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Wednesday, April 14, 1999

Where the roof of Europe scrapes the sky


By JOSEPH LIEBERMAN

The pictures in the tourist pamphlet showed an ideal mountain scene in the French Alps, almost too good to be true: a lake of purest blue in the foreground surrounded by bright green hills leading up to spectacular snow-capped mountains under cloudless skies. If this were real, I doubted I could afford to go there. Places this perfect usually seemed to be reserved for super rich jet-setters. Did anybody actually live here?

The Parisian travel agency assured me that there were indeed year-round residents in Tignes, and during the right season, short-term rental apartments were really quite affordable. In fact, in the last weeks of August after most French people were done with holidays, and in the first weeks of fall, before snow brought out skiers, a deluxe studio apartment with kitchenette rents out at only 23,000 yen per week . . . about the same cost as one night in a good Paris hotel.

Before agreeing to this long-distance booking, however, the question persisting in my mind was whether reality could match the promotional spin. We've all seen travel brochures that promise unblemished beauty, but experience teaches us to take these with a grain of salt.

These "perfect" pictures of Tignes, however, did contain an odd sort of anomaly that did much to alleviate the flawless factor. In place of rustic Alpine chalets stood a couple of tall contemporary condominium towers. Although they would be typical architecture in any modern cityscape, they looked bizarrely out of place, rising steeply out of mountain meadows.

We took a relaxing overnight train and then a bus for the final climb up into the Alps, which form France's southeast border with Switzerland and Italy. Actually, the original pastoral village of Tignes now lies under deep water, the result of a dam which our bus drove over on its way to the new Tignes higher up the hills at 2,100 meters. When we arrived, the sight was as magnificent as the brochures had promised.

At one time there had been only a few scattered shepherds' cottages here on the mountainsides. While a few have been made into vacation homes, many of these have been neglected or abandoned. Some cows and goats remain as well, but a shy furry animal called a marmot is the main occupant of these grassy vales.

The holiday rental flats in Tignes are predominantly those lofty mod condominiums, an ironic touch of "city" in this rural retreat. As expected, from every balcony you get an unobstructed view of nature in all its glory.

The scene varies throughout the day as the movement of sun and the shadows of clouds reveal a thousand details among the surrounding peaks for the eyes to feast upon. Lake blues and hill greens change tones with every passing hour. The static man-made concrete and brick walls of cities can never compete with the changing vistas that creation offers us here.

Meteorology seems much more theatrical at these heights where the roof of Europe scrapes the sky. As changeable as the winds, various atmospheric phenomena fluctuate within minutes, turning immaculate sunshine into violent thunderstorms. The danger and unpredictability add to the drama.

On a more mysterious note, some days would be entirely shrouded in mist, or heavy fog would come to rest eerily just beneath our 10th-floor balcony windows. At other times, the sharp craggy pinnacles seemed to shred enormous clouds for secondhand distribution down to the rest of France waiting below.

These are the conditions under which the local people go about their daily lives. Many are shopkeepers; some concentrate on tourism such as skiers' hotels and sports centers, while others offer goods at weekly outdoor markets. I wondered how each deals with constant exposure to such breathtaking panoramas. Did they become "immune" to it, even bored with it? Did they celebrate it each day, freshly inspired? Or did some of them secretly long to see a little narrowly confined and squalid ugliness?

By chance, I found someone who could answer these questions. I discovered that there was just one Japanese restaurant in Tignes, the Miyako, owned by the only Asian couple in town. The husband, Yasuo Higashi, was born in Kyoto. After graduating from Doshisha University, he followed his love of skiing and came to Europe 26 years ago to become a ski instructor. For the past 20 years he has also been operating this restaurant, joined by his Thai wife Wan.

His frank reply to my questions was that after his first three months here, he had simply stopped "looking" at the scenery. Sometimes, he confided, the constant beauty could be unbearable. Local people busied themselves with their work and were thankful for the mountains when it was time to relax or ski, but otherwise let the heavenly view slip into the background while they concentrated upon more commonplace matters.

The eminent playwright George Bernard Shaw once suggested that people face two great tragedies in life. One is to have a goal and never reach it. The other is to reach it. It seems there's only so much perfection humans can stand.

Tignes is located near Val-d'Isere and the Vanoise Natural Park, 30 km southeast of Bourg-Saint-Maurice, where the closest SNCF railway station can be found. From Bourg-Saint-Maurice there is hourly bus service. Tignes is divided into three sections: Tignes Le Lac, Val Claret and Le Lavachet. All three have rental apartments.



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