Historic Samoens Postcard

Seven Mountain Pastures, One Dazzling Destination, Samoëns’ Rich History

When we moved to this area to create Alps Accommodation an exciting journey of discovery gradually unfolded. 

As we began to set up our company, make friends and explore this beautiful part of France, we realised that it is very special indeed. With its ancient roots, warm, strong people, majestic mountains and charming hamlets, Samoëns and its environs captured our hearts.  We were inspired and intrigued by the unseen but almost palpable layers of history that are as much a part of the atmosphere here as the clear air, murmur of conversation in the cafés and the constant reassuring rhythm of the rushing River Giffre.

We hope this short guide back through the threads of time will inspire you to make your own discoveries, and you’ll find that the friendly local “Septimontains” will be delighted to answer your questions!

Start by relaxing at a café in the Grand Place Tilleul

This beautiful square is the ancient heart of Samoëns.  Around the village are seven mountain pastures, Cuidex, Vigny, Folly, Oddaz, Bostan, Chardonnière, and La Vullie.  In medieval times, the words “sept monts”, seven mountain pastures, were run together as Samoëns, and this name was bestowed on the village in the year 1167.  Today, as then, the inhabitants are still called “Septimontains” and “Septimontaines.”

Nearby, you will see the old market, “Les Halles”, now referred to La Grenette was installed here in 1355, and opposite is the church of Notre-Dame de L’Assomption. The original church was built in the 13th century, along with the Chateau de Montanier. Both were destroyed during the Bourgogne wars in the 15th century, but only the church was rebuilt.

The most remarkable sight in the square is a living, breathing ancient monument:  Le Gros Tilleul.  This venerable, much-loved lime tree was planted in 1438 to celebrate an important local judgment made by Duke Amédé VIII of Savoie: it confirmed the ownership by Septimontains of several alpine areas in the neighbouring valley of La Manche.  The tree, 9.50 metres around its trunk and 20m tall, has witnessed six centuries of history. It is the emblem of the village and you will see its image on bags, shops and note paper.

The square is still Samoëns’ economic centre, with banks, cafés, the post office all nearby.  La Mairie, opposite Les Halles, is, as in most French villages, an important resource for official and municipal information. It was our first port of call when we decided to live here!

In the square, along the river Giffre and as you walk around the village, you will notice beautiful stone monuments: statues, animals and other works. The upper Giffre valley is dotted with limestone quarries and the traditional local skill of masonry has been part of life here for centuries. If you go into the cemetery, a short walk from the square, you’ll see beautiful, often ornate, tombs and other pieces commissioned by local families to commemorate their loved ones.  It is a peaceful place for reflection too.

In 1659, there were so many stonemasons in Samoëns that they set up a brotherhood which engaged in charity work and helped train young apprentices. Proud of their heritage but very secretive about their work, they used their own dialect which was called “mourmé”. Famous customers included Napoleon Bonaparte (who used their skills to help build canals), Voltaire and Auban. The “brotherhood” has become a cultural association, the Societé des Maçons. A good place to look at a fine example of their work is in the Church of Notre Dame de L’Assomption.  The black marble font here is the work of master mason, Desarnod, and was completed in 1844. Stonemasons of the Giffre valley are still renowned throughout France

Secondly, climb a beautiful small hill and discover Madame Cognacq-Jäy, the benefactor who never forgot her birthplace.

A short walk from the square is one of the most beautiful gardens in France…it’s a bit of a climb but worth every step!

On 1st July 1838, a baby girl, Marie-Louise Jäy, was born in the hamlet of Villard near Samoëns. Her father, a mason, and mother had five daughters and three sons. Marie-Louise was bright, intelligent, and looked after their goats and produce. At 16, Marie-Louise was sent to Paris to stay with an aunt. She found a job as a salesgirl in a lingerie boutique and met a young salesman, Theodore Ernest Cognacq.  The couple fell in love.

Ernest moved up the retail ladder until he was able to afford a lease on a property which was being used as a café but was ideal for transforming into a fashion shop. It prospered and the couple married on the 17th of February 1872. Thrifty Louise added 20,000 francs to her husband’s savings of 5000 francs and they managed to buy another, much larger premises, now La Samaritaine, the world-famous Paris store.  They were great entrepreneurs; their clever business plans included allowing customers to try on clothes before they purchased and take them to the till, which increased sales! They were good to their staff (numbering 8000 in 1910 after they had opened four more large stores) and set up a convalescent home, nursery, a school and a maternity clinic. Having never had children of their own, they used their influence to help others.

Despite her wealth, Marie-Louise never forgot her humble origins and she decided to create a botanical garden in her hometown of Samoëns and opened to the public on September 3rd, 1906.   The magnificent Jäysinia Gardens now holds 5000 plant species from five continents, planted over 35 hectares (86 acres). She also built a house for a local doctor who lived rent-free in return for offering free care to the needy. Her garden attracted visitors from all over France, mostly travelling by train which in those days stopped conveniently in the centre of the village! Her idea was to help improve the prosperity and standing of her birthplace.  Brilliant lady!

Next visit nine little chapels, enchanting  reminders of the faith and community spirit of the Septimontains   

Historically, mountain life has always been hard and can still be very challenging. The chapels around the village were erected, mostly during the 17th century, so that people could pause and pray during their working day, or seek solace when times were tough. Floods and storms meant that the chapels were often used for refuge too.

You’ll see the Chapelle du Chateau, (named after the ancient, burned down, chateau) if you manage the climb to the very top of the Jäysinia Gardens. Constructed in 1687, It is the only chapel not accessible by road.

The oldest, Chapelle du Bérouze, dates back to the 15th Century, and the most recent, le Chapel des Allemands, was built during the 19th Century. Bérouze is of particular interest as the original chapel was built in 1476 but destroyed by Swiss troops, then restored in 1660.  There are special guided tours available to explore these beautiful little chapels, offered by the Tourist Office.  They are often lit up at night and can be entered on religious and festive occasions. Local people keep them clean and tidy and offer flowers. 

Eat, drink and enjoy the produce of the land, cultivated here for centuries

A great pleasure on holiday is the food for sure!  The restaurants offer a huge variety of local produce and specialities and the Wednesday Market, (now situated in a large area near the ice rink), is the best, and most colourful  in the region. 

The history of this rich bounty started with two animals: the cow and the goat!  The pastures supplied their food, the residents looked after them and worked the land. So, meat, milk and cheese provided their income.  A famous local breed of cattle, “L’Abondance” is prized for its milk: less fat, but rich in proteins, it’s ideal for making mountain cheeses. The village is situated in an AOP zone, where the famous Reblochon cheese is made. These days, there is a co-operative of milk-producing farms,  La Fruitiere, created in the fiftes.

In the past, sausages and dried meats were winter staples for hard-working families. They still are, and you will see a huge selection in the market.  A hundred years ago, the mountain farmers wore “la tarte” an alpine beret, which some still wear. One tip whilst here, try a visit to a local farm. It’s even more fun later in the year when the animals come back home after a summer on the mountain and you can get up, close and friendly!  Cheeses are flavoured by the rich grass and herbs which the animals eat so a tasting is an interesting experience, and the vast copper cauldrons used by the farmers’ ancestors to make cheese are often still in use!

Visit the communes for a glimpse of working life when transport was a sleigh, or horse and cart!

Your holiday destination may be in the bustling villages of Samoëns or Morillon, but to get a true picture of the history of the area, visit one of the hamlets, (hameaux) dotted around the wider area of the valley of Samoëns.

These small communes grew up over the centuries as the population’s needs, both commercial and political, increased. Work would have centred around agriculture and animal rearing on local farms, with a tiny village as the hub.  With winter snows an annual challenge, it was vital for close-knit communities to deal with important decision-making themselves. Independent, with their own mayor, yet still remained tied to the community of Samoëns. 

“Les Allamands” is a good example of a picturesque hamlet, with its 19th century chapel and surrounding farms. “Bérouze” has a chateau and a chapel, and the “hameau de Chantemerle” with one of the most beautiful views in the area, is often featured on postcards. “Vallons” which grew up around a milk co-operative formed of several farms, is another lovely hamlet to visit.   Visiting any of these will give you an idea of the lives people lived when travel was difficult, and markets, shops and fairs were some distance away! 

We would also recommend popping into the Médiathèque Francois Désarnod , the brilliant public library in Samoëns, for more historical and general information about our fascinating and beautiful  area. www.samoens-biblio.fr.