Today, there are many remnants from the past providing a chance to discover the exceptional mining heritage.
Today, L’Argentière-la-Bessée is focussing on sustainable, sports tourism and is one of France’s top white-water sports destinations. An opportunity to experience the joys of rafting on this magnificent azure-coloured river.
Ideally located on the edge of the Durance River, L’Argentière-La-Bessée gets its name from the Fournel Silver Mine, evidence of the town’s industrial and commercial past.
At the gateway to the Briançon and Guillestre areas, L’Argentière has a rich industrial, architectural and religious heritage resulting from its geographical location at the crossing of several valleys (Briançon, Guillestre and La Vallouise). The municipality’s cultural department has placed particular emphasis on promoting these elements.
Therefore, a visit to the Fournel Silver Mine and the Mine Museum is a must. The clock tower, along with the churches and chapels, illustrate the different periods that have impacted the town’s history.
At the crossroads of the valleys, we also encourage you to take a stroll in the invaluable Deslioures Reserve (part of the Natura 2000 network). A unique site that is focussed on preserving one of the emblematic species of our mountain territories: ‘The Queen of the Alps’, also known as the blue thistle.
The Pays des Écrins is an excellent sports destination and France’s second white-water destination. It is quite natural that the white-water stadium was established on the Durance and more specifically in L’Argentière-La-Bessée. Incidentally, it hosts many national and international canoe-kayak competitions.
History and heritage in L’Argentière-La-Bessée
Named thus since the Middle Ages due to the abundance of silver in its subsoil, L’Argentière merged with La Bessée, whose origin might be found in the presence of a convent run by abbesses. This origin is ‘contested’ by those who believe in the idea of huge birch plantations or ‘bessedes’.
Over the centuries, metalworking and the development of hydroelectricity replaced the silver-mining operations. The site that is exceptionally well preserved and maintained is of interest to children and adults alike.
L’Argentière-la-Bessée has incredible historic, mining and industrial heritage that it continues to promote so that visitors can learn more. There is no lack of natural heritage either. The striking reserve of blue thistles, for example, unique in Europe, is part of the Natura 2000 network.
L’Argentière-la-Bessée is the administrative centre of the Pays des Écrins with eight centuries of history.
"... Since the beginning of time silver has existed, a precious metal that the Romans, and those before them, extracted from the gorges of the Fournel. Much later, the knights of the order of St John of Jerusalem, marked history with their stamps and their cross, which for centuries were present on the lintel of the chapel that they built in the 12th century. Eight centuries later, industry was at its peak. An aluminium sculpture in the hall of honour of the Town Hall depicts the factory that disappeared in 1988 …’
At the junction of the Durance, Vallouise and Fournel valleys at an altitude of 1,000 m, L’Argentière-La-Bessée is now a small town with more than 2,000 inhabitants.
It gets its name from the silver mines that were in operation up until the start of the 20th century.
After belonging to the fiefdom of Rame then Embrun, the Dauphin annexed L’Argentière to Briançon in 1155. In this way, he received part of the revenue from the mine and a chatelain represented him in L’Argentière.
This explains the successive constructions: a keep near to the mines transformed into a fortified castle in the Middle Ages, a stately castle in the valley, the Château Saint Jean.
From the start of the 20th century, the rail service led to factories being established in L’Argentière: the aluminium production plant then the power plant and the penstocks. The Hermes clock tower that overlooks L’Argentière setting the pace for workers in the valley, was also built at this time. Then came the Quartz Fondu factory and the power plant that were built to produce glass. However, since the Péchiney factory closed in 1985, only Aciéries et Fonderies de Provence, now Société Coopérative Ouvrière de Production has maintained an industrial activity manufacturing steel parts for EDF and the petrol industry.
Today, L’Argentière-La-Bessée is focussed on tourism.
Several well-conserved monuments remain including the Tour des Hermes clock tower that overlooks, and some say, protects L’Argentière and the Saint Apollinaire Church whose south-facing door presents several architectural features and is embellished with a wonderful chimera head lock. The walls are covered in paintings representing vices and virtues, typical of the 16th century. Another monument is the charming 12th-century Saint Jean Chapel where the meticulous decoration captivates the visitor dreaming of a former commandery of the Knights of Saint John… Many archaeological objects make this small town very appealing.
The band stand and the cellar of the Maison Planche provide a setting for several visits and various events. Old, traditional houses, the proximity of the Durance River, the Fournel Valley, the footpaths to the heights in summer and the flora that provides an unforgettable show, for all these reasons and many more L’Argentière was given the name, ‘Entrance to the Pays des Écrins’.
Several internationally renowned sports events take place particularly in the summer months, promoting the town’s flagship activities such as white-water sports, trail running and climbing.
Rafting on the Durance
The Fournel Canyon
The Clock Tower
The Durance gorges
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