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Home   >  Living in Orsières  >  The Commune of Orsières
General description

The Commune of Orsières, which has three tourist regions - Orsières, Champex-Lac and the Val Ferret, is the sixth largest of the 134 communes in the Valais. Glaciers and rocky outcrops occupy a large area but the forests are particularly imposing and, at 3,500 hectares, make the Bourgeoisie of Orsières the largest forest owner in Switzerland.

Location

The commune of Orsières is situated in the Entremont Valley in the south-west of the Valais. It borders on 7 other communes and two other countries :

to the north Sembrancher and Bovernier
to the south Italy and Liddes
to the east Bagnes, Liddes and Bourg-St-Pierre
to the west France, Martigny-Combe and Trient

At the junction of two alpine valleys, Orsières is the gateway to Aosta and Italy over the Great-Saint-Bernard or from the Val Ferret or Champex up into the mountains around the Mont Blanc.

photo : Pierre Pouget

Geographical situation

The Tour du Mont Blanc, a marvellous long distance walk through three countries, comes down the Val Ferret before climbing back up to the beauties of Champex. All walkers think this is a lovely part of the Tour and, for many of them, it’s the best.

Orsières is the western flank of the Mont Blanc range the last buttresses and ridges forming the boundary between France and Switzerland. Glaciers hanging over polished rocks and impetuous mountain streams cascading down the shoulders of the valley face smoother mountains on the other bank whose eroded contours echo the granite majesty opposite in a muted minor key.

This is the secret harmony which charmed the first travellers who came to explore the area.

photo : Pierre Pouget

Historical situation

But it’s for another reason entirely that Orsières first features in written records before the end of the first millennium.

Orsières, from where roads radiate to the four corners of the region, is on the way to Mont Joux. This route through the alps was, by turns, a Celtic track, a Roman road, part of the Savoy royal route and then, with the opening of the tunnel in 1964, the international Great-Saint-Bernard artery. This route crossed the River Dranse in Orsières and the bridge there was of sufficient strategic importance to merit a garrison in Charlemagne’s time. This crossing point, maintained and guarded in the centre of a glacial hollow, sowed the seed for the village which grew up around it.

It was when approaching Orsières, on his way from Rome, that Saint Mayeul, the powerful abbot of Cluny, was captured by Saracens. They held him hostage for a month before the ransom was paid. The nobles of Burgundy and the Lyon area had had enough of these troublesome visitors by this time and got together to expel them from the alpine passes. For having been the scene of one of these wicked acts, Orsières earned a place in the history books.

photo : Pierre Pouget

Interesting facts

The village of Orsières is dominated by a bell tower which was finished in the 14C building on an earlier tower dating from the 11C. Romanesque and then gothic, it is decorated with various animal figures. In an old chapel at the foot of the tower, a fresco known as “St Gregory’s Mass” is worth a visit. Next to the bell tower is the neo-gothic church, built in 1896, which uses two local stones to good effect, tufa for the vault ribs and granite for the pillars. The stained glass windows, by Monnier, were installed in 1961. Orsières is actually three smaller villages linked by bridges. From north to south, the Bourgeal bridge with its stone arch dates from 1840 while the stone arch of the Châtelard bridge was built in 1916. Between these two, opposite the church, a fine covered bridge was erected in 1948 to give access to the municipal cemetery.

The plan of the main village is very common in Savoy: houses line the main street with stables and barns attached but opening on to back alleys, here and there in the village you can still see « raccards », old barns built on stilts to deter mice and mainly made of larch, a wood which doesn’t rot. Nearly all the local farmers deliver their milk to the dairy in the middle of Orsières. During the busiest months, a hundred or more “raclette” cheeses are made every day. On the hillsides round about, the villages have retained their communal bread ovens (four banal), ten of which are still in regular use. In La Rosières, the birthplace of Maurice Tornay who was beatified in 1993, the bread oven is right beside St Anne’s chapel which has some lovely ex-votos.

If you are interested in religious architecture, ten chapels, monuments to local piety, are dotted around the commune: in La Rosière, Commeire, Chez-les-Reuse, Champex (3), St-Eusèbe, Praz-de-Fort, La Fouly and Ferret. Each, in its own way, has something to offer.

The landscape

The landscape is largely sculpted by glaciers. A closer inspection reveals the numerous moraines and erratics which bear witness to the glacial tongues which at one point stretched from the Valais all the way to Lyon. We owe the lake at Champex to a moraine and one of the nicest walks in Saleinaz is along the top of a moraine.

In this land of high alpine pastures, hay meadows and huge forests, there used to be bears in sufficient numbers to give the place its name, its coat of arms and a few cautionary tales for the more adventurous children.

The locals were foresters, farmers and stock keepers. The landscape forged the local character which is flinty and frank, a directness which is not always appreciated. The neighbouring communes, rather jealous of the activity generated by so much forest, referred to all the logging by giving the people of Orsières the nickname : the Bouetsedons.

The area was part of the Duchy of Savoy around the turn of the first millennium and became a part of the Valais in 1475 which then became a full member of the Swiss Confederation in 1815. In between, any number of travellers, pilgrims, merchants, soldiers, kings and emperors passed through. In the middle of the 14C as much of the land as possible had been brought under cultivation and the population was at its peak. Then came the Black Death… It was a further five hundred years or so before the community was as populous again.

Numbers had more or less recovered by the time Napoleon came though, bringing up the rear of his army on the morning of 20th May 1800.

photo : Pierre Pouget

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