Things to see and do - French Alps
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Art and Culture
Art and Culture
Art and Architecture
Churches and chapels – In the north of the region, churches and chapels are small, but solidly built on steep slopes or summits with thick stone walls pierced by small windows. In Savoie, churches are surmounted by steeples swelling out into onion shapes, whereas in Dauphiné, stone spires are topped by pyramids.
In the south, the majority of churches date from the Romanesque period. The main features of the Early Romanesque style, imported from Italy, are the simple plan, massive appearance and rustic aspect of the buildings. The best examples of this early style, in which a minimum of decoration was used, are the Église St-Donat, the crypt of Notre-Dame-du-Dromon and of the Prieuré de Vilhosc near Sisteron. The Late Romanesque style flourished during the 12C and 13C, introducing a harmony between spaces, openings and curves as well as the general use of more refined building stones. However, in spite of gaining in height, churches retained their rustic look while the influence from Lombardy and Piedmont could still be felt, particularly in the Briançonnais, Queyras, Ubaye and Embrun regions. Designed like basilicas, these churches were adorned with porches, often supported by squatting lions as in Embrun, Guillestre, St-Véran and La Salle. The slender steeples were surmounted by four-sided pyramids. Exterior ornamentation remained sober owing to the use of hard limestone, difficult to carve. Interior decoration was also rare, with one exception, the Monastère de Ganagobie which has a beautifully carved pediment and remarkable mosaics. The Romanesque style lasted into the 14C.
The Gothic style had only a limited impact on the region and is best represented by the cathedrals built in Embrun and Forcalquier.
The only worthy example of the Baroque architectural style in the southern Alps is the Église Notre-Dame de Briançon, built between 1703 and 1718. However there is a wealth of Baroque ornamentation, such as wreathed columns, carved pulpits, organ cases, altarpieces and recessed statues all richly painted and gilt.
In the north, on the other hand, particularly in Savoie, many churches were built or decorated at the time of the Counter-Reformation (a movement which, during the 16C and 17C, tried to counteract Protestant austerity with an abundance of ornamentation, concentrating mainly on decorative altarpiece and pulpit designs). Artists mostly came from Italy. The best examples of this rich style are Notre-Dame-de-la-Gorge and the church of Champagny-en-Vanoise.
Murals – Pilgrims and travellers crossing the Alps in the 14C and 15C decorated churches and chapels with bright frescoes in a naive style. These illustrated the life of Jesus (Chapelle St-Antoine in Bessans, Chapelle de Puy-Chalvin and Chapelle de Prelles, to name a few) and various saints, as well as many episodes from the Testaments.
An equally popular theme was that contrasting the “virtues” , represented by beautiful young maidens, and the “vices” , riding various symbolical animals. In most cases, the connection is still clear to modern eyes, such as pride riding a lion, anger on the back of a leopard and laziness mounted on a donkey, but others, such as the badger of avarice, lack the same powerful associations today.
The most common technique was tempera painting which used an emulsion of pigment mixed with egg, glue and casein.
Crosses and oratories – Discreet and humble, dotted along paths and on the edge of precipices, crosses and oratories represented an art form which expressed the religious fervour of mountain folk and travellers having to face a hostile natural environment. Oratories were originally mere heaps of stones known as “Montjoie”, sometimes with pre-Christian origins, but they gradually became larger, were surmounted by crosses and included a recess which sheltered a small statue. Crosses were erected in the most dangerous places to comfort passers-by. The most remarkable of these, are situated in the Queyras.
Castles and Forts
Feudal castles – These, or what is left of them, usually draw the visitors’ attention because of the sheer beauty of their ruins standing in picturesque surroundings in isolated spots or overlooking ancient villages. Very few of them offer any real architectural interest, either through their style or state of preservation. Particularly noteworthy, however, are the Château de Simiane, dating from the 12C and 13C, the Château de Bargème (13C), and the Château de Montmaur (14C). Many castles, such as those of Montbrun-les-Bains and Tallard, were badly damaged during the Wars of Religion, which were especially violent in that area. Some castles were entirely rebuilt during the 17C and 18C, while sometimes retaining part of their former structure: such is the case of the castles of Gréoux-les-Bains, Esparron-du-Verdon and Château-Queyras.
Fortifications – Towns had, since Antiquity, been protected by walls which often had to be rebuilt or consolidated during the Middle Ages and even later, until the reign of Louis XIV, owing to constant border conflicts. Embrun has retained a 12C tower and Sisteron still boasts four 14C towers and a citadel dating from the end of the 16C. However, most of the border fortifications were built by Vauban who, from 1693 onwards, endeavoured to “enclose” Haut-Dauphiné.
Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707) took his inspiration from his predecessors, in particular Jean Errard (1554–1610) who is believed to have rebuilt the Sisteron fortifications and wrote a treatise on fortifications. Having observed the numerous sieges which took place during his lifetime, Vauban was able to evolve a series of new types of fortifications, well adapted to the local terrain. In his opinion, Dauphiné was not sufficiently well protected by the natural barrier of the Alps which could be crossed at certain times of the year. So, he studied in great detail the advantages and drawbacks of natural sites such as peaks, passes and valleys in order to choose the best position for his defences. He protected gun sites from enemy fire by means of armoured casings, shielded gunners and soldiers, and made an exact science of defensive features like fortified gates and broken-line walls. The results of his ingenuity can be seen in Briançon, Mont-Dauphin, Château-Queyras, Colmars and Entrevaux, fortresses which were still being used in the 19C.
Residential chateaux – They first appeared in the 16C, when former castles were often remodelled and a Renaissance building was added to the existing structure (Allemagne-en-Provence, Château-Arnoux and Tallard).
During the 17C and 18C, the chateaux lost their military aspect, which gave way to comfort and attractive features. There are practically no constructions of this type in the area with the exception of the Château de Sauvan, designed by Jean-Baptiste Franque in 1719, which is a real gem. The Château de Malijai is another example of the classical style in the region.
Traces from the past – Most ancient villages, especially in the southern Alps, have retained a wealth of details from the main architectural styles of the past: Romanesque vaults, cellars and doorways; Gothic arches and twin openings; Renaissance lintels, carved jambs decorated with acanthus leaves, mullioned windows and elegant wrought iron; 17C pediments and bosses; 19C neo-Classical buildings and various other imitations.
In the Savoie and Dauphiné mountains, rural dwellings are in harmony with the harsh conditions of their environment: isolation, bad weather and intense cold. Houses are stocky with few openings. A lot of space is set aside for storage: a wood shed, larders for cheese and charcuterie and barns for hay and grain, often above the living area to insulate it.
All the houses have balconies that enable their occupants to take advantage of the slightest ray of sun; protected by overhanging roofs, these balconies are also used for drying clothes as well as wood for winter use etc.
In areas where snow is abundant, roofs are of prime importance and are always very large and overhanging all round to protect the houses and their immediate surroundings. They are either steep and smooth in order to allow the snow to slide off easily, or almost flat in order to allow the snow to form a protective layer against the cold.
In forested areas, timber is the most common building material; in the past, trees were selected on north-facing slopes where they grow more slowly and their wood is therefore harder.
Villages are often situated halfway up south-facing mountain slopes with all the houses facing the sun. In flat areas and on plateaux, houses are usually grouped round the church.
In Haute-Provence on the other hand, where climatic conditions are milder in spite of strong winds and a marked contrast between summer and winter, stone and tiles are the traditional building materials. Villages are built on dry rocky south-facing slopes, their houses nestling round the shaded square with the café, church and town hall nearby.
Préalpes de Savoie – In the forested areas of the Chablais, Aravis and Bauges mountains, the most traditional type of house is the wooden chalet built on a stone base with an overhanging roof covered with wood or slate and balconies all round. The living quarters for people and animals as well as the storage space are on the ground floor whereas the barn is on the upper floor.
Préalpes du Dauphiné – In Chartreuse, large stone-built farmhouses are surrounded by various outbuildings. In the Vercors area, on the other hand, stone-built gabled houses, two or three storeys high, put everything under one roof.
Oisans region – In this high mountain area, houses are rustic in appearance and their rather flat roofs are covered with heavy slabs of schist, known as lauzes, although these are now often replaced by slates or corrugated metal.
Beaufortain , Tarentaise and Maurienne regions – In forested areas, houses have wooden façades and flat roofs covered with wood. Wherever scree-covered slopes predominate, houses are stone built with wooden balconies, few small openings and flat roofs covered with lauzes, which retain a thick layer of snow in winter.
Briançonnais and Vallouise regions – This is an area of scattered stone-built houses: the animals’ stalls are on the lower level behind a line of stone arches, the living area, entirely surrounded by wooden balconies, is on the intermediate level, and the barn, accessible from the rear, on the upper level.
Queyras region – Built of stone and wood, the houses of this area are highly original. The ground floor, which includes the living area and stalls, is stone-built and surmounted by several wooden storeys used for drying and storage. The roofs, overhanging on the balconies, are covered with wood or lauzes.
Embrunais and Ubaye regions – This area offers great architectural variety. Houses are rectangular and stocky, stone built with wooden balconies; the steep four-sided roofs are covered with slates. The interior plan is simple: the kitchen and animals’ stalls are at ground level, the bedroom and threshing floor above and the barn at the top of the house.
Haute-Provence – Village houses, often built of irregular stones and several storeys high, have a Mediterranean look about them, owing to their rounded tiles covering the roofs and forming under the eaves a decorative frieze known as a génoise. Isolated houses, called granges, are generally larger, but still fairly high, and surrounded by outbuildings. Outside walls are coated with roughcast and, inside, floors are usually covered with terracotta tiles.
These hilltop villages and small towns, known as “villages perchés” (Sisteron, Forcalquier, Digne) contain an amazing number of dwellings within a relatively small area, enclosed by a wall.
Their origin is thought to go back to the 9C Arab invasions. In fact, the inhabitants of the region deliberately chose to build their villages on high ground, between the vineyards (which have now disappeared) and other crops. These villages are situated high above the surrounding countryside, on the edge of plateaux or on top of rocky peaks to which they cling.
The steep and twisting streets or lanes are for pedestrians only; they are paved or simply stony, interrupted now and then by flights of steps and often spanned by arches. In some cases, the ground floor of the houses consists of rows of arcades which protect passers-by from the sun and rain. Tiny shaded squares are adorned with attractive fountains and sometimes with a belfry surmounted by a wrought-iron campanile. The high, narrow houses huddle together round the church or the castle which dominates them.
Old studded doors, bronze door knockers and carved lintels show that these were once the residences of the local nobility and wealthy middle class.
During the 19C and 20C, villages moved down into the valleys as peasants chose to live in the middle of their land where they built their farmhouses. However, places like Montbrun-les-Bains, Lurs, Banon, Bargème, Brantes, Valensole, Auvare, Simiane-la-Rotonde and St-Auban-sur-l’Ouvèze still remind visitors of the old Provençal way of life.
Dovecotes and Bories
There are many dovecotes in the southern Alps, particularly in the Diois, Baronnies and Forcalquier areas: pigeons were a precious source of food and their droppings were used as fertilizer for the kitchen garden. There were two basic styles: some dovecotes formed part of a larger structure including a shed and hen house on the lower level; others were separate buildings raised on pillars. The latter were subject to tax.
The drystone huts known as bories are typical of the Forcalquier area. Their use was never clearly defined and at times served as sheep pens, tool sheds or shepherds’ huts. Whether round or square, they have only one opening, the door. They were built of thick limestone slabs, layered up into distinctive false corbelled vaulting: as the walls were built up, each stone course was laid to overhang the preceding one so that finally the small opening at the top could be closed by placing one slab over it.
These metal structures, either simple cages containing a bell, or intricate wrought-iron masterpieces, form part of the Provençal skyline. Campaniles were designed to withstand the assaults of the powerful mistral better than the traditional limestone belfries, and today they can be seen on top of church towers, town gates and other public buildings.
Generations of craftsmen have toiled to produce elaborate wrought-iron works, onion or pyramid-shaped, spherical or cylindrical. Most remarkable are those on the tower of the Église St-Sauveur in Manosque, the clock tower in Sisteron, the church tower in Mane and that of the Chapelle St-Jean in Forcalquier, not forgetting the lace-like onion-shaped structure surmounting the Soubeyran gate in Manosque.
In the southern Alps, from the Briançonnais to the Vallée de la Tinée, numerous buildings, houses, churches and public buildings are decorated with colourful sundials appreciated by lovers of popular art and photographers alike. Considered as a kind of homage to the sun, these dials, mostly from the 18C and 19C, were the work of travelling artists, often natives of Piedmont like Jean-François Zarbula who travelled the length and breadth of the region for 40 years making many sundials on his way and decorating them with exotic birds. The sundial makers had to be familiar not only with the art of setting up a dial, but also with the art of fresco painting. Decorations are often naive yet charming, dials being set within a round, square or oval frame and surrounded by motifs depicting aspects of nature such as flowers, birds, the sky, the sun or the moon. The most elaborate of these sundials include some Baroque features: trompe-l’œil decoration, fake marble, scrolls, shells, foliage, fake pilasters; the best example of this type of work can be seen on the towers of the Collégiale Notre-Dame in Briançon.
Mottos are equally interesting; they express the passing of time: ‘Passers-by, remember as you go past that everything passes as I pass’ (Villard-St-Pancrace). Mottos seek to remind us that we must make good use of our time: ‘May no hour go by that you would wish to forget,’ ‘Mortal, do you know what my purpose is? To count the hours that you waste’ (Fouillouse).
During recent years, the economic expansion of the Alps, the rapid development of the towns and the advent and growth of winter sports resorts have created a need for public and residential buildings. Today the Alps rank as one of the most prominent French regions in the field of modern architecture.
Public buildings – Between 1964 and 1970, Grenoble was turned into a vast building site for the Winter Olympic Games. At the same time, an extensive programme of research into the technical and aesthetic aspects of modern architecture was launched.
Urbanisation was not so systematic in other Alpine cities; however, there were some modern achievements such as the sports complex in Chamonix, the Maison des Arts et Loisirs in Thonon, the Palais de Justice in Annecy, the Maison de la Culture in Chambéry, the Dôme in Albertville and Grenoble Museum.
Winter sports resorts – Rapidly developing resorts tended to follow the general trends of modern urban architecture and serve the demand for comfort and organised entertainment, a combination which was bound to produce its share of functional, unremarkable buildings, yet some of these new creations proved highly original: for instance Avoriaz with its strange, rock-like buildings or the triple pyramid of La Plagne, both controversial but defining projects.