A shell village, unique in the Oisans
As you wander through the narrow streets of Besse-en-Oisans, the charm takes hold and the silence imposes itself. The other senses are awakened to better absorb the serenity of the place…
Let the stones tell you about the harshness of life at an altitude of 1,500 m, but also about the beautiful energy of a community of farmers in solidarity and in love with their piece of Oisans.
Here everything is mineral, the narrow streets with their cobbled streets, the walls of the houses, the barns, the wood-framed houses, the wash houses and even the roofs in the past.
The sober charm of small mountain villages has found its ambassador, Besse-en-Oisans. Visit this small, relaxing village where it is good to walk, get lost and find yourself…
Besse-en-Oisans, listed as a Remarkable Heritage Site
The architectural quality of the houses in Besse, which stands out from the other surrounding villages, explains its inclusion in the inventory of picturesque sites in Isère since 1982, then in the inventory of remarkable heritage sites in 2016.
Built of local stone from head to toe, these old farmhouses bear witness to the construction techniques of the time. This know-how has been recognised by the Architectes des Bâtiments de France because the Bessats built their houses themselves with materials available on site and they have survived the centuries.
But beyond a remarkable concrete interest, this classification translates above all an impalpable, soothing feeling, that of being seduced by the place.
The ensemble formed by Besse, the hamlets of Bonnefin and Le Sert, has been monitored by the Architectes des Bâtiments de France. Any renovation, construction or demolition project is submitted to an architect to check that the work does not harm the aesthetics of the village.
Portrait of Besse-en-Oisans
The birch trees, meaning “Besse” in local dialect, originally surrounded the village. However, after cutting down large areas of forest to cultivate the land, wood was in short supply. This rare commodity was not chosen for the construction of the houses, as can be seen elsewhere in Oisans where only the ground floor, with the stable and the dwelling, are made of stone and the barn floors of wood. This scarcity will be a chance for Besse, because, all in stone, the houses are built to last and the village will cross the centuries without changing its face.
A hundred years ago, the face of the town was the same. The inhabitants of the past have left their mark forever.”
A little bit of geography
The village of Besse lies on a southern slope, the adret, which offers all the advantages for the installation of a community: the presence of water, the gentler slope of the mountain, a beautiful exposure to the sun, even in winter, and the proximity of an ocean of greenery, the high mountain pastures of the Emparis plateau. Today, the location is ideal for enjoying the serenity of the place, so that both residents and visitors can find the peace of a simple life close to nature.
However, Besse was not always isolated, in its little corner of the valley, far from the road between Grenoble and Briançon, between France and Italy. The village was on another important communication axis at the time, on the road to Savoy.
Indeed, for centuries Besse was on a main communication route between France and Savoy, which only became French in 1860. The boundary between the communes of Saint-Sorlin d’Arves and Besse-en-Oisans was a border. Under Louis XIV, a military camp was set up in the summer at the Col des prés nouveaux to guard the border. The necessary supplies, food and ammunition, were stored in Besse in a specially constructed building, “the barracks”. At the pass, travellers, merchants, livestock and goods passed through. A customs office, in the present-day tourist café/grocery, was located in the centre of the village.
This is probably the reason why the population of the village reached 1200 in the 19th century!
With the construction of the Chambon dam between 1929 and 1937, the year it was commissioned, electricity arrived in Besse in 1931! The Haut-Oisans Intercommunal Union, created on 6 January 1927, managed the supply of electricity to 6 villages: Besse, Clavans, Mizoën, le Freney, Mont-de-Lans and Auris.
The imprint of the Bessats of the past
The sturdy houses of the village are a testimony to Bessatian agriculture. Their architecture bears witness to their former function as farms. Made of schist or tuff blocks and with slate or lauze roofs, they are proof that stonework can be both a technical and aesthetic art.
The inhabitants built their houses themselves with the materials found on site: stones from the stream, flat schist stones, slates from the hamlet of Bonnefin, earth for the mortar and birch trunks for the framework. A typical house was therefore built solely from local materials. It is set into the slope, the ground floor includes the stable and the living quarters, usually one and the same room. The entrance was the same for men and animals. Above this was the barn where straw and hay were stored.
On the main facade, a wooden balcony was used as a drying rack for bundles and “blaittes”, small blocks of well-packed sheep dung, used as fuel for the stove for lack of wood. And you will notice the triangle-shaped holes on the facades, which were used to ventilate the hay.
The roofs had a slight slope so that the slates would not slip. The steeper ones are more recent. Today, they are covered with sheet metal, which is easier to install and lighter.
A walk through the “calades” of Besse
To discover the mineral charm of the whole village, take a walk along the “calades”, alleys paved with the stones of the Guay stream. Sloping and narrow, they weave their way between the houses, leading to a charming little square with its stone wash-house, and then take you further afield, perhaps to the traditional bakery…
Thanks to the narrowness of the alleys, the houses are particularly close together and give the village this “shell” impression. Climb to the top of the village to see for yourself!
This grouped settlement had several advantages: huddled together, the houses were protected from the cold and heavy snowfalls; in addition, the relatively flat space was optimised.
A rich religious heritage
The present church is relatively new, having been built between 1869 and 1877. The old one was too small for the thousand inhabitants at that time. It was renovated without any changes in the 1990s. The religious heritage of Besse can also be discovered along the path of the oratories and on the day of the blessing of the herds on the mountain pastures in summer.
Tempted by a visit to the village of Besse?
We won’t tell you more, if this little presentation has given you the desire to soak up the serene air of Besse-en-Oisans, go to the Maison des Alpages to follow the guide through the paved streets. The visit to the village is an immersion in the Alps…