The history of Val Thorens in the Three Valleys

From St Martin de Belleville through De Bettaix and Les Menuires all the way up to the breathtaking heights of Val Thorens nestled at 2300m above sea level, the Val Thorens Valley and its neighbouring resorts of Meribel and Courchevel make up Europe’s largest and most popular ski area. So how did it all come about…?

In the 1960s the potential of Val Thorens to be transformed from a small mountain village into a location for a purpose built ski area was noted. The first area to be developed was the lower part of the valley in Les Menuires, which began in 1967. In 1969 the access road was extended up to Val Thorens so that development of the resort could start. In 1970 Joseph Fontanet, President of the council and mayor of Saint Martin de Belleville, created a mixed trade union of Belleville in association with the Savoie Department and the neighbouring towns.

This trade union’s goal was to implement the huge project developed by Pierre Schnebelen - creating on one side an important resort and on the other side the Massif de Péclet Polset which would include 2 winter resorts: Val Thorens on the Belleville side and Val Chavière in the south, in the Vallon du Planay, which is situated in the Parc de la Vanoise. 

The goals of this massive project were on the one hand connecting the region with a network of ski lifts and ski trails thus helping the development of the tourist economy of Modane, and on the other hand creating a vast summer ski complex on the glacier around the summit of Péclet (3650 m). To their dismay the project at Val Chavière went against the regulations of the Vanoise National Park which did not allow any urbanisation.

After many protests and governmental involvement the project Val Chavière was abandoned. The project for Val Thorens - outside the park - was allowed and the first construction works started. Within a year, the department built an 8-kilometre stretch of road between Les Menuires and Val Thorens.  On 18th December 1971 the fist of 3 drag lifts was installed, followed in 1972 by the opening of the first ski school. Like many 1960s purpose built resorts in the French Alps, Val Thorens suffered from a lack of architectural guidelines in the early days, leading to an over dependence on concrete, making the resort not particularly aesthetically appealing and giving it its very ‘purpose built’ feeling. Year after year, Val Thorens continued to develop and gain international recognition. The Caron cable car opened in 1982 and was at the time the largest cable car in the world.

The construction of this cable car put Val Thorens in the top category of European winter resorts.  

The Caron cable car in Val Thorens

In less than 10 years, with an average annual investment of 10 million Euros, the ski area of Val Thorens had become one of the most modern in Europe; it included dozens of new generation chair lifts (4 & 6 seats), a cable car with a capacity of 150 people, as well as many technical innovations such as the double boarding ability on many chair-lifts and two funitels (Péclet and Grand Fond), that are unique around the world.

In the meantime, the resort took an architectural turn in the 1980s : the modern style of the 1970s was altered to try and create the architecture and charm of a mountain village. Despite the after-effect of the “concrete years”, Val Thorens returned to its original Savoyard style by repairing the façades, covering the walls with stones and wood and constructing new double pitched roofs. To help achieve this change, a church was built in 1993 and the appearance of the new area was composed of only chalets.

Compared to some of its fellow purpose built resorts such as Les Arcs or Tignes, Val Thorens has a definite charm about it. The fact that it is the highest resort in Europe and it is there for one reason and reason only makes it a very appealing choice for all level of ski abilities. Its architectual turn around in the 80’s, now makes Val Thorens more pleasing to the eye. This young resort has everything to offer. Everything apart from trees. For more information on Val Thorens or any of the resorts featured in this article, please give us a call in our London sales office or drop us an email.

All of our Val Thorens chalets can be viewed here.

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