Author: Steve Norris MD of Alpine Property
Anyone who has been living in the Alps can tell you that the look and feel of our mountain towns and villages has changed and is continuing to change at a surprising speed. Opinion is divided as to whether this change is for the better or the worse. What do you think? Possibly you aren’t so sure. Well, neither was I, so I decided to canvas opinion for you. I was immediately struck by how divided opinion was. Everyone has a very strong view on the topic!
Those with a negative view of the changes suggest a quick trip to the centres of Les Gets, Morzine or Samoens to see the most dramatic and controversial change. In each town centre new large blocks of apartments have appeared in just the last five years. Many locals and long-term residents complain that these have changed the feel of their town. They say that these large new developments have replaced older, smaller scale buildings which gave the town an authentic and lived in feel. An additional problem for them is that frequently these older buildings were hotels or restaurants which provided employment for both locals and saisonaires.
Interestingly this change has not been driven by the tourism industry; pressure for new apartments close to the skiing has always been with us. No, the change has been created by a change in planning regulations. In 2014 restrictions on the maximum size of construction on a given plot of land were removed. This was a national change in response to increased demand for homes. This gave the green light to developers throughout France to build large apartment buildings where this had not been possible previously. The law was changed to help build more homes for families. In our resorts it has resulted in the building of more second homes for holidaymakers. These holidaymakers are delighted to find well built, conveniently located second homes for their holidays in the Alps
But not all is doom and gloom. Many people I spoke to pointed to some very positive changes in the look and feel of our area.
Those with a more positive view suggest a quick trip elsewhere, to one of the many small villages in the valleys leading to the main ski resorts. Over the last 30 years these villages have seen a really dramatic change. Unlike the new developments in the centre of the resorts, this change has been gradual, and so harder to spot. Thirty years ago these villages were very quiet, with many unused buildings. They had, up until the Second World War, been thriving farming villages. At that time the villages were populated by families living a traditional lifestyle. They divided their time between summers spent living in small chalets d’alpage high on the alpine pastures caring for their cattle and winters spent living in the family farm down in the village where the cattle would be kept indoors until the snows melted. This lifestyle gradually disappeared in the fifties and sixties and many families moved elsewhere to earn a living. Their farms and houses thus became unused and in many cases fell into disrepair.
Over the last 30 years these buildings have been renovated one by one. The area has developed a large corps of carpenters, plumbers and electricians skilled in this work. Originally renovated as second homes, more recently these old farms and chalets are being bought and renovated as main homes for people coming to the mountains to raise families in this clean and calm environment. Whatever the reason this gradual change has been immensely positive. Visit any of these villages today and you will see thriving communities with small businesses, local schools and well-kept homes. Most of these chalets and farmhouses have been renovated in a traditional alpine style, meaning that the villages themselves have retained their original authentic feel.
So, what do you think? I think that these changes are simply part of the natural evolution in the use we make of our towns and villages.
If you are thinking of buying a home in the Alps it pays to be aware of these changes and the different character of each village. Make sure you consider what atmosphere will suit you best.