Megève: Less is more for chic French skiing

Megève is steeped in ski heritage, but this smart resort has few British winter visitors. Stephen Wood relishes the upmarket ambience
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The Independent Travel

There is no shortage of examples of ski resorts inspired by a single individual. The first and still one of the foremost US resorts owes its existence to Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1935 he charged a character called Count Felix Schaffgotsch with the task of finding a good skiing spot alongside the railway; and having considered and rejected Aspen and Jackson Hole, Schaffgotsch chose the site in Idaho which became Sun Valley. Another blue-chip US resort, Vail in Colorado, was essentially the creation (in 1962) of Peter Seibert, one of a group of soldiers in the US Army's 10th Mountain Division who developed the US ski business in the 1960s and beyond.

There is also a subset of idealists who developed ski destinations for, loosely, the improvement of mankind. Among them was Walter Paepcke, who after the Second World War created Aspen with help from Herbert Bayer, a designer trained at the Bauhaus school. In France, Eric Boissonnas was the prime mover of Flaine: he commissioned another Bauhaus alumnus, architect Marcel Breuer, to build a resort – completed in 1967 – which had sculptures by Picasso, Vasarely and Dubuffet, and facilities including a concert hall, art gallery and public library (with books in French, English and German).

Megève, not far from Flaine and close to Geneva airport, was more of a group effort, motivated by a mixture of idealism and self-interest. Neither the resort nor its history are well-known to UK skiers. Despite its exceptionally beautiful, bowl-like setting beneath Mont Blanc and its large ski area (83 lifts; 325km of pistes), it remains very French. British skiers make up no more than 10 per cent of its guests; in major French resorts the proportion often exceeds 30 per cent.

The animators of Megève were a disparate bunch – a tailor, a rich woman, a skier, and an architect. Take the tailor first, because his family is celebrating a birthday today: it is 80 years since Armand Allard designed the archetypal "ski pant", stretched by a strap under the foot to give skiers' legs a flawless, streamlined shape.

Originally the trousers were known as pantalon sauteur: ski-jump competitors favoured them because they did not flap in the wind. But Allard soon christened the style fuseau – a word derived from fusée, meaning rocket – because of their shape, and because Émile Allais, the local ski-racing hero who wore them, went so fast. When Allais won the 1937 World Championships in Chamonix, it gave international exposure to him, Megève, and Armand Allard's trousers.

The fuseau became standard skiwear, copied by manufacturers around the world: "my grandfather was a local tailor, not a businessman, so he didn't register the design," says Antoine, a third-generation Allard now working in the business. The trousers, beautifully made and detailed, cost from €300. Apparently about 1,300 pairs are sold a year, but the only person in Megève I saw wearing them was myself; and what I saw in the changing-room mirror told me this was a look I'd struggle to pull off.

It was, of course, the rich woman and the architect who actually got the resort built. The idea of creating a French rival to the ski destinations of Austria and Switzerland came from Baroness Noémie de Rothschild, wife of Maurice de Rothschild (of the banking family). Her former ski instructor chose Megève as the site; and she persuaded her family to bankroll the project.

In 1925 a young architecture student, spending time in the mountains for the good of his health, was introduced to de Rothschild. Soon afterwards, Henry Jacques le Même set up an architectural practice, and embarked on the job listed as "No. 1", a chalet for de Rothschild. Its design took inspiration from Savoie farmhouses but enlarged the windows and interior spaces, added a terrace and balconies, and put a ski-room where the animals slept, in the basement

Le Même's building – still owned by the Rothschild family but now stripped of its original, elegant interior and divided into five hotel suites – was "the first ski chalet", according to a document produced in late 2008 by the regional Council for Architecture, Urbanism and the Environment. It estimated that by 1950 more than 100 chalets had been built to Le Même's designs in Megève. However, his chalet style has been so "spread, copied and subjected to reinterpretation", that – the report warned – "evidence of the history of 20th-century winter sports is disappearing". It called for a "mobilisation" to "guarantee the survival of Henry Jacques Le Même's work".

The copying has made examples of his work hard to pin-point: I wandered around Megève with a hardback monograph for reference. Also, his style became less defined over time – 54 years elapsed between the first chalet and the last. And it is fair to say that no architect would get more than 100 chalet commissions in a ski village if he insisted there was only one way to design them. Three chalets built on the same plot, just above Megève's ice rink, range from the highly imaginative to the almost banal. One has rather chilling hints of a Scandinavian Lutheran church, while another is as cosy as a Berkshire village.

His handful of other projects, though, are mostly easy to identify: his own home/studio, built in 1929 in a pure Le Corbusier style, and the 1935 college perched dramatically on a cliff above the town, a late-modern, L-shaped block with what appears to be a streamlined railway observation car (actually the games room) attached to the ground floor. Unfortunately the 1929/30 Hotel Albert 1er, which photographs suggest was his masterpiece, has suffered complete banalisation, its modernist character either stripped away or covered in timber cladding. The flat roof is now pitched, chalet-style; and – horrors – the building even has shutters.

His contribution to skiing may be historically important, but it is not Le Même who keeps skiers coming back to Megève. Rather, it is the skiing, spread over three areas, and the reputation of the resort's restaurants. (I ate in what is now the most celebrated, the Flocons de Sel, and the food was exceptionally good.) John Kinnear owns Stanford Skiing, the leading UK tour operator to Megève; and he gets a remarkable 70 per cent repeat business at the company's three chalets, two of them former hotels.

The terrain is ideal for confident intermediates. In the Mont d'Arbois, high and open, there are some steep pitches and long runs down towards the villages of St Nicolas and St Gervais (plus plenty of off-piste for more skilled skiers); the Rochebrune area has the famous Alpette racing route, some attractive, wooded pistes, and challenging skiing at the top. My favourite, though, is Jaillet, whose base is a five-minute bus ride from the village: heavily wooded, and with some extremely long routes, it offers the sort of beautiful, journeys-on-skis that I adore.

But if Megève is so good, why don't more British skiers go there? Kinnear says the lack of big hotels prevents major tour operators from profitably doing business there. The tourist office agrees. And since Megève's old, cobbled village centre is jealously protected by the planning authorities, there is no prospect of big hotels being built. It seems that Megève is set to remain the preserve of a select few British skiers.

Travel essentials: Megève

Getting there

* A week in Megève with Stanford Skiing (01603 477471; stanfordskiing.co.uk ) costs from £430 per person, including Geneva transfers, half-board (wine with dinner, champagne on arrival) and accompanied skiing, but excluding flights.

Three-night breaks start at £270.

* Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com/uk ) flies daily to Geneva from London City and Heathrow. Returns start at £76, including free carriage of ski equipment.

* Geneva is also served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com ), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com ), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com ) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ).

Eating & drinking there

* Flocons de Sel, 1775 Route de Leutaz, Megève (00 33 4 50 21 49 99; floconsdesel.com ).

Shopping there

* A Allard Boutique, 148 Place de l'Eglise and 37 Quai du Prieuré, Megève (00 33 4 50 21 03 85; aallard.com ).

More information

* Megève Tourism: 00 33 450 21 27 28; megeve.com ;

* Eyeski ( eyeski.tv ) is a new service launching online and on mobiles next month and will offer real 360-degree images of pistes, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants in Megève.

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