In the Celtic era, the Salassi, a Celtic tribe from the Aosta Valley, travelled across the pass in order to communicate with the Ceutrones, their cousins in the Tarentaise. According to certain authors, the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass was crossed by Hannibal in 218 BC on his journey to the Po Valley.
In 45 BC, under the orders of Julius Caesar, the Romans built a Roman road that ran from Milan to Vienna, via the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass. This road, called Alpis Graia, would be used until 1858. In 1806, when Napoleon modernised all of the major Alpine passes, a road was planned which would improve access through the pass. In 1853, however, Napoleon III ordered a new study to be carried out. Work on the road was finished in 1866 on the Savoyard side and in 1872 on the Italian side. In 1897, French President Felix Faure inaugurated the new road through the pass, and it was as recently as 1905 that the first car was driven over the pass, with the Compte de Menthon at the wheel.
Inhabited since the prehistoric era, the Aosta Valley was occupied by the Romans, who settled in the region and founded the city of “Agusta Praetoria” (Aosta) in 25 BC. The Valley then fell under the control of the Burgundians, the Lombards and the Carolingians before the consolidation of the House of Savoy. In 1191, Thomas I, Count of Savoy, signed a “Charte des Franchises” for political autonomy, which would be applicable until 1770. On 26th February 1948, a Special Statute recognised the legislative and administrative autonomy of the Aosta Valley, with the Italian and French languages given the same standing.
In the mid-11th century, Saint Bernard de Menthon (1020–1081), the future patron saint of mountaineers, founded a hospice with the aim of guaranteeing the protection of pilgrims and other travellers from bandits and harsh weather conditions. In 1752 and up until the start of the 20th century, the Order of Saints-Maurice-et-Lazare was in charge of running the hospice, serving more than ten thousand meals every year. After it was abandoned and partially destroyed during the Second World War, the hospice remained empty. In the early 1990s, a plan to restore the hospice was put in place with the support of the European Union and the Petit Saint Bernard association. Today, the Hospice provides tourist information, meals and accommodation.
The Saint Bernard dog breed was introduced in the 17th century. These dogs were trained by monks to rescue pilgrims in distress and tend to be associated more with the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass, though they were originally bred on both eponymous transalpine passes.
From 1859 to 1909, the Petit-Saint-Bernard hospice, then on Italian territory, was run by Abbot Pierre Chanoux. An avid botanist, he created a small Alpine garden near to the hospice, which he named La Chanousia. Successively managed by renowned Italian savants, it contained more than 4,000 species of Alpine plant, but was completely destroyed during fighting in the Second World War. The Aosta Valley Floral Society brought it back to life in 1978, and today La Chanousia is home to 1,000 different varieties of plant, which can be admired during the summer season.
“Le Fortin” was built in 1630 by the House of Savoy and was named “Fort Traverset” due to its position on the side of the Traversette pass at an altitude of 2,400 metres. It was destroyed in 1796 during the French Revolution. After the annexation of Savoy to France in 1860, and as a defence against Italian attack, a new fort was built in 1892 with the name “Fort de la Redoute”. During the Second World War, the fort was the setting for numerous battles, in particular in June 1940 (France against Italy) and during the winters of 1944 and ‘45 (France against Germany). Liberated by the French, the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass and hospice were left completely devastated at the end of fighting on 29th April 1945.
>> An exhibition about the history of the pass is displayed in the Petit-Saint-Bernard hospice and can be visited free of charge.
Caused by glacial erosion, the uneven relief of the land is a major obstacle for farming in the commune. In order to maintain an ideal gradient and thus improve the land’s exploitation, farmers terrace their land and adapt its use according to the altitude. An irrigation network was introduced in the 15th century. Built on a gentle slope, the network serves the whole commune. Irrigation is a major asset when producing hay, which is a fundamental element of rural activity as it is used to feed the herds. Nowadays, the commune’s agricultural activity is still going strong, though today’s farmers tend to specialise in breeding just one kind of animal (cows, sheep or goats).
The Tarine breed of cattle (native to the Tarentaise) is the most commonly seen in Montvalezan as it adapts well to the steep slopes, climactic conditions and dry or humid fields. The cow provides a link between nature and the mountain people. Beaufort cheese became a Controlled Term of Origin following the decrees of 1969, 1976 and 1986. The quality of the milk, its characteristic taste (provided by the grass on certain pastures), and the work carried out in the maturing cellars all contribute to the layers of flavour for which the local cheese is renowned.
>> Pastoral activity in La Rosière
Sheep are organised into flocks according to the areas of grazing pasture. Just once a year, every autumn, the shepherd shears his flock. The wool is washed and dried then used to make mattresses or sold to the Arpin wool mill in Séez. Goats, though less common, are bred to produce milk, which is used to make fresh goats’ cheese and Tomme, both of which are sold locally.
Up until the 1960s, all of Montvalezan’s families were farming families. Their chalets or houses were built according to their plot of land, the proximity of a water source and ease of access. The houses were built very close to one another, to make it easier for families to help each other out. The commune’s nine chapels, all constructed before the 17th century, attest to the presence of several families in the commune. The chalets in the high-altitude villages of Les Eucherts and La Rosière (alt. 1,850m) were only used during the summer months. These chalets were not built out of wood, unlike the word “chalet” suggests, but rather out of local stone and “lauze” slate, which makes Montvalezan’s dwellings so characteristic.
>> Link Chapels and villages of Montvalezan
It is sometimes said that people from Montvalezan are addicted to stone, as the preferred building material in the commune is sandstone. “Lauze” is the slate traditionally used to cover the roofs. These slates are located, quarried and shaped entirely by hand, which is a valuable ancestral skill that is passed down from generation to generation. Today, Montvalezan’s villages boast many new builds, which nevertheless respect the traditional architecture.
The spruce and pine trees that make up Montvalezan’s forests are used to build the structure and interior layout of most of the commune’s houses. Traditionally, a small pine tree should be placed at the end of a newly-fixed roof beam while the house is under construction: this brings good luck to the home and pays homage to the forest. The ends of the roof beams are often decorated with the owners’ initials, the date of construction, the Savoyard flag, rosettes and/or religious symbols.
Montvalezan church is one of the many Baroque buildings built in Savoy in the middle of the 17th century. The commune also has fourteen chapels, located in the centre of the different villages that make up the commune of Montvalezan. Each chapel is dedicated to a particular saint: a universal saint, a miracle-worker, or a protector from extreme weather conditions. At the junction between certain roads, you might also see a cross showing the date of a mission or oratories dedicated to a specific cult. Visitors can explore this cultural heritage as they walk along the commune’s footpaths, and guided tours are available if you want to learn more about Baroque art.
>> More information available on the Chapel Association website
The life of a mountain-dweller was strictly regulated to fit in with their working hours, mealtimes and sleep. They lived in different places according to the season, the nature of their work and their stocks of fodder. Every season, the families and their herds would migrate up or down the mountain, from village to village, until as recently as 1975. Collective memory, local sayings and the traditional costume were the links that tied this rural community together. Today, the traditional Tarin costume is sometimes worn at folkloric events.
>> Link Fête des Clarines.
In 1878, during the Universal Exhibition in Paris, French mountaineer Henri Duhamel saw some skis in the Norwegian pavilion. This was the starting point for downhill skiing in France. In Montvalezan, things began to take shape in 1920. A group of young skiers decided to create a society called the “Union Sportive de Montvalezan”. In 1960, the first downhill skiing competition was organised from Les Eucherts down to La Combaz.
In 1950, La Rosière was made up of only a handful of small residential chalets. In 1954, Jean Arpin created the Relais du Petit St Bernard bar, and in 1960 Abbot Poupon built La Savoyarde family holiday centre in Les Eucherts. With these two establishments in place, summer activities in the village started to take shape. But winter tourism could not kick off without ski lifts. Some young local councillors, who were highly motivated and experienced skiers, embarked on a project to create a ski resort in La Rosière. The Poletta drag lift was put into action on 23rd December 1960 and a ski resort was born! Up until 2002, the resort was managed entirely by the commune of Montvalezan/La Rosière and has gradually been developed thanks to the drive of its inhabitants.
In 1985, following the signature of an agreement between Montvalezan, Séez and La Thuile, the Chardonnet chairlift and Bellecombe drag lift were installed to enable skiers to cross the border. La Rosière thus created an international ski area with the neighbouring Italian resort of La Thuile, in the Aosta Valley. From that moment on, mountain lovers have been able to enjoy the freedom of cross-border skiing!
Well aware of the stakes involved in running a ski resort, the fierce competition between the different local resorts, and the strong cultural and human ties that unite the two neighbouring villages, La Rosière and La Thuile seized the opportunity for EEC funding in 1991 in order to pool their expertise and skills. A few years later, the results exceeded all expectations: informative signage, snowmaking plants, 3 Snowzones (snowcross, bordercross and snowpark), improved client accessibility (Lutins magic carpet, Petit-Saint-Bernard adventure trail, etc.) and the modernisation of the ski lifts. The ski area was renamed the Espace San Bernardo, after the legendary Petit Saint-Bernard mountain pass.
At the end of the 1990s, conscious that the economic success of the resort relied upon the quality and the rigorous management of its services, La Rosière’s management committee guided the different touristic establishments towards the same logic of performance. As time went on, La Rosière was equipped with various facilities in order to achieve this objective, including the Maison du Ski, cinema, ice rink, shopping centres, development of Les Eucherts village, and much more. The development of this authentic village showcases all of the resort’s natural and human assets: stunning views, great snow, peace and tranquillity, a warm and friendly reception, varied skiing, and all in an enchanting setting.
In order to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for summer holidays in the mountains, incited by local initiatives, La Rosière set the ball rolling to extend its tourist services during the summer.
In 1988, the first holes on La Rosière Golf Course were created, at the instigation of two of La Rosière’s inhabitants. Seven years later, the golf course boasted nine holes.
The Espace San Bernardo, which offers a wide variety of snowsports, has produced several generations of champions in a variety of disciplines. Some have now retired from competition, such as Olympic silver medallist Joël Chenal or three-time world freeride champion Manu Gaidet, but taking over the reins are the new generation of champions, who are just hitting the big time with the full support of their home resort.