Le Monal is a magical site in the spring. On a sunny winter’s day, it’s an almost unreal wonderland. Last week I walked to the UNESCO-listed site from Sainte Foy following the last-minute cancellation of a planned ski tour to the hamlet.
Today I am back on skis with local guide Nicolas Borrel who took a small group of us to Le Monal via the upper part of the vallon du Clou – the stream that flows down from the small lake of the same name, through Le Monal and eventually into the river Isère 1,000m below.
France’s national electricity supplied EDF bought up the area around the lake in the early 1980s with a view to building a hydroelectric dam. It would have been similar in scale to dam in Tignes and the project would have flooded the whole of the high altitude meadows.
The owners of the handful of high altitude summer chalets – chalets d’alpage – were evicted but EDF’s plans were shelved in 1984 and the chalets have been left to fall into disrepair. Nicolas had family who lived there. He points to one of the chalets, and the room where he remembers sleeping. Now, all that’s left of EDF’s project is a small dam at the point where the Clou starts dropping through the cliffs towards le Monal.
In 2011, the Sainte Foy local authority applied for permission to extend its ski area on the Clou side, a move to which a number of environmental protection organisations objected. It led, ultimately, to the listing of the area in 2013, preventing any future development. Le Monal itself was listed in 1987.
The sun may have been out on the day of our little excursion but the snow was far from perfect. A few stretches of spring-like snow were followed but slush and, further down, icy patches in the shade.
We get to Le Monal shortly after midday. Nicolas heads for a table at the back of one of the farms and starts unpacking his rucksack. Local ham, cheese, bread, and a few bottles of Apremont. The ski back to base via the forest afterwards could only be magic.