Val d'Isère's new heights

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The Alpine ski resort's rich heritage is celebrated in a village museum, says Simon Calder

Skiers, by inclination, tend not to be museum-goers: when the average winter-sports enthusiast hears the word "culture" they, understandably, reach for the nearest drag lift. Why would you waste even one of those exquisitely expensive hours of your winter holiday on learning the history of the sport, or your resort? The present, and the very near future, are all the skier cares about.

Yet ski museums pop up in some surprising places. The north-easternmost US state, Maine, has one in the town of Kingfield; you can't miss it, tucked inside the Sugarloaf Sports Outlet Mall. You can hardly stretch your Nordic legs in Norway without encountering a ski museum, for example at the resort of Trysil or the ski jump at Holmenkollen. And to see the helmet worn by Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards at the 1988 Winter Games, head for Calgary's Olympic Hall of Fame.

Until last year, though, celebrations of the sporting heritage of the French Alps were as thin as late-season snow. Thanks to a the vision of a Belgian, Pim Geldof, that has changed with the opening of Val d'histoire – a museum devoted to the story of Val d'Isère, one of Europe's top resorts.

The venue is appropriately historic: the Maison Moris, the oldest house still standing in the village. Behind its mighty 17th-century stone walls is a cavernous barn, which has been cheerfully carved up to present the story of how a Savoie village over a mile high at the end of the longest cul-de-sac in France joined the Ligue 1 of ski resorts. The walls are filled with archive photos that reveal the story of Val d'Isère's success.

The Isère itself begins just above the resort, and flows through Grenoble to the Rhône, which it joins near Valence. A few hardy skiers found their way here in the first few decades of the 20th century, discovering dazzling sweeps of terrain that offered (and still do) endless possibilities. In 1932, a Parisian named Charles Diebold opened the first ski school, and two years later Jacques Mouflier – also from the French capital – installed the first ski lift, still used by 21st-century beginners. The resort's main square is named after him.

Access improved in 1937, when the village became base station for vehicles clambering over the new Col d'Iseran pass, over 9,000ft high, leading ultimately to Italy.

The newly extended D902 became the highest road in Europe (a claim disputed in the Sierra Nevada in Spain), so unsurprisingly it was closed for most of the year. But the necessary improvements meant that Val d'Isère itself was able to attract the newly mobile Lyonnais in their Delages and Voisins – the automotive equivalent of Art Deco. They discovered a seductively curved valley: a gentle stream at its heart, and a serrated massif to the west rising to the 12,000ft summit of La Grande Motte. The neighbouring village of Tignes, crammed on to a rocky platform above an Alpine lake, offered more possibilities for fast, exhilarating downhills interspersed with the most challenging technical descents. Today, ski-mountaineers are still common sights.

Civilian skiing was largely suspended for the duration of the Second World War, but by 1946 the hunger for great skiing escapes resumed. The long and winding eastbound road from Lyon had plenty of tempting ski diversions along the way, such as La Plagne and Les Arcs. But steadfastly continuing onwards and upwards led to heavenly rewards.

"La Belle Région de Haute Altitude" is the slogan on a post-war lift ticket in the museum. By 1952 there were 36 hotels in Val d'Isère, three times more than the pre-war score. The ski equipment on display looks as vintage as the vehicles that brought pioneering guests here.

The Sixties were kind to Val d'Isère: the lift operator, Société des Téléphériques de Val d'Isère, teamed up with its Tignes counterpart to offer a joined-up ski area – later christened L'Espace Killy after the local hero, Jean-Claude Killy, who dominated world ski racing during the decade.

Val d'histoire does not dwell upon the calamities that befall any ski resort – notably the 1970 avalanche in Val d'Isère that swept away 42 lives, mostly young people breakfasting in their hotel.

From any of the summits you can sense why this tragedy did not seem to dissuade future skiers. Whether you crave sheer speed or take time to appreciate the skiscape, it is difficult to conceive of more agréable surroundings. Much of the technology that makes every fold of this mountain realm accessible dates from the Eighties: Albertville, way down on the Isère, had won the right to host the 1992 Winter Olympics, the last to be held in the same year as the summer Games. The downhill races were held on the Espace Killy's bold Face de Bellevarde. In the run-up some serious infrastructure went in. The Furnival was installed 25 years ago, conferring skiers with a near-instant 2,000ft of vertical altitude by means of a mostly subterranean funicular railway that was the first of its kind in France.

A detail from the museum reveals a good seat for the 1992 men's downhill event cost just 150 francs (then about £16), compared with several times more in Vancouver in 2010 – and who knows how much in Sochi in 2014?

Admission to the Val d'histoire is a modest 33 francs, or €5 as it is better known today. The museum is not going to cost you too much in time either; it is evidently going for prize of shortest hours in Europe, opening for just two hours a day (and not at all on Saturdays). But to understand what the pioneers endured to satisfy their addiction, it makes an excellent variation on traditional après-ski.

Travel Essentials

The Val d'histoire (valdhistoire.com; 5-7pm daily except Saturday; €5) is located in the Maison Moris, next to the church in Val d'Isère. You can call the founder, Pim Geldof, on 00 33 6 74 57 76 80. Val d'Isère's ski season is scheduled to begin on 1 December. All leading UK ski companies offer holidays in the resort. Val d'Isère Office du Tourisme (00 33 4 79 06 06 60; valdisere.com).

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