Barcelonnette : Sombreros in the Snow

Ester Laushway (January 2008)

Perhaps its name gave Barcelonnette a subconscious hankering for all things Hispanic. Founded in 1231, by Count Raimond Béranger V, who baptized it after his native Barcelona, the little Alpine town gave no indication of its exotic leanings for the first six centuries of its life, which it spent much like neighbouring communes in the Ubaye valley.

Alternately linked to Provence or the house of Savoie, it was ravaged by the 100 Years War and the Wars of Religion, burnt to the ground in 1628 and finally attached to France by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Along the way, its Dominican convent was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again (only the clock tower still stands), and its ramparts were razed to the ground. It was only in the early 19th century, after having survived all these trials, that Barcelonnette’s Spanish streak started to show.

The long, snowed-in winters forced the townspeople to find new ways of keeping busy and earning a living. While some stayed at home, weaving wool and spinning silk, others looked for work abroad, either just to tide themselves over the lean times, or for their entire working lives. From 1821 onwards, Mexico, which had just gained its freedom from Spain, became the Promised Land for the Barcelonnettes, as they were called in the New World. The Arnaud Brothers were among the first to try their luck. They opened a textile store in Mexico, which did so well that three other locals followed them in 1830. By 1893, the Barcelonnettes had opened more than a hundred shops and controlled the entire Mexican textile industry. A group of them went even further and bought the London, Mexico and South America Bank, which printed pesos for all of Mexico.

The great majority of these enterprising emigrants stayed in the country where they had made their fortune, but some returned home, where they promptly became known as the Mexicains. Their pockets lined with cash, these conquistadors set about building a series of sumptuous, beautiful villas on the outskirts of Barcelonnette. In striking contrast to their earthy Alpine surroundings, the style of these luxurious residences recalls the opulent Belle Epoque mansions on the Riviera. The facades are highly ornamented, the roofs tall and imposing, the silhouette elegant. Here a Florentine palazzo, there a neo-Gothic château…but of Mexican or neo-Moorish influences there is hardly a trace, other than in the names given to these architectural folies: villa Puebla, villa Morelia, la Tapatia.

From 1880 to 1930, when the Mexican Revolution and WWI combined to put an end to the Mexican dream, about 50 of these villas took shape. At the same time, and often designed by the same architect, a series of monumental marble tombs were sculpted in the town cemetery, in the same imposing style as the villas. Villas and tombs together visibly transformed Barcelonnette from a typical, insular Alpine town into one that had dared to dream of foreign shores and turned its dreams into reality. Most of the villas from Barcelonnette’s glory days are privately owned and cannot be visited, but one of the first to be built, La Sapinière, is now the Museum of the Valley. Its magnificent marquetry floors, the bathroom decorated with Sarreguemines faïence from 1910, part of the furnishings of the smoking room-library and its sculpted oak stairwell remain intact. Fine Arts and Ethno-Historical Museum rolled into one, it has dedicated one floor to the memory of the Barcelonnettes in Mexico.

Barcelonnette is not about to forget its Mexican ties. In 2004, it twinned itself to Valle de Bravo, a picturesque Mexican mountain village beside a lake, which witnesses an astonishing sight every year: the migration of clouds of Monarch butterflies, who fly more than 6,000 km from Canada to reach their place in the sun. The butterflies’ long journey into the unknown is an annual, airy echo of the earthbound migration that more than 6,000 intrepid Barcelonnettes undertook in the century between 1850 and 1950. Their hometown’s founding father, Count Raimond, would no doubt have cried “Olé!”

Practical Info: Barcelonnette Tourist Office: 04 92 81 04 71; www.barcelonnette.com.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence