Many people visit Meribel and see a modern picture postcard ski resort. The history of Meribel from its humble beginnings to one of the world’s most renowned ski areas is an engaging story which deviates from the traditional.
A brief history of the Savoie Region
Meribel sits in the French region of Savoie. The area has a rich history with much of it documented as far back as Roman times. Iron age remains circa 2500bc have been discovered near Meribel, but there is no historical evidence they were there for a ski. The region became the Duchy of Savoie in 1416, in the following centuries it played host to many political intrigues as well as being a buffer between the Italian states and France. At its height, it stretched from the Mediterranean to Geneva, included many areas now considered as Italian like the Aosta valley. The Italian influence is still evident in the unique food and culture of Savoie. In 1860 the Duchy of Savoie was swallowed into France. Traditionally the main village of Meribel was Les Allues; “Meribel” gets its name from the Latin “Mirare” meaning “to look at” and “bel” meaning beautiful.
Meribels Inter-War Years
The history of Meribel as a winter sports destination begins in the interwar years of the 1930s and owes much of its success to a Scottish Major, Peter Lindsay. During this period many British winter sports enthusiasts were looking for alternatives to Austria and Germany due to growing tensions and the rise of the NAZI party. Major Lindsay first visited the resort in 1936. However, it would be two years later in 1938 that he would form the company “Societe Fonciere de la Vallee des Allues.” This heralded the start of Meribel, and the company began buying parcels of land from local farmers to begin development of the resort. The initial plan was to build the infrastructure of Hotels and Chalets to house the new visitors.
The first lift was also installed in 1938 above Les Allues and named The Red Dragon; it was a “Teletraineau” carrying 31 passengers. A Teletraineau is a sled pulled by a network of cables, running from 1450m to 1900m it allowed 500 vertical metres of skiing. Although this doesn’t sound a lot by today’s staggering numbers but do remember in those days, the guests would be hacking down the mountain on wooden skis with leather boots!!
When World War 2 hit, there was a pause in the development of the ski area.
Meribel Post WWII
Now a Colonel, Peter Lindsay returned to Meribel post-war to continue his passionate development of the Valley. He had enlisted renowned Architects: Christian Durupt, Paul Grillo and André Dutou. It was this team that would set the tone for Meribel’s development. It was stipulated that only traditional architecture could be used. Locally sourcing the material, allowing them to realise a vision of a ski resort which integrates into its natural environment. Some of these first buildings are still in existence today, one of which is the Hotel Doron. As the resort entered the 1950s, it became popular with wealthy sets of both French and British patrons. By the middle of the 1950s, there were approximately 17 hotels and 40 chalets served by four lifts, including the original Bergin Saulire gondola. The patrons included international stars such as Bridgette Bardot. Early on in its existence, Meribel had a vibrant nightlife. The first night club being Shangri La located in the building which now houses Sully’s.
Into the Swinging ’60s and beyond
As France emerged from its post-war years, the French government invested heavily in infrastructure, particularly in the Savoie region. Road access was improved, and there were many state-funded Ski Resort projects. During this period there were plans to link the Alps North-South with a chain of resorts. Although this never came to fruition, it is possible to ski across Savoie from the southern Italian border to the north with only a few small road journeys in-between.
Although Meribel benefited from increased visitors and better uplift capacity, it largely resisted the boom of purpose-built resorts, maintaining the vision of its founders. In 1972 Meribel added the village of Mottaret; as well as opening up vast swathes of the mountain, the resort was designed and purpose-built to be ski in ski out removing the need for the use of vehicles. Although Mottaret is a purpose-built resort, it still maintains a more mountain feel with pitched roofs and the use of local materials like wood and slate.
The 1992 Albertville Olympics
Albertville was chosen to host the 1992 Olympics, Meribel was awarded the women’s Alpine Skiing events and Ice hockey. The Olympic centre was built at the Chaudanne to host Ice hockey, and it also provides swimming and leisure facilities. Several new lifts were added including the Telecabine l’Olympic. Linking the traditional spa town of Brides Les Bains into the greater Meribel area. The women’s ski events had their finishing area at the Chaudanne. With the downhill starting near the top of the Roc de Fer at 2290m. The downhill run can still be accessed using the Olympic chairlift with magnificent views from the top. Off the back of the Olympic success, Meribel has continued to play host to international and national events including World Cup Moguls, The British Championships and various regional events. Lindsay Vonn won the 2015 FIS Women’s Alpine Downhill here.
Would Meribel still be recognised by Colonel Peter Lindsay today? His family maintains a stake in the company he founded. Although the village has undergone enormous growth, it has kept its mountain style. Meribel maintains its reputation among British travellers, with over 40% of its visitors coming from the UK. The lift system has been massively upgraded over the decades and is continually evolving. From the “Red Dragon,” it has grown to a resort with over 160km of pistes. Meribel links into the Three Valleys, which is the largest interconnected ski area in the world. With over 650km of pistes and served by at least 180 lifts (we’re sure they will have added more by the time we’ve finished this paragraph). Meribel has maintained its reputation for being a great place to socialise with a vast number of bars, restaurants and après ski haunts. Some of these, such as the Folie Douce or the “Ronnie” are world-famous.