In 1189, Thomas, Count of Savoy, donated the Clou and Ferret forests to the Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard. For almost 7 centuries, the Val Ferret was under the domination of the Hospice, which had the right to harvest wood (around 100 m3 per year) for its fuel needs. This lumbering work enabled the valley’s inhabitants to earn a few pennies to feed their families.
The cut wood was transported to the hospice via the Pas des Chevaux pass (2680m), so named because it was transported by horse and mule.
After several centuries of conflict, this privilege granted to the Hospice came to an end in 1893, when the bourgeoisie of Orsières took possession of these forests by purchasing the right for the price of Frs. 15’000.-.
In 1910, the train arrived in Orsières and, with it, coal to replace wood.
In 1920, an avalanche swept down from l’Arpalle and destroyed the chalets at Les Granges de Ferret.
While the wood was being cut, the lumberjacks stayed in a farmhouse built at Le Clou, owned by the Gos family.
LA NEUVAZ – L’A NEUVE
The La Neuvaz – L’A Neuve plateau echoes the glacier above it.
An avalanche broke out at 5pm on 11 January 1952. It destroyed four private chalets on the edge of the forest on the left bank of the Drance (now Dranse). Part of the forest was also mown down by the violent displacement of air. It has been calculated that the forest is around two hundred years old. In 1999, another huge avalanche destroyed five chalets on the plateau.
Before the Second World War, there were plans to build a tunnel linking the Swiss Val Ferret to the Italian Val Ferret, to enable people to drive around Mont Blanc. If it hadn’t been for the war, this project might well have seen the light of day. It is thanks to the war that this area has been able to retain its tranquillity and charm.
Completed in 1936 by Paul Darbellay (1901-1969), the chalet “Les Bonnes Vacances” offered city children an outdoor holiday during the summer season. During the war, the building housed border guard companies, with an infirmary and rooms for officers. The pensions received from these activities helped to feed Paul’s family, and as a teacher he was only paid for 6 months of the year. It wasn’t until 1963 that teaching staff were paid on an annual basis.
In 1965, the building was transformed from a boarding house into a summer school combining mental and physical training. From a seasonal school, it became an annual one in 1968 under the direction of Jacques Darbellay (1931-2017), son of Paul and his wife Charlotte Faval-Darbellay, who established the concept of self-knowledge through mountaineering and community life. Their teaching was aimed at teenagers aged 12 to 16. Les Bonnes vacances took the name Maya-Joie.
The original building burnt down on 7 May 1971 and was rebuilt as we know it today.
Ecole Maya-Joie ended its educational adventure in 2016. After three quarters of a century, it became a hostel.
In 1914, Florentine Farquet opened a pint in La Fouly, then to meet tourist demand, Paul Rausis, an enterprising baker, obtained permission from the commune on 1 January 1927 to open a Café-Boulangerie in La Fouly. In this meeting place, he stored and sold stocks of salt, sugar, rice, pasta, flour and anything else that could be preserved.
He later added a restaurant serving cheese-based dishes. Below the café was the bread oven and the laboratory. The shop was upstairs, next to the bistro. The barn, at the back, was used as a storehouse for fodder for the livestock, which included a cow, pigs and goats. To stock up, Paul would walk down to Praz-de-Fort, where the postbus would take him to Orsières to buy the necessary supplies. He would also bring back the mail for distribution.
In winter 1941, a little chamois came to eat in the café kitchen. It slept in the barn. When Paul’s three children went up to the Petit Col on sealskins, the chamois followed them and came down with them. This little chamois, named Micky, lived in harmony with the family and spent the winter with them.
In 1969, the Pension-Restaurant was completely renovated and run by Luc and Pierrine Rausis.
GRAND HÔTEL DU VAL FERRET
When, in July 1864, Edward Whymper conquered Mont Dolent (3823m), the peak that is the cornerstone between Switzerland, France and Italy, and in August 1876 Emile Javelle made the first ascent of the Tour Noir (3836m), people started talking about Val Ferret.
Construction began in 1916, but was halted for a while due to a lack of funds. The Grand Hôtel du Val Ferret opened its doors in June 1925. This solid construction in the style of the 1920s used local tufa and granite. Its owner, Jules-Adrien Rausis (1859-1935), a native of Orsières, understood the importance of opening a hotel in La Fouly to welcome, among others, English tourists, mountaineers heading for the surrounding high peaks, and families who came to enjoy the fresh air.
In 1962, the Morand family, Jules-Adrien’s in-laws, sold the hotel to the parish of Christ-Roi in Petit-Lancy, which organised summer camps for its young parishioners. During the school year, the building was rented to the State of Geneva, which organised ski camps and green camps.
Built by the Ferret consorts, the Ferret chapel was blessed on 11 August 1707 and dedicated to Notre Dame des Neiges. This consortium, made up of 32 families who owned mayens in the Val Ferret, was responsible for its upkeep. Its location at the entrance to the village was chosen after a summer avalanche covered all the surrounding pastures except for a small patch of green where the cattle could graze. It was on 5 August, the feast day of Notre Dame des Neiges.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, processions set off from Orsières in the direction of the Ferret chapel. The pilgrims would show their gratitude for the graces they had received by offering a sack of grain to be laid in front of the religious building. At the end of the summer, the procurator would sell the grain to pay for its upkeep. These processions were eventually banned by the bishop on the grounds that they were superstitious.
Above the entrance door, under the porch, a sign appeals to passers-by: “Anyone who loves Mary will not refuse her a Hail Mary as they pass this chapel”.
It’s desalping time. The majority of the mountain pastures in the commune of Orsières: the La Fouly mountain pasture, Mont-Percé, Les Ars, La Peule, Plan-la-Chaux and La Léchère are at the bottom of the Val Ferret. They were built in the 1850s. The herds were made up of Hérens cows. Even today, the desalpe is held every year in the third week of September. The cheeses made in these alpine pastures have a remarkable flavour, marked by the grazing that differs from one alpine pasture to another.
Sheep are also very much present here, and thanks to these flocks grazing in the highest parts, the meadows of our mountains are maintained until the first snow, allowing this white layer to adhere much better to the soil. Today, these flocks of sheep are threatened by the presence of packs of wolves.
In 1923, an avalanche destroyed the stable on the Plan la Chaux mountain pasture. In the vicinity of this mountain pasture, a slate quarry, renowned for its excellent quality, was exploited. The slate was transported by mule-drawn carts. Because of the high cost of transport, slate was reserved for special cases. In 1945, 120 wagons of this slate were sent abroad. They were used to re-roof buildings damaged during the war.
This mayen, at 1700m, has given its name to the entire valley since Somlaproz. But it wasn’t always so. In the 18th century, the valley as far as Le Clou was known as the Vallée d’Issert.
The origin of the name Ferret ? The etymology of the name is unclear: some people think it comes from an iron mine, while others say that the word ferré – meaning grassy – comes from the Latin far (cereal) and its derivative farratus (rich in fodder). This proves the richness of our mountain pastures.
Ferret soon bore witness to the many people who passed through on their way to Italy or France along the mountain paths. As early as 1781, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was staying at the modest local inn, and a small guesthouse built in 1834 by Nicolas Vernay (1796-1856) is mentioned in the writings of Rodolphe Töpffer, who travelled the Alps,
The large building, known as the Restaurant Pension du Val Ferret, was built in the 1920s and 1930s by Armand Vernay (1883-1960). This hotel welcomed celebrities such as the Prince de Joinville and Queen Marguerite of Italy.
The pension restaurant run by Gilbert and Poupette Vernay ceased trading at the end of the 1990s.
In 1965, the road from Praz-de-Fort to La Fouly was widened, tarmacked and finally opened for winter skiing!
The history of the resort’s ski area began with the construction of the first Combe Verte ski lift, followed in 1967 by the Barfay lift, which was in use until 1994, when it was replaced by the chairlift. 1970 saw the construction of the third ski lift, the Arpalles, which was dismantled in 2015 and replaced by a lift of the same type on a different route.
The Orsières Ski Club, the first of its kind, was founded in 1928. When it was founded, it had over 50 members. A competition brought them together on 13 January 1929 at La Fouly, whose pistes were already frequented by connoisseurs.
We need to explain the first sealskin system of the time: fir branches were attached to wooden skis with strings. Which was really impractical!
PENSION DES GLACIERS
According to some linguists, “La Foly” – as the resort was spelt on 19th century maps – refers to the “summit”. On the other hand, the word Fouly belongs to the family of words meaning all deciduous trees, in other words broad-leaved trees, and its etymology derives from the Latin folium, leaf. But the high altitude of the station (1597 m) seems to contradict this definition. Doubts remain.
Around 1934, Léon Rossier and Louis Ribordy built and sold a large summer chalet to “Mademoiselle Marie Theux”, who transformed it into the hotel-pension restaurant des Glaciers. The café was located at the very bottom, level on the right. On the left-hand side, she set up a bazaar-grocery shop. The hotel restaurant was on the first floor. Mademoiselle Theux greatly expanded the family hotel business. At the time, guests stayed at the hotel for long periods (several weeks).
Marie Theux ceased her business in 1969 on her death.
Later, a small grocery shop was opened at the bottom of the neighbouring building. This replaced Marie Theux’s business.
EDELWEISS HUT AND POST OFFICE
Around 1920, La Fouly was a mayen inhabited only in summer. From May onwards, farmers lived here to graze their animals, before taking them to the various mountain pastures in mid-June. After that, it was haymaking time and the mayens were used to store the dried grass for the winter. You have to imagine that from Praz-de-Fort everything had to be done on foot, with no passable road, no telephone and no electricity. In winter, hay was brought down on sledges.
The first postal car to serve the Val Ferret covered the Orsières-La Fouly route on 15 June 1929. Later, the postbus left Orsières and took 1 hour 15 minutes to reach Ferret.
In the 1950s, advertisements for holiday accommodation specified that it had electricity.
In 1955, the resort opened a seasonal post office staffed by people from Sembrancher and then Orsières. It closed on 31 August 2008. Since then, there have been dedicated post office boxes for mail delivery.
In 1956, at Whitsuntide, Joseph Baumeler and his wife Anneli opened the Pension Edelweiss. It was subsequently rented to Xavier Kalt – a mountain guide – and his wife Monique. In 1978, it was converted into a hotel by Joseph’s son Harold.
VIEWS OF LA FOULY – L’AMÔNAZ
The history of the resort of La Fouly is closely linked to that of mountaineering, with some of the great names having stayed here to climb the surrounding peaks. With the opening of a mountaineering school and Guide Bureau in 1960, a hundred years after Edgar Whymper’s ascent of Le Dolent, the resort acquired the facilities that would establish its reputation. Under the guidance of renowned guides – Denis Bertolet, Xavier Kalt, Robert Coquoz, Michel Darbellay – aspiring and seasoned mountaineers like Jean Troillet were able to either learn about the mountains or perfect their skills.
In 1969, under the management of Michel and Agathe Darbellay, the Camping des Glaciers was created, with the resort situated on the Tour du Mont-Blanc and more and more walkers being welcomed in the hotels and group houses at Les Girolles and Le Dolent.
L’Amôna – L’Amônaz – l’Amône
Silver-lead mining began opposite the village in 1879. This only lasted two years, however, as the mine did not yield enough and the veins were too small. The galleries still exist, and several of them have collapsed (you can see the entrances to the galleries on the left of the Dalle de l’Amônaz).
The development of tourism that began in the 1920s and 1930s prompted the parish priest of Orsières to propose to the local council that a chapel be built at La Fouly, as he wrote that “this development is expected to increase further”. For aesthetic reasons and to avoid avalanches, he suggested locating the new chapel on the edge of the La Neuvaz plateau, on private land that the owner kindly gave up “on condition that the Commune compensate him in some way”.
The chapel at La Fouly was inaugurated in 1942. Before that date, the faithful travelled to Ferret several times a summer to attend religious services. With the permission of the bishop, the parish priest of Orsières even celebrated mass at La Fouly in the open air or in a gallery of the Grand-Hôtel, notably on the occasion of the inauguration of the Dufour hut in 1927.
ISSERT – LES ARLACHES
On the heights of Issert lies the Darbellay quarry, where louze, or slate, a schistose rock with a layered structure, was extracted. Licensed in 1885, the mine was not really exploited until 1903. Over the years, its operators would shape the stone into small slabs with a rounded edge. The slate produced in this way was used mainly for roofing. The miners’ wives were also put to work, bringing them their daily lunch. The harshness and danger of the work, and the constraints associated with both extracting and transporting the material, were to prove too much for this quarry, which ceased operations in 1955.
The narrow streets leave just enough room for the hay wagons to pass through. As in many of the villages in the commune, Les Arlaches has a communal oven. The farmer kneads the dough himself using his own wheat and rye flour. The bread is baked twice a year. It hardens and keeps very well for 6 months. It is the daily food of the people of the valley, who eat it after soaking it.
The village of Praz-de-Fort, whose name means “kiln meadow” because of the many lime kilns (used to convert limestone into lime) that existed in the area, was the last year-round inhabited village in the valley. Those wishing to reach the mayens upstream had to do so on foot along a mule track. In winter, the road was closed and adventurers climbed up on sealskin.
Praz-de-Fort is known in the region for its tradition of erecting the “Mai” to mark its opposition to the powers that be, which dates back to the 1830s. In 1924, the erection, which had become increasingly politicised, was abandoned and reintroduced twenty years later, becoming more of a cause for celebration than a symbol of protest.
Around 1813, a group of men killed a bear that had come from who knows where. It was the terror of the inhabitants of Praz-de-Fort. Wolves also lived in the valley at the same time as the bear. The last one was shot in 1868 by a young man of 22.
Around 1880, as the activity of regional guides began to grow, François Troillet built the Pension Hôtel de Saleinaz in Praz-de-Fort in 1898 to cater for this clientele. In 1900, the Portalet café was opened by Julien Murisier, who also rented a bowling green under the chapel.
SALEINAZ – THE ICE
Overlooking the Saleinaz plateau, the Portalet, the Aiguilles Dorées and the Saleinaz glacier, the hut attracted many mountaineers. The first Saleinaz hut (2691m) was built in 1893 by the Neuchâtel section. Having become too small, it was extended in 1905. Its supervision was entrusted to the guide François Biselx.
Ice exploitation – Around 1920
Before the age of freezers, preserving food was a constant concern and a source of work for families. Salting, smoking, drying, pasteurising – several techniques were used depending on the product. The proximity of glaciers favoured another technique. In the Val Ferret, the Saleinaz glacier was exploited in this way until 1914, to extract blocks of ice that were transported to Praz-de-Fort by means of slides formed from four tree trunks. From there, they were taken down to Orsières on tarpaulin-covered carts, and then sent by rail to towns all over Switzerland, and even as far as Paris!
PRAZRIOND, PRAILLON, PRAYON – HUNTING
Prazriond, Praillon, Prayon
The official spelling of the hamlet has changed several times over the last 150 years, and it was not until the 1904 map that it took on its current form.
At Pré-Les-Seilles, above the village, there is a coal mine that was already being used by the locals for their own needs in 1860. In 1942, two associated companies had a cable car built from Prayon (1450m) to this mine (2600m). But when the mine was ready for operation, the work was abandoned and everything was put on hold for lack of money.
Around 1964, several mayens were destroyed to make way for the construction of the road to Ferret.
The inhabitants of the valley were independent men who considered free hunting to be one of their age-old rights. It provided a welcome addition to their monotonous menus. In 1902, as there was no more game, the hunters bought 10 roe deer (males and females) to repopulate Val Ferret, and in 1926 another five deer were released into our forests. In 1945, poaching resumed with renewed vigour. It was feared that the situation would return to that of the early 20th century.
DUFOUR (A Neuvaz) HUT
Cabane Dufour – L’A Neuvaz
Inaugurated on 4 September 1927, the hut – now known as the Cabane de L’A Neuve (2734m) – was financed by a bequest from Edouard Dufour, an honorary member of the Diablerets section of the Swiss Alpine Club. In his will, he gave a substantial sum of money for the purpose of building a hut in a place to be determined. As only the La Neuvaz valley had no hut providing access to the Tour Noir, it was here that it was decided to build the hut, initially named “Cabane Dufour”. The materials needed for the construction were transported by mule to the waterfall and then by man.
The two outstanding wardens were successively the guide René Droz until 1955, then Robert Formaz from 1956 to 1994.
The proximity of the Italian border encouraged the smuggling of goods over the mountains. While this traffic particularly concerned the people of Valle d’Aosta, for whom it had become a means of survival, some people in the Val Ferret also practised it. Cigarettes, which were heavily taxed by the Italian state, and saccharine headed for the Valle d’Aosta, while sugar, rice, shoes and Vibram soles went the other way. A former smuggler recalls: “The customs officers would sometimes check at mass on Sundays to see if people had nice shoes with Vibram soles.
Our thanks to André Métroz in Orsières for the photos from his postcard collection, to the photographers for their magnificent work and to the publishers: Perrochet et Perrochet Matile, Gyger-Klopfenstein, Fonds Jacques Thevoz, Sauthier-Cropt, CPN, Schnegg, Louis Burgy, Oscar Darbellay Médiathèque Valais-Martigny, Georges Pillet Médiathèque Valais-Martigny, Artag, Chapallaz, Jules-Maurice Dorsaz, Müller-August Trub, JJ. Julien Frères.
Thanks to Max Séquin, who was awarded the geography prize at the Ecole Supérieure de Nyon in 1945. His work has been a great inspiration for the texts on this site.