of the village. To them, the name implied that their village was inferior and was seen as almost insulting.

Finally an agreement was reached and the new resort was named Courchevel 1850 with the original village being named Courchevel 1550. One final problem, the new resort sat at 1747 metres above sea level, why call it 1850? The reason was down to nothing more than rivalry with the other new development along the Tarentaise Valley called Val d’Isere, which stood at 1800m!

Further expansion

By the 1960s, Courchevel 1850 was a fully established resort and although developments and refurbishments were (and still are) ongoing, the resort had become very popular. The original residents of St Bon, who had given up swathes of land to aid the development of the area, were becoming increasingly frustrated at being frozen out of the running of the resort and at missing out on the obvious benefits. They all had steady employment looking after ski lifts, servicing hotels and chalets but of the 157 families who had lived in the commune before the development, only 9 had managed to set up businesses of their own. They began to develop the village of Moriond, on the access road to Courchevel 1850, but without any overall vision from one planner (such as Chappis), the result was haphazard. Buildings sprang up along the main road, with no thought for access or parking and very little consideration given to their visual impact on the area. Even today, driving through Courchevel 1650 (as Moriond is now known), you can immediately see how this lack of foresight led to a sprawling, uncoordinated ski station. The new developments also meant that the lift system was creaking under the weight of ever more skiers.

A new way forward

In 1964 the resort of Courchevel 1850 and the council of St Bon called a halt to all further developments and finally agreed to come together and create a plan for the whole area. They decided that the running of the entire Courchevel area and its infrastructure, which now encompassed Courchevel 1850, Moriond (1650) and Courchevel 1550, where developments had started and a gondola to 1850 had been established, would be transferred back to the local council of St Bon. The responsibility for running the ski lifts would stay with the Department but the local families of the St Bon commune now had much more involvement in decision making and much more power over their own locality. The resort went from strength to strength over the following decades with links to Meribel established, and by 1973 the whole of the Three Valleys ski area had been connected.

The Three Valleys became the largest fully linked ski area in the world, a record it holds to this day. Over 600kms of piste link more than 10 resorts: Courchevel 1850, Courchevel 1650, Courchevel 1550, Le Praz, La Tania, Meribel Village, Meribel, Meribel-Mottaret, St Martin de Belleville, Les Menuires and Val Thorens. Courchevel 1850 has slowly expanded over time but it does remain quite faithful to Chappis’ original vision for the resort. The biggest change to the original vision was the addition of the airport above 1850 which allows planes of up to 70 seats to land almost directly on the pistes. Courchevel 1650 bears the legacy of the ill advised developments of the early 60s, but has been modernised over time and these days offers a very good alternative to the high prices of Courchevel 1850.

Courchevel 1550 remains a quiet village but has very quick and easy access to the amenities of 1850 and direct access to the ski area. Le Praz at 1300 metres is a locals’ village and still houses a lot of the original families from the area. It came to life during the 1992 Albertville Olympics when the Ski Jump competition took place at a newly built jumping facility which still hosts top class ski jumping to this day. Even after the Olympics, the village remains unspoilt by huge developments, but has a good number of tourist residences. St Bon, the original starting point of the entire project remains undeveloped and houses mainly locals. To this day, Courchevel's politics still take place in this traditional Savoyard village at the bottom of the Three Valleys network.

For more information on Courchevel, or any of our other resorts, please drop us a line or give us a call at our London offices.

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