Villages and cultural heritage

La Meije is without doubt one of the most beautiful mountains of the Alps. With her majestic 3983 m she dominates the upper Romanche Valley where two charming little villages are nestled at her feet, La Grave and Villar d'Arène, each surrounded by quaint hamlets.

La Grave and the hamlets

People have lived here for countless years. They've had to adapt to a harsh environment, face the constraints and whims of the high mountains, the altitude, the isolation, the cold, the snow and a landscape that made agriculture challenging. Thus, over the centuries they have developed various practices, social and architectural as well agricultural, enabling them to cope with these constraints.

La Grave has been classed among “the most beautiful villages of France”, because of the traditional architecture and the stunning natural environment. The village is located right next to the central areas of the Ecrins National Park, at 1500 m above sea level with the Meije massif towering above.

In olden days, the village was probably surrounded by an outer wall which has since disappeared entirely. The village centre still has a dense urban fabric with many thoroughfares, called "trabucs", linking one house to another. The church Notre Dame de l'Assomption is a listed historical monument built from the 11th century and onwards in the Lombard Romanesque style. Together with the Penitents Chapel, the vicarage and the churchyard this religious heritage site stands out beautifully against the backdrop of the glaciers of la Meije.

Five hamlets called "les Traverses" overlook the village at 1800 m above sea level: Les Hières, Valfroide, Ventelon, les Terrasses and Chazelet. They contain many points that are of historical interest: traditional stone houses, churches with arches carved in tuff (a porous calcareous rock), communal village bread ovens and wooden storage houses are all good reasons to go for a stroll.

Les Fréaux is the first hamlet of La Grave you will pass if you come from Grenoble. It is known for the imposing Pucelle waterfall and for its summer and winter climbing routes.

Villar d'Arène and the hamlets

The Romans called this last village before the Lautaret pass the upper Arenas as opposed to the lower Arenas, which referred to La Grave. Having paid the Dauphiné to gain a certain amount of civil rights, the inhabitants called themselves “freed”, “affranchis” in French. Over the years this name transformed into Faranchins. This authentic village still tirelessly upholds its age-old traditions.

The village lies at 1650 m in a decidedly mountainous environment at the foot of the legendary and prestigious summits of the Ecrins and at the gateway to the Ecrins National Park. Although the upper Romanche Valley runs towards the Oisans, Villar d’Arène and La Grave are the only two communes on the western slopes of the Lautaret mountain pass that are part of the Hautes Alpes department.

Both Villar d’Arène and its two hamlets, Pied du Col (1705 m) and Les Cours (1779 m), have preserved their characteristic cultural heritage. Traditional houses, chapels and fountains make for a pleasant stroll. The Saint Antoine chapel just outside of Les Cours offers pretty views of the valley. The fountain walk and the eco-museum at the old grain mill are worth a visit.


 

History in brief

In spite of the area being rather rough, traces have been found of settlements dating back to antiquity at least. Not until the middle ages, however, does La Grave take on the role as administrative and commercial centre of the higher Oisans. It is said that at the time the village was the most important one of Oisans and had more inhabitants than Bourg d'Oisans itself! "Nine months of winter and three months of hell" such was the rhythm imposed on farmers by the harsh climate. The cold season was also the time when the menfolk sought an income elsewhere, often as travelling salesmen.

During the Second Empire, the construction of the Lautaret road put an end to the isolation of the Upper Romanche Valley. It also led to an accelerating rural exodus and a budding summer tourism. New economic activities sprang to life (guest houses and road haulage firms for insance) thanks to the tourists on the road as well as the mountaineers who were starting to take an interest in the local peaks. La Meije was the last of the great Alpine summits to be conquered, as late as 1877.

Winter tourism didn't get going until much later, starting when the Chazelet Ski Resort opened in 1964 and really taking off after the La Grave gondola lift was completed in 1978. Being hauled up to 3200 m with no effort in order to contemplate the panorama was first highly appreciated by summer tourists and later, skiers from all over the world.

The mystery of the Chazelet granaries

In the hamlet of Chazelet there are around ten wooden granaries. Their construction date is unknown. Around here, most granaries are built in stone and this type of wooden construction is usually found in Savoie, Haute Savoie and the Pyrenees. Their function is the same everywhere: they were used to safely store valuables like food and other irreplaceable items. When one knows how few trees grew here it is a mystery that they were built out of wood. Are they perhaps so old that they were built before the forests all but disappeared?

 

"Blaytes" as fuel

On certain traditional houses there are simple balconies that are much too small to seat anyone. In the local dialect they are called « galarîas ». They were, and sometimes still are, used to store the bricks of sheep manure locally called « blaytes ». Due to the lack of wood they were used to heat the houses. They were stored on the south facing walls of the house were they would dry faster in the sun. When burnt they give off a rather particular smell that can be taken as a reminder of a certain harshness of life in the olden days.

 

The "Pô Buli" tradition

« Tourtes », « ravioles », « pompes » and « crozets » are all specialties of Villar d’Arène, but the most famous is certainly the boiled bread, “Pô buli” in the local dialect. This bread that is made exclusively out of rye and boiling water was the corner stone of the Faranchin (the inhabitants of Villar d’Arène) diet for centuries.

In the old days, the villagers made their bread only once a year. Wood was scarce and they could not afford to heat the village bread oven more than once. They kept the bread throughout the year although the crust rapidly became so hard that they had to cut it with a saw and soak the pieces in soup or milk.

Just as in Chazelet and Ventelon, the inhabitants of Villar d’Arène keep this tradition alive by getting together the third weekend in November to make bread in the old way. Village bread festivals are organized in Chazelet and in Villar d’Arène during the first half of August.

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