Things to see and do - French Alps
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Events in italics indicate milestones in history
The Celts and the Romans
6–5C BC The Celts progressively occupy the whole Alpine region; the Allobrogi settle in the area situated between the River Rhône and River Isère.
218 Hannibal crosses the Alps in spite of the Alloborgi’s attempt to stop him.
125–122 The Romans conquer southern Gaul.
121 The Allobrogi finally acknow-ledge Roman superiority.
1C BC During the reign of Augustus, the whole Alpine region is pacified.
2C AD The first Christian communities expand in spite of persecution.
4C Christianity gets a firm hold on the region and bishoprics are founded.
313 Proclamation of the edict of Milan, through which Constantine grants religious freedom to the Christians.
476 Fall of the Roman Empire.
The Franks and the Kingdom of Burgundy
534–36 The Franks seize Burgundy and invade Provence.
800 Charlemagne becomes Emperor of the West.
8C Franks and Arabs devastate Provence.
987 Hugues Capet is crowned King of France.
10C Provence becomes part of the kingdom of Burgundy. The Saracens are repelled.
1032 The kingdom of Burgundy is annexed by the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, the archbishop of Vienne splits his huge territory into two: the future Savoie to the north and the future Dauphiné to the south.
Savoie, Dauphiné and Provence
11–12C Expansion of the three provinces. The Count of Savoie becomes the guardian of the Alpine passes. The ruler of Dauphiné adopts the title of “Dauphin”, and the Count of Provence Raimond Bérenger V inherits Forcalquier, thereafter united with Provence.
1209 Albigensian Crusade.
1232 Chambéry becomes capital of Savoie.
1268 The Dauphin Guigues VII marries the daughter of the Count of Savoie.
1270 Death of King St Louis of France, who was married to the daughter of the Count of Provence.
1453 Hundred Years War.
14C Savoie becomes a powerful feudal state under Amadeus VI, VII and VIII.
1349 Dauphin Humbert II, being in political and financial difficulties, negotiates the sale of Dauphiné to the King of France. The heir to the throne of France, from then on, bears the title of “Dauphin” .
1416 Savoie becomes a dukedom.
1419 Unification of Savoie and Piedmont.
1447 Dauphin Louis II (the future King Louis XI) settles on his domains, puts an end to the feudal system and creates the Parliament of Grenoble.
Italian Wars and Wars of Religion
1461–83 Louis XI’s reign. The king inherits Savoie in 1481.
1488 Crusade against Vaudois heretics in the Alpine valleys.
1564 Life of Guillaume Farel, a native of Gap, who preaches the Reformation.
1559 The Italian Wars reveal the strategic importance of the Dauphiné passes.
1498 Christopher Columbus finally reaches the American mainland.
1536 With the help of the Swiss cantons, François I invades Savoie which remains under French rule for 23 years.
1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis: Savoie is returned to the Duke of Savoie who transfers his capital from Chambéry to Turin.
1626 Life of Lesdiguières, the protestant governor of Dauphiné, who fights the Duke of Savoie.
1562–98 Fierce fighting between Catholics and Protestants: Sisteron, Castellane and Seyne are besieged; armies of the rival factions clash at Allemagne-en-Provence.
1589 Beginning of Henri IV’s reign.
1598 End of the Wars of Religion; Edict of Nantes: Protestants obtain freedom of worship and guaranteed strongholds.
17C Savoie is occupied several times by French troops.
1628 Dauphiné loses its autonomy.
From Louis XIV to the Revolution
1715 Louis XIV’s reign.
1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: Protestants flee the country.
1692 The Duke of Savoie invades the southern Alps. The king sends Vauban to the area in order to build fortresses and strengthen existing ones (Briançon, Mont-Dauphin, Sisteron and Colmars).
1707 Invasion of Provence by Prince Eugène of Savoie.
1713 Treaty of Utrecht: Dauphiné and Provence expand; France loses part of the Briançonnais but receives the Ubaye region in compensation.
1736 Jean-Jacques Rousseau settles in Les Charmettes near Chambéry.
1740–48 War of the Austrian Succession. Eastern Provence is invaded by Austrian and Sardinian troops; Savoie is occupied by the Spaniards, France’s allies. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ends the war and the Spaniards have to give up Savoie.
1774 Beginning of the reign of Louis XVI, deposed by the revolution less than 20 years later.
1786 Balmat and Paccard are the first to climb Mont Blanc.
1788 Reaction in Grenoble and Vizille to the closure of the local parlements foreshadows the Revolution.
1789 Bastille day signals the start of the French Revolution; départements are created the following year.
1791 Dauphiné is divided into three départements: Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes.
1792 French revolutionary troops occupy Savoie which becomes the “Mont-Blanc département.”
1793 Creation of the “Alpes-Maritimes département” (returned to the kingdom of Sardinia in 1814).
1811 The Route du Mont-Cenis is built by order of Napoleon I.
1815 By the treaty of Paris, Savoie is given back to King Victor-Emmanuel I of Sardinia. Napoleon I, returning from exile on Elba, lands in Golfe-Juan on the Mediterranean coast and crosses the southern Alps to Grenoble.
1852 Napoleon III becomes Emperor of France.
1858 Napoleon III meets the Italian statesman Cavour in Plombières (Vosges region): they agree that France shall help the King of Sardinia to drive the Austrians out of Italy; in exchange, France is to receive Nice and Savoie.
1860 In April, a plebiscite is organised in Savoie: an overwhelming majority vote in favour of the union with France. The new province is divided into two départements: Savoie and Haute-Savoie.
1869 Aristide Bergès harnesses the first high waterfall in Lancey thus becoming the “father” of hydroelectric power.
1870 Proclamation of the Third Republic on 4 September.
1872 Inauguration of the Fréjus railway tunnel.
End of the 19C Acceleration of the population drift from the mountains to the towns.
1924 First Winter Olympic Games held in Chamonix.
1940 The advancing German army is briefly halted by the River Isère. Italian attacks are repelled by border garrisons.
1944 Fierce fighting in the Vercors: Dauphiné is one of the main strongholds of the Resistance. One of the underground fighters’ most heroic feats takes place on the Plateau des Glières .
1945 The Resistance liberates the Ubaye region.
1947 The Treaty of Paris alters the Franco-Italian border in favour of France which receives the Vallée Étroite.
1955 Cable-cars make the high peaks accessible to all.
1962 Signing of the Accords d’Évian (Treaty of Évian).
1963 Creation of the Parc national de la Vanoise, the first French national park.
1965 Inauguration of the Mont Blanc road tunnel.
1968 10th Winter Olympics held in Grenoble.
1980 Opening of the Fréjus road tunnel, over 100 years after the railway tunnel.
1992 16th Winter Olympic Games held in Albertville.
1995 Creation of the Parc naturel régional de Chartreuse.
1996 Creation of the Parc naturel régional du massif des Bauges.
1999 Fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel claims 41 lives.
2005 Fire in the Mont Fréjus tunnel; despite improved safety systems, two lives lost.
2006 Glacier Monitoring Service (WGUS) announces that three-quarters of European glaciers may be lost in next 100 years, due to climate change.
2007 The ski station at the village of Abondance closes due to lack of snow. Other Alpine ski resorts are under serious threat of closure due to climate change.
The House of Savoie
The House of Savoie was the longest reigning dynasty in Europe: it began with the feudal lord Humbert “White Hands,” who became count of Savoie in 1034 and ended with the last king of Italy, Umberto II, Victor-Emmanuel III’s son, who abdicated in 1946. For nine centuries, the House of Savoie ruled over Savoie when it was a county, then a duchy; it governed Piedmont from 1429 onwards, Sardinia from 1720 and finally provided Italy’s monarchs from 1861 to 1946.
How counts became dukes – Their role as “gatekeepers” of the Alps gave the counts and dukes of Savoie exceptional power. The history of Savoie amounts to a string of successive occupations, each followed by a treaty returning it to its rightful owner. During the Middle Ages, three of Savoie’s rulers, Amadeus VI, VII and VIII, gave the region unprecedented ascendency; their court, held in Chambéry, rivalled in splendour those of the most important sovereigns of Europe. The most illustrious, Amadeus VIII , was the first to bear the title of Duke of Savoie and at the end of his life was elected as the last Antipope under the name of Felix V.
In the 16C, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis freed Savoie from French domination which had lasted 23 years. Duke Emmanuel-Philibert reorganised his domains and moved his capital from Chambéry to Turin, which was less easily accessible to French monarchs. His wish to expand on the Italian side of the Alps was accomplished during the reign of Victor-Amadeus II, who gained the kingdom of Sicily by the Treaty of Utrecht, then promptly exchanged it for Sardinia and became the king of that region.
Union with France – The people of Savoie were tired of their government which they ironically called “il Buon Governo.” Moreover, they were worried by Cavour’s anticlerical policy and turned towards France for help. Napoleon III and Cavour met in Plombières in 1858 and decided that, in exchange for France’s help against Austrian occupation, Italy would relinquish Nice and Savoie if the populations concerned agreed. This led to the plebiscite of April 1860: by 130 533 votes to 235, the people of Savoie overwhelmingly agreed to become French.
Famous Natives of the Alps
Scholars and Writers
Savoie, which has belonged to France for just over 100 years, was, strangely enough, the cradle of the French language; the Savoyard humanist Guillaume Fichet (1433–78) set up the first printing press in Paris. Almost two centuries later, in 1606, the first French Academy was founded in Annecy; one of its founders was Saint François de Sales (1567–1622), who inspired religious life in his native Savoie and whose works contributed to the blossoming of the French language .
One of the prominent early figures of the southern Alps was another humanist Guillaume Farel (1489–1565), a native of the Gap area, who preached the Reformation with Calvin in Geneva. At that time, Occitan was the dominant language of the southern Alps, as indeed of the whole of southern France; although its official use was discontinued in the 16C, it continued to be spoken by the people for another three centuries.
Champtercier, in the hills above Digne, was the birthplace of Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), a philosopher, mathematician and scientist who rose to prominence in the 17C.
During the late 18C and early 19C, the brothers Joseph (1753–1821) and Xavier (1763–1852) de Maistre rejected the ideals of the French Revolution and supported absolute monarchy.
However, the most famous man of letters of the Alpine region was undoubtedly the novelist Henri Beyle (1783–1842), a native of Grenoble, better known by his pseudonym Stendhal . Besides his masterpieces, Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) and La Chartreuse de Parme (1839), he wrote numerous studies, including De l’amour (1822), in which he analysed love, and Vie d’Henry Brulard in which he depicted his childhood and adolescent years in Grenoble.
The 19C also saw the birth of the Félibrige movement, a revival of the Occitan language and of Provençal traditions under the leadership of Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914). One of his disciples, Paul Arène (1853–96), a native of Sisteron, wrote tales and poems both in French and Occitan. Better known was Jean Giono (1895–1970), born in Manosque, who celebrated Haute-Provence and its country folk in works such as Regain (1930) and Jean le Bleu (1932). His contemporary, Alexandre Arnoux (1884–1973), also chose Haute-Provence as the setting for most of his works ( Haute-Provence, Rhône mon fleuve ).
Soldiers and Politicians
Born in Grésivaudan, Bayard (1476–1524), known as “le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche” (“the knight who is fearless and above reproach”) has gone down in history as the model soldier of his time. He had the honour of knighting King François I after the battle of Marignan in 1515.
François de Bonne de Lesdiguières (1543–1626) led the Huguenots from Dauphiné during the Wars of Religion and was given command of the armed forces of his native region by King Henri IV, which led him to fight against the Duke of Savoie. He was the last Constable of France before Richelieu abolished the title in 1627.
In 1788, two natives of Grenoble, judge Jean-Joseph Mounier and barrister Antoine Barnave , led the peaceful protest of the Assemblée de Vizille which paved the way for the French Revolution a year later. Another native of Grenoble, Casimir Perier , was prime minister of France in 1831–32, during the reign of King Louis-Philippe. His grandson was President of the French Republic in 1894–95.
Scientists and Inventors
Among her famous sons, Savoie counts the mathematician Gaspard Monge (1746–1818), who devised “descriptive geometry” at the age of 19 and later helped found the École Polytechnique, and the chemist Claude Louis Berthollet (1748–1822), who discovered the whitening properties of chlorine, widely used in the manufacture of linen.
Dauphiné on the other hand prides itself on having had several inventors such as Vaucanson (1709–82), who built automata and partly mechanised the silk industry, and Xavier Jouvin (1800–44), who devised a system of classifying hand sizes and invented a machine for cutting gloves to these sizes.