Finding traditional Alpine villages

Karen Tait discovers the benefits of living in mountain villages close to major ski resorts

Many people’s dream ski chalet is near the lifts, in a ski-in ski-out location and staggering distance from the restaurants and bars. Purpose-built resorts are especially good at this, with chalets radiating out from the central hub of telecabine, shops and apr�s-ski hotspots. There is another way though, an option which may involve a little more time and planning, but which more than compensates in other ways.

I’m referring to villages close to the popular – and expensive – Alpine resorts. For househunters, this can mean more affordable property, perhaps an apartment instead of a studio or a whole chalet instead of an apartment. Amenities are cheaper too. And while some resorts can be rather soulless, especially out of season, just a short distance away there are traditional villages that offer a real French mountain lifestyle all year round.

I was contemplating this during a recent stay in a stunning chalet not far from Val d’Is�ere and Tignes, in the village of Ste-Foy-Tarentaise. It was the sort of place I can only dream of owning – views to die for, luxe but homely furnishings, hot tub, gym and all mod cons, and a build quality and attention to detail that really set it apart. Chalet Merlo is available to rent fully catered during the ski season – and with six bedrooms, there is more than enough room for a bunch of friends or family groups.

While it is without doubt a high-end luxury chalet, I was interested to note that you’d need two or three times the budget to buy the equivalent chalet just a few miles up the mountain in Val d’Is�re. Chris Harrop of French Mountain Property, who built Chalet Merlo six years ago, explains further: “The property price in Ste-Foy is €5,000-€8,000 per square metre, versus Val d’Isere at €10,000-€20,000.”

There are two reasons property in the Alps is expensive (the average house costs €347,000 in Haute-Savoie compared to a national average of €165,000) and the two reasons come down to basic economics: supply and demand. Demand continues apace, seemingly little affected by the global recession. Supply, however, is limited by the lack of building space.

Near the chalet I stayed in there is a property in which multiple generations of one French family live, in much the same way their ancestors have lived for centuries. There are chickens, geese, dogs, a large veg patch… and they still gather the sheep in under the chalet at night. Doubtless the �ber-chic partygoers of Val d’Ise�re would be horrified to find themselves next door to such a vivid example of reality. For others, however, this is all clearly part of the charm.

“It’s a less artificial environment, with an inter-season life, and better value, but most importantly, you’re not tied to a particular resort so there’s a greater choice of skiing, which translates into better snow conditions,” says Chris.

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MOUNTAIN CHALLENGE

The Alps are known for their challenging terrain, beloved of skiers, cyclists and other adrenaline-sports fans, and building here is no different, even once a plot has been located. “Building in the mountains is different to anywhere else,” explains Chris. “You have six months of snow so the roof needs to be on by December. We’re often building on a slope and the property needs to resist the push of the earth, so lots of re-enforcing is required. Plus small villages don’t always have sufficient electricity supplies for some of our large chalets, so we have put in geothermal systems.”

I asked Chris whether it is harder to rent out village properties than those in the resorts, for those looking at a purchase as a rental investment as well as for personal use. “We’ve been running Chalet Merlo for five years,” he answers, “and have a 19-week annual rental – 15 weeks in winter and seven weeks in summer. In Val d’Isere, I would expect 18 weeks in winter and nothing in summer.”

So, it seems that could be another plus-point for the lower-altitude villages, although clearly it depends on the property and location, and buyers should research their options fully if rental income is important.

THE BEST TRADITIONAL OPTIONS

Ste-Foy is one example of a lovely traditional village close to a big ski area and leading resorts. It is typically Savoie in style and centre around a number of bars and restaurants. At the heart of the Haute Tarataise, it is so well located that a new ski station has recently been developed just up the road from the old village.

If the traditional option appeals to you, a little digging will soon unearth manygems. Fran�ois Marchand of Erna Low Property has the following recommendations: “Vallorcine is at the end of the Chamonix valley, and unlike its big brother (Chamonix), it doesn’t have as high property prices. It is a lovely traditional village, but has direct access to the ski area of Chamonix. We currently have two developments there, within easy walking distance of the ski lift that takes you to over 2,270m altitude.

“Another area is Montchavin, with direct access to the Paradiski area. This traditional village is up and coming, and has a nice feel and look to it. Recent improvement in the local infrastructure, with a big aqua centre, has increased interest from buyers from France and abroad.

“Finally, another beautiful place near the slopes is Briancon. In the southern Alps, within an hour from Turin airport, this UNESCO medieval town is at the bottom of the Prorel telecabine, taking skiers all the way into the Serre Chevalier ski domain, great for off-piste in knee-deep powder! The highest town in Europe (1,400m), it is open all year round and is also famous for the Tour de France.”