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The History of the Ski Resort of Tignes

Despite difficult climatic conditions, the history of Tignes attests to a human presence since antiquity, thanks to travel routes to the Maurienne valley and Italy. An early village already existed in the Middle Ages and between the mid 16th century and the beginning of the 19th century, its population nearly doubled from 622 to 1164 inhabitants. 

During this period, the commune was made up of several hamlets surrounding the main village and its central square which formed the heart of the community where debates on public affairs took place. The church of Saint Jacques contains altars from the 17th and 18th centuries adorned with painted Cordovan leathers, and gilded Baroque altarpieces. All these treasures can be seen today in the church of Les Boisses. 

Paysage enneigé | Tignes Photograph: Monica Dalmasso

The Beginning of Tourism in Tignes

The first boom in mountain tourism happened around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. During the Belle Époque, city dwellers came to enjoy the fresh mountain air, but only in summer. The first hotel catering for this summer clientele opened in 1872. 

From 1914, the railway line was extended to Bourg-Saint-Maurice and the road to Tignes was equipped with, among other things, an avalanche protection system. 

In addition to summer tourism, the development of winter sports in Tignes began between the first and second world wars. In 1925, the first chalet refuge opened its doors. It would become a hotel refuge in the 1930s and still exists today. 

In the winter of 1931 to 1932, Tignes received a boost from the weather with 90cm of powder at a time when snow was sorely lacking in Chamonix and Mègeve. 

During the 1930s, the development of tourism in Tignes took a major step forward with the opening of the first private ski schools, its first sports shop, tourist office, ski club and nine hotels. The most important development was, however, the installation of the first ski lift in March 1936. At 600m in length and with a vertical gain of 70m, the new Rhonas drag lift was the world's longest ski lift at that time. 

Ski competitions were becoming more numerous, but the rural economy was still resistant to the development of tourism. Indeed, the location of Tignes, in a basin with abundant sunshine, made it particularly favourable for high mountain agriculture.

Alpages | Tignes Photograph: Andy Parant

The Chevril Dam: A Traumatic Chapter in the History of Tignes

In 1929, stock market speculation on hydroelectricity led to the proposal of a dam project downstream from Tignes. Construction of the Chevril dam was delayed by the Great Depression and then by the Second World War. 

The local inhabitants, attached to their ancient agricultural way of life, fiercely opposed the project, but their objections were over-ruled and work began in 1947. The dam was one of the largest construction projects in Europe, and especially remarkable due to the high altitude of the site. Funded by the French government and aid from the post-war Marshall Plan, the project employed up to 5,600 workers in 1949. Sadly, hazardous working conditions and the hostile environment resulted in the death of several dozen workers over the course of the project. 

In 1951, the Arbitration Commission granted the 87 families who were forced to relocate additional compensation to that provided by EDF. Nonetheless, following acts of sabotage and violent clashes, the Garde Mobile had to intervene to maintain order amidst fears of a popular uprising. The 384 inhabitants of Tignes had to be forcibly removed by the CRS in advance of their homes being dynamited. Against this backdrop of forcible eviction, and after seven years of struggle, 15 families were rehoused in the commune of Les Boisses, 20 elsewhere in the canton, six in Val d'Isère, 26 in Savoie and Haute-Savoie and 11 in the South of France. 

An identical replica of the church of Saint Jacques was constructed in Les Boisses, with all the graves relocated from the old cemetery to the new site. With Les Boisses now the centre of the commune, the town hall and communal buildings were also rebuilt here. In 1975, the town's services were transferred to Tignes Le Lac which became the official administrative centre. 


Église Saint-Jacques | Tignes Photograph: Gregory Mistral

On 26 March 1952, the village was submerged beneath the waters of the Isère river. President Vincent Auriol declared the dam open on 4 July 1953. Fed by an artificial lake of 235 million cubic metres covering 320 hectares, the 181 metre high dam remains the highest in France to this day. The dam opened up the resort, paving the way for tourism and a more modern way of life to replace its high mountain pastoral past. 

In 1989, Jean-Marie Pierret painted a giant 18,000 sq. m mural of Hercules on the dam.

In 2002, in memory of the old village of Tignes, and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its disappearance, sculptor Livio Benedetti created the "Lady of Tignes", a 3.8 metre bronze statue which now gazes out over the lake. 

La  Dame de Tignes Photograph: Monica Dalmasso

Tignes, A Winter Sports Resort

The resort of Tignes Le Lac opened in the mid 1950s with the Chardonnet drag lift on the slopes of Palafour. The resort, however, was under-equipped and the population remained divided on the development and transformation of Tignes into a tourist destination following the construction of the dam. 

In 1956, Raymond Pantz designed one of the first tourist residences, the "Paquebot des Neiges", a semi-circular building offering a 360° view.

In 1960, the resort only had a dozen ski lifts. It was not until 1965 that winter sports took off, following the French government's first "Plan Neige". This resulted in increased investment and more and more facilities. 

Real estate developer Pierre Schnebelen had an avant-garde philosophy. He wanted to develop a "ski-in/ski-out" resort with an interpenetration of the ski area and accommodation. Based on this principle, he created the district of Le Lavachet in 1965, and Val Claret, on the other side of the lake at the foot of the lifts up to the Grande Motte glacier, in 1968.

Since then, a succession of high-level sporting events has featured in the history of Tignes - the first World Cup in 1979, the World Championships in 1986, and the ski acrobatics for the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992.

The House of Tignes was opened in 2000, centralising all services dedicated to tourism, and today, represents 30,000 beds throughout the resort. 

Tignes Le Lac vu de haut | Cimalpes Photograph: Andy Parant
Cimalpes was born in the French Alps from the dream of two entrepreneurs passionate about their Alpine lifestyle. Today, Cimalpes’ mission is to share this passion with its guests by hosting them in the most charming chalets and apartments, and by accompanying them to organize a memorable holiday in our ski resorts. The Cimalpes teams will be delighted to meet your every need; let us treat you to the Cimalpes promise.


With more than 3,000 reservations per year, Cimalpes enables more than 25,000 holidaymakers to benefit from hotel comfort in their own accommodation each winter.