History of the valley
The adventure of tourism:
Like many other alpine valleys, Sixt Fer à Cheval was "discovered" by the British who were charmed by "the splendours nature had gathered in these places". From the eighteenth century on, many scientists, especially geologists and naturalists came to visit Sixt. But, exactly as for the neighboring valley of Chamonix, the expansion of tourism in Sixt Fer à Cheval started with the arrival of the British.
In 1854, Sir Alfred Wills, lawyer at the Court of London and founder member of the Alpine Club, discovered the valley and fell in love with it. He then had the Nid d'Aigle (Eagle's nest) built at the Cirque des Fonts, at an altitude of 1400 m. It's in this chalet that he started taking in a small group of British visitors each year. The inhabitants of the valley naturally started to turn to account this sudden fancy for the mountain.
First providing their services as "independent" guides, they set up a society in 1856 and founded the Compagnie des Guides de haute montagne de Sixt in 1865, shortly after Chamonix and Saint Gervais did. The booklet "Les débuts de l'Alpinisme à Sixt" (The beginnings of mountaineering in Sixt) written by Hubert Ducroz is for sale at the Tourist Office (3€). Edited by the Association des Amis de la Réserve Naturelle de Sixt.
In 1899, Pierre Marie Moccand, known as "Pierre au Merle", opens a museum-coffee shop "Aux Merveilles de la Nature" (Wonders of nature) in the hamlet of Molliet. He exposes stuffed animals there as well as odly shaped tree roots, potery and various knick-knacks. He also builds a merry-go-round working with water from the torrent, clears a path to the waterfalls and edits a collection of postcards. The yearly postcard fair is a tribute to this pioneer. A booklet of 56 pages on the fascinating story of Pierre au Merle is for sale at the Tourist Office for a price of 7.60 €.
Then, the first refuges were built as well as the first ski lifts and the railroad track between Annemasse and Sixt Fer à Cheval (which activity stopped in 1959). And the adventure of tourism turned into economic activity.
Learn more about the history of the place and get a chance to visit the Abbey with the different guided tours organized for individual customers as well as groups by the Savoy heritage guides of Sixt Fer à Cheval. A tour of the chapels leads you to the 9 small edifices. Two of them are located in the mountain, one in the high mountain pasture village of Fonts and the other in Sales.
The dream of mining
Hoping to escape from the vicissitudes of mountain agriculture, the Sizerets believed that iron ore would improve their living conditions.
The first traces of attempts to exploit the ore date back to the fourteenth century but the actual "dream of mining" really started in 1807.
The records testify to the presence of copper, silver, lead, iron and gold. Several owners followed one another at the head of the mines where men exploited iron until 1853, in dangerous conditions and with meager results. And it's on the search for gold that Jacques Balmat himself, first conqueror of Mont-Blanc, met his death at the age of 72 in the area of Mont-Ruan.
If you wish to learn more on this subject, the leaflet "Le rêve minier - XVIIème - XIXème siècle" is for sale at the Tourist Office. With this very complete leaflet, you will learn a lot about this part of Sixt's history.
Text by Claude Castor. Edited by the Association des Amis de la Réserve Naturelle de Sixt
Price : 1.50 €
The Abbey :
The retreat of the Giffre glacier up to Mont Ruan, more than twelve thousand years ago, gave birth to the valley as we know it now. Thriving on an abundance of sun and water, lush vegetation overtook the valley, thus providing shelter for wildlife and delaying the arrival of Man for a long time. Even though Burgond graves were found in a neighboring village of Samoëns, the valley of Sixt Fer à Cheval seems to have been occupied in a permanent manner only since the twelfth century.
In 1130,Aymon, lord of Faucigny, gave the whole territory constituting our district (commune) to the Abbey of Abondance. One of Aymon's brothers, a novice at Abondance at that time, was appointed to build a new abbey on this land. The abbey buildings were erected in 1144 after quite a few vicissitudes. Ponce de Faucigny became the first Abbot of this monastery governed by the rules of Saint Augustine, just like those of Abondance and Saint-Maurice d'Agaune in the Valais.
Henceforth independent, the new abbey had to settle its relationship with its parent abbey. This was done by 1160-61, Abondance was to keep some control over its subsidiary and its abbey elections. Several Bulls from the popes Adrien 1st and Alexandre lll, which originals are kept in the parish archives, confirmed these arrangements.
From then on, the abbey was to take the responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the surrounding villages. In 1167, one of its missions was to ensure the worship in Samoëns' neighboring village. The Abbey’s temporal goods always stayed modest and its running required constant attention. Up to the Revolution, the abbey received two thirds of the income of Samoëns' tithes, which was quite significant. 33 Abbots succeeded one another at the head of this Abbey that exerted its influence over the valley of Haut Giffre until the Revolution.
After this serie of conventual Abbots who were usually native from the region, commendatory Abbots appointed by the monarch were sent to Sixt and its discipline somewhat slackened. When Saint François de Sales came to Sixt in 1603, he was to find an atmosphere of comfortable dereliction. It took the Bishop fifteen years of effort to impose his authority and have new constitutions accepted.
During its history, the Abbey laid the foundations of the agropastoral civilization that enabled, as it did in many other mountain regions, many generations of Savoyards to live in a rough country and gradually adapt to necessary evolutions. The relationship between the Abbey and the villagers was complex. If they haven't actually cleared the valley, as it has been said a bit hastily to their credit, the canons at least contributed to its development maybe by organizing population transfers in the Middle-Age and in any case, following a well thought-out policy of albergements (feodal long lease of lands).
The taxes collected through "auciège" (feudal tax for the use of high mountain pastures), tithes and premisses were tidy sums, but not deprived of compensation: in return for auciège for example, they took in charge the supplying of moutain stockbreeders. The emancipation of the community took place in 1759 by amicable agreement. Inevitably, the Abbey was swept along, like her sisters, by the great current of 1793. But, despite usual petty quarrels, it seems the canons have not left bad memories in Sixt.
Sold as public property, the monastic buildings were partly purchased by Albanis Beaumont, an engineer willing to revive the mining activity. The other part was turned into the "best inn of the country" in 1821 by the Cochet innkeepers. Bought back at the end of the nineteenth century by the Rannaud family, the Abbey became the Hostel of Fer à Cheval and the Abbey. As it closed down a few years ago, the building was purchased in 2000 by the department of Haute-Savoie, which is planning to make it a place dedicated to the explanation of the complex ties binding the inhabitants of this alpine valley to their environment.
The religious patrimony of Sixt Fer à Cheval also includes the abbey church which oldest part is dated from the mid thirteenth century. The Abbey's treasure is particularly moving, due not so much to the number and richness of the preserved objects but rather the quality, ancientness and fragility of some of them. Chapels and oratories are numerous on the territory of the district and are part of a dynamic program of restoration initiated by the parish.
Men and moutain:the inhabitants had to fight for their right to live there against the omnipresence of nature. Stockbreeders and farmers for centuries, the Sizerets also tried their luck as pit miners, stone carvers, peddlers but also smugglers. After 1860, they started receiving the first visitors attracted by the splendour of their mountains. They guided them to the summits, started adapting their homes to accommodate the tourists, built hostels and later ski lifts. After the Abbey was installed, the valley's population began to grow progressively. From generation to generation, the men cleared the land, gaining ground against the moutain for stockbreeding and agriculture. They also developped the processing of dairy products in order to expand exchange and trade. However, the output stayed low, smothered by the climate and successive natural disasters (rockfalls, fires, flooding...). A generation of stone carvers blossomed throughout the valley of Haut Giffre. Masters in the art of carving the Noir de Sixt, (a kind of limestone that is still used nowadays), their reputation spread beyond the moutains. During the summer, they would leave the valley to work throughout Europe. This form of summer emigration is specific to the Haut-Giffre. Marie s'habille ... ou le costume féminin à Sixt à la fin du XIXème siècle (Marie is getting dressed...or women's costume in Sixt at the end of the nineteenth century Author: Anne MAUTAINT Edited by the Association des Amis de la Réserve Naturelle de Sixt. Illustrated leaflet of 16 pages, for sale at the Tourist Office at a price of 1.50 €. This work details women's traditional costume in its context (everyday life, wedding...).