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Abriès (Municipality, Hautes-Alpes, France)

Last modified: 2005-02-26 by ivan sache
Keywords: hautes-alpes | abries | queyras | fleur-de-lys (blue) | ibex |
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[Flag of Abries]by Arnaud Leroy

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Presentation of Abriès

Abriès (276 inhabitants, 1,900 in 1831) is a village located in the Queyras massif.

Queyras is a massif located south of Briançon (via the Col de l'Izoard, 2,360 m), watered mostly by the river Guil, tributary of the Durance.
Geologically, Queyras is a complex mixture of nappes, schists, flysch and Oxfordian marls. The region enjoys a relatively clement weather, with limited rainfall and a lot of sunshine. Accordingly, forests grow in Queyras up to 2,300 m a.s.l., which is a record for the Alps. On the sunny slopes, villages inhabited the whole year round are located at unusual elevations: Saint-Véran-en-Queyras is the highest municipality in Europe (2,040 m). Most of Queyras is nowadays a Parc Naturel Régional, where winter and summer tourism is the main source of income. The Tour du Queyras is a must for experienced hikers. However, wood handcrafts was the main traditional activity in Queyras, especially in wintertime, since metal was rare and expensive. Wood things were mostly made during the long winter. They were decorated with typical Alpine motives such as the rosette, which can be found on tools and furniture as well as doors and mailboxes. The rosette is interpreted as a solar symbol related to man, sometimes surrounded with a snake symbolizing the moon and related to woman.

Wood was also used to build the traditional houses, locally called fustes (from Latin fustafuste sensu stricto, built in larch wood and used as a barn and a hayloft. The fuste was naturally aired, which was absolutely necessary: due to the short summertime and thunderstorms, hay was often stored into the hayloft before being completely dry. Airing decreased the risk of fermentation and blaze. Food was also kept in the fuste during wintertime. The main facade of the house was exposed to the south and had balconies, on which the washing and grain sheaves were placed to dry. The lower balcony, called lobbio, had a permanent floor, whereas the upper ones had racks. Inside the house, the main room in the first floor was the "court", cobbled with larch logs sticked into the soil. A traditional fuste can be visited in Saint-Véran (Museum Le Soum).

In the Middle Ages, the political system of Escartons was set up in this region of the Alps. The Escartons were groups of villages that were formed in the Middle Ages to solve together problems caused by natural disasters (droughts, floods, epidemics) and human incompetence (wars, invasions). The Republic of Escartons grouped five Escartons, two being nowadays in France (Briançon and Queyras) and the three other ones in Italy (Oulx, Pragela, Château-Dauphin). The chart establishing the Escartons was signed by Dauphin Humbert II in 1343, six years before the "transportation" of Dauphiné to France, and later confirmed by the Kings of France. The Escarton of Queyras was made of the seven municipalities of Abriès, Aiguilles, Arvieux, Château-Villevieille, Molines, Ristolas and Saint-Véran. In 1721, the see of the Escarton was officially established in Château-Villevieille, in a room with a big cupboard. The cupboard had eight locks. Each head of municipality and the secretary of the Escarton owned a key, so that the cupboard could be opened only when everybody had agreed to do so. According to the chart, the Escartons were free of several taxes, but had together to maintain the roads, clear the snow, watch cattle and help the poor. They appointed consuls for police, justice and management of the forests. In 1713, the "Italian" Escartons were ceded to the Duke of Savoy and became later Piemontese. The Escartons of Briançon and Queyras were kept until the French Revolution.

The village of Abriès is located in the upper valley of the Guil (1,550 m a.s.l.) at the confluency of the Guil and the Bouchet. The name of the village might come from Latin ad bricos, near the summits, which are locally called brics (Bric Froid, 3,302 m, and Bric Bouchet, 3,216 m). The village was successively called Abrii, Abrici and Abries. Another possible etymology is the Provencal word abria, sheltered, exposed to sunlight, from Latin apricus.
In the Middle Ages, Abriès was a wealthy market city, where goods from France and Piemont were traded. Cattle, cheese, wool and wood things from Queyras were traded with rice, pasta, fruit and vegetables from Piemont. In 1257, Abriès was granted the status of "market city", that is tax-free. The big market hall was built in 1609. The wealth of Abriès declined in 1856 when the road to Guillestre was built through the gorges of the Guil.

Like every mountain village, Abriès was often trashed by natural disasters: floods in 1733, 1948 and 1957; avalanche in 1706, sweeping 71 houses; blazes, the last one in 1921. However, the most severe damage was caused by man. In 1690, Abriès and Ristolas were burned down by the Savoyards and the Huguenots. In 1940, the mountain hamlet of Le Roux was occupied by the Italians, who could not seize Abriès and lost 500 in the valley. Queyras was later occupied by the Germans, who were expelled during the Liberation with difficulty. Abriès was liberated by the Moroccan Tabors commanded by Colonel Colbert de Turgis, who was killed a few days later. On 13 September 1944, the Germans counter-attacked and burned down Le Roux and 160 out of the 220 houses in Abriès. The Germans were eventually expelled from the heights of Queyras only in April 1945.

Abriès was rebuilt from scratch with the help of the state. People left the village, which had less than 200 inhabitants in 1965 and enjoyed only two wedding ceremonies between 1953 and 1965. However, the remaining people did not accept the death of their village and remembered that Abriès had been a very innovative village: the first hotel in Queyras was built in Abriès in 1897, the year Abriès was the first rural municipality to have electricity; a scheduled bus line replaced the mail coach in 1911; the first English tourists imported ski in 1930; in 1945, a truck replaced the ten mules who had pulled the wooden snowplow until then; the first motorized haymower was bought in 1951 and the first skilift was built in 1960. The ski resort of Abriès has 30 kms of ski runs and another 40 km for cross-country skiing.

In spite of war damage, Abriès has kept historical monuments. The village church was known for the two columns which decorated the porch. Like in Guillestre and Saint-Véran, the columns were supported by lions. Unfortunately, the Guil swept away the columns in 1733 and only the lions were recovered from the river. Like everywhere in Queyras, several houses are decorated with ancient or modern sundials bearing maxims related with time, sun and death.


Ivan Sache, 17 May 2004

Flag of Abriès

The flag of Abriès was photographed by Hervé Prat in summer 2003. The imageshown on this page was made by Arnaud Leroy, who checked some details with the municipality of Abries.
The flag is white with the municipal coat of arms and COMMUNE D'ABRIES written in a semi-circular pattern below the coat of arms. The coat of arms of Abriès is yellow with a chamois / ibex / mouflon (?) and a blue fleur-de-lys.

Ivan Sache, 17 May 2004