Chambery: Civic Pride and the Four Assless Elephants

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Chambery, a city of 58,000 at the base of the Alps, aspires to “the sweetness of life in a pleasant and secure society” as it honors its art, its history and its elephants.

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Chambery swelled with civic pride when the fourth of its four elephants returned last summer. A carnival atmosphere filled the center of this valley city of 58,000 at the base of the Alps. Bands played. Artists created miniature elephants. A tremendous mechanical pachyderm wowed the crowd. A costumed parade marched down rue de Boigne from the Castle of the Dukes of Savoy to the Fountain of Elephants.

There they were, the four of them, their new iron cast dazzling in the light, home at last after an absence of seven months. Affectionately known as les Quatre sans culs, the Assless Four, since only their fore portion is visible, they faced the crowd in each direction. Mayor Michel Dentin, his deputies and several thousand people of all ages gathered around, flush with admiration for the newly restored emblems of the city.

Chambery - Fontain of the Elephants and statue to General de Boigne - Photo G Garofolin Chambery Tourisme & Congres
Chambery – Fontain of the Elephants and statue to General de Boigne – Photo G Garofolin Chambery Tourisme & Congres

There was a time, however, when the man at the top of the pedestal that soars above the Fountain of the Elephants was the pride of the town rather than the pachyderms: General and Count de Boigne (1751-1830).

De Boigne was a mercenary who had made his fortune and his titles by selling his military and governing skills to various powers of Europe and the Indian sub-continent, especially in the Maratha Empire. He eventually retired from a life of adventure and settled back, via a stint in London, to his hometown of Chambery. Here he donated sizeable funds to charitable organizations, including to build a home for the aged and the indigent, and for projects to embellish the city. A municipal theater was built. So was the arcaded street that bears the philanthropist’s name, the street the elephant parade marched down.

Rue de Boigne, Chambery. GLK
Rue de Boigne, Chambery. GLK

After his death, Chambery would return the favor with a monument honoring his philanthropy and his military glory. De Boigne stands dressed as a general on a pedestal nearly 15 meters high. Yet it’s the cast-iron elephants that have become the symbol of the city worthy of celebration. As a sign of the popular desire to support the elephants, €160,000 of the €1 million restoration project came from donations.

“The elephants may not be the most profound historical element in Chambery, but sometimes an amusing piece of heritage is what one needs to enter further in depth into what makes up this peaceable city,” said Gerard Charpin, communications officer for the Chambéry Tourist Office. “Perhaps Chambery’s greatest symbol of heritage isn’t a monument at all but rather the sign that one might not even notice upon entering the city: Villes et Pays d’Art et d’Histoire” (Cities and Territories of Art and History).

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30 Years of Villes et Pays d’Art et d’Histoire (VPAH)

FR Chambery Villes et Pays d'Art et d'Histoire - GLKVilles et Pays d’Art et d’Histoire (VPAH), meaning Cities and Territories of Art and History, is a label that’s easy to miss, particularly for foreign visitors unaware of its significance. Yet it brings together the wide variety of points of historical and architectural interest in Chambery, as it does in the 183 other towns, cities and territories (i.e. communes or grouping of communes) throughout France that hold the state-award label. The VPAH label was created under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture in the spring of 1985. That winter Chambery became one of the first towns to receive it. The city formally celebrated the 30th anniversary of its label in January, though with far less fanfare than the festivities that surrounded the return of the elephants.

As a name, Cities and Territories of Art and History is less seductive than a moniker as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France), the name of an association of 153 village and the signal that a visitor is entering a village or small town with two listed or classified monuments along with movie-set charms. Nevertheless, VPAH holds out the promise to residents and visitors alike that here one will have the opportunity not only to see but also to understand the history and significance of local heritage and architecture.

The VPAH label represents a joint engagement between the State and the municipality or group of communes to promote an understanding and preservation of local heritage and architecture. The label-holder undertakes to make significant efforts to engage local residents of all ages in local heritage, architecture and urban planning. This is done through guided tours, documentation, exhibitions and colloquia. Visitors can benefit from these as well.

Flag of Savoy flying over the Ducal Castle in Chambery. GLK
Flag of Savoy flying over the Ducal Castle in Chambery. GLK

A Vector of Identity

Heritage is given its broadest meaning for the purposes of the VPAH label. It includes natural, industrial and maritime heritage, as well as the memory of residents. Chambery’s Mayor Michel Dantin has called the label “a vector of identity.”

What is Chambery’s identity? It is the culmination of many components, eras and populations that create a city that sees itself a peaceably place in the valley at the base of the Alps.

Geographically, Chambery now appears to be on the edge of the map of France but for centuries it was the center of a duchy that straddled the Alps with Chambery and then Turino (now Italy) as its capital.

Duchy since 1416, Savoy was annexed to France, as was Nice, in 1860. Its firm attachment to France was part of a remodeling of the map of the Alps that soon involved the unification of Italy. Within the castle complex, now the prefecture of Savoy, at the opposite end of rue de Boigne from the elephants, the 15th-century chapel of the dukes of Savoy once housed the cloth purportedly showing a crucified Jesus that has become known as the Shroud of Turin. It remained there from 1502 to 1578 when the dukes moved it to their new capital across the Alps. A copy of the shroud can be seen in the recently restored chapel.

In conversations with elected officials, tourist officials and cultural leaders, it’s evident that they would like Chambery to live up not to its ducal grandeur but to the reputation that the philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave it when he called Savoyards “the best and most sociable people I know” and wrote of his stay here from 1736 to 1742: “If there is a little city in the world where one can enjoy the sweetness of life in a pleasant and secure society, it is Chambery.”

Quality Tourism and Programming for Families

FR Chambery-Entrance to Saint Francois de Sales Cathedral Cathedral-GLKrautTo see VPAH as a mere reflection of a classification of historical monuments is to ignore the community-wide dimension and intention of the label. As Mayor Martine Berthet of Albertville, an Alpine town that has held the label since 2003, has said, “The label enables the recognition that Albertville’s historical and heritage-related richness largely goes beyond the context of the medieval city.” The same can be said about Chambery.

Alexandra Turnar, Chambery’s Deputy Mayor for Culture and Housing, the elected official responsible for overseeing Chambery’s proper application of the VPAH label, says that the label and the efforts it implies work on many levels.

“Tourism related to old stones may sound old-fashion,” she says, “but this isn’t simply nostalgia, it’s also turned toward the future… It isn’t just the sights that are important but how we live with this heritage and architecture today and how we will live with it tomorrow… For those visiting from outside of Chambery, it is a sign of a quality tourism, of intellectual tourism, where every age finds its place.”

FR Chambery - detail - GLKraut“Intellectual” tourism certainly doesn’t preclude the pleasure of simply getting lost in the historic alleyways that run through the old town or from using Chambery as a jumping off point for excursions into the Alps for hiking or skiing or further along the valley to splash or bike or hike around Lake Bourget. Instead, it signifies that resources—exhibitions, brochures, guides, oversight, training of guides—are available to educate visitors and residents alike.

While applauding the quality of programming that introduces local school children to the city’s heritage, Turnar, at 34 a young parent herself, seems especially pleased to see “families increasingly involved in visiting and learning about our heritage.”

“Previously, Chambery was very turned toward a tourism of consummation. With respect to families that meant that we wanted activities to keep the children busy. Now there’s more of an effort towards and interest in transmitting our heritage, our knowledge and our memory of Chambery and of Savoy… Families are essential in transmitting heritage.”

Famous for its folding knives made in Chambery, Opinel has been a family run business for 125 years.125 years. In 2016, Opinel opened in Chicago its first international subsidiary so as to distribute and develop the brand in the United States. GLK.
Famous for its folding knives made in Chambery, Opinel has been a family-run business for 125 years. In 2016 Opinel opened in Chicago its first international subsidiary so as to distribute and develop the brand in the United States. See Photo GLK.

Heritage and Architecture Interpretation Center

One of the obligations of the label is the creation and operation of a Heritage and Architecture Interpretation Centre or CIAP, which is partially subsidized by the state. Chambery’s CIAP is housed in the 16th-century Cordon mansion in the city center. The CIAP and its programming serve as one of the primary sites for educating children as well as adults about the city.

“The label recognizes work done of a long period of time as well as ongoing, forward-looking work,” says Sarah Dietz, who oversees the CIAP under the umbrella of Chambery’s Tourist and Congress Office. “Our task is to show how the story of the city is told, through architecture, daily life, history, monuments.”

Chambery’s CIAP, as that in other VPAH towns, is an appropriate starting point for both those seeking an in-depth approach and a light overview of the history of Chambery. Entrance is free. Documentation in Chambery is available in English. Chambery has no regularly schedule guided tours in English, though they are available upon request.

Beyond the Interpretation Centre, the visitor’s curiosity then leads to any number of major points of historical interest in the city: Saint Francis of Sales Cathedral with its surprising décor trompe l’oeil décor, among the largest such surfaces of the 19th century in France; the Beaux-Arts Museum; the Castle of the Dukes of Savoy; Les Charmettes, the house where Rousseau lived with his benefactor and lover Madame de Warens (thereby gaining his view of the sweet life in Chambery), and the Fountain of the Elephants, of course.

“The label isn’t simply a notion of quantity, of how many visits we organize, but also of quality,” says Dietz. “It translates the engagement of the city with respect to its heritage, its architecture, its urban planning and its population. It enables public awareness of urban developments. It is a part of public policy.”

Chambery's locomotive roundhouse (rotonde). Photo G Garofolin Chambery Tourisme & Congres.
Chambery’s locomotive roundhouse (rotonde). Photo G Garofolin Chambery Tourisme & Congres.

Chambery’s Locomotive Roundhouse

Chambery’s locomotive roundhouse, la rotonde, a rare element of the railway system of yesterday still in use today, is a prime example of the evolving notion of what constitutes heritage. In 2012, just over a century of its being put into service, a portion of the roundhouse was opened as a second Architectural and Heritage Interpretation Centre, allowing for guided tours. With an internal diameter of 108 meters beneath a metal fame, the roundhouse is an impressive early 20th-century construction with 36 tracks that allows for storage of 72 locomotives.

On May 26, 1944, Chambery’s railway installations are hit by American bombers in order to prevent the movement German troops from to/from Italy as the Allies prepared for the Invasion of Normandy. About a third of the town were destroyed, but de Boigne and the elephants survived, furthering their symbolic value in a wounded city.

Despite effective destruction to the railway network the aerial bombing of 1944 also did surprisingly little damage to the roundhouse itself, which was fully restored in 1948. The structure also survived the threat of demolition in the early 1980s when the National Railway Company SNCF planned its demise in view of the cost of renovation. Those plans were thwarted by the efforts of railwaymen and in 1984 the roundhouse was listed on the supplementary inventory of Historical Monuments.

While still in use for maintenance and service by the French National Railway Company SNCF, the portion dedicated as the CIAP allows the general public to be inform and awed by the powerful locomotives. That dedicated as a portion is also used by the Association for the Preservation of Savoyard Railway Equipment (APMFS), which restores and maintains in working order a number of historic locomotives. The SNCF has authorized the association to use them for occasional tourist outings.

Trompe l'oeil ceiling of Saint Francis of Sales Cathedral. GLKraut
Trompe l’oeil ceiling of Saint Francis of Sales Cathedral. GLK

Other Heritage Organizations in Chambery

Chambery has a deep tradition of preserving and promoting their heritage sites. The Chambery Tourist Office was created in 1896. Les Amis de Vieux Chambéry (The Friends of Old Chambery), an independent association for the protection, preservation, restoration and acquisition of elements that historic and artistic value in the city and in the department, was created in 1933 and currently has over 600 members. While the association isn’t directly involved with the VPAH label, the label “gives more weight in defending major issues such as the protection or preservation of various buildings or monuments that are the focus of our attention,” says Michèle Chappius, the association’s president.

La Manivelle, meaning The Crank, Chambery’s club for vintage car collectors, has existed since 1972 and now has 120 members. It organize outings and events through the year, including a rally to visit their sister club ASVA Turino in view of Chambery’s historical relationship with the city on the other side of the Alps.

Serge Gross, president since 1998, the owner of an MG TA 1938 and a 1967 Jaguar, among other vintage vehicles, said that “Every amateur collector has a special affection for England.” British cars, he said, account for about 25% of those of the club’s members. The club’s major public event is the organization of Chambery’s Auto Retro fair, which attracts 7000 visitors over the first weekend of December.

An outing with members of La Manivelle, an association of vintage car owners. GLK
An outing with members of La Manivelle, an association of vintage car owners. Photo GLK

The VPAH Network

The VPAH label itself must now be renewed every 10 years. Chambery is due for renewal in 2017, so preparing the renewal application is one of the projects that will be underway this year along with developing new sightseeing circuits and creating new opportunities for families to explore the city’s heritage. “We’re confident to have the label renewed,” says Turnar, “but one can’t miss the boat.”

With 186 labelled towns, cities and territories across France, label-holders have a lot to learn from each other. A national association that combines municipalities with the VPAH label and those with preserved and protected sectors “enables professionals in the heritage sector to exchange practical information and to reflect on various themes,” says Dietz.

In February, network participants from throughout France came to Chambery for a day of study on the theme of heritage sites belonging to companies, such as Chambery’s roundhouse with respect to the National Railway Company SNCF or hydraulic sites belonging to electric company EDF.

“We’re proud of what we have in Chambery,” says Turnar. “We’re proud of our history as Chamberians and as Savoyards. But the VPAH label isn’t just something we have where we can say, ‘There, we have it, now we can focus on something else,’ but rather a constant calling into question of what we are and where we’re going. Yesterday’s tourism is not today’s.”

As to tomorrow, cue the elephants. Following the successful celebration of their return in 2015, a second elephantine celebration took place on the 1st of July 2016. A new annual event seems to have been born in Chambery: The Elephant Festival.

FR Chambery elephant 2-GLKraut

Chambery Tourist Office, 5 bis place du Palais de Justice. Tel. 04 79 33 42 47

City Lodging in Chambery

5* Petit Hôtel Confidetiel, 10 rue de la Trésorerie. Tel. 04 79 26 24 17.
In the old town at the foot of the ducal castle, a stylish contemporary 5-star boutique hotel.

4* Le Cinq, 22 Faubourg Reclus. Tel. 04 79 33 51 18.
A contemporary boutique 4-star hotel between the train station and the elephants. Small indoor pool.

4* Mercure Chambéry Centre, 183 place de la Gare. Tel. 04 79 62 10 11.
A reliable 4-star chain hotel across the street from the train station.

3* Hôtel des Princes, 4 rue de Boigne. Tel. 04 79 33 45 36.
A central and pleasing hotel between the elephants and the ducal castle. Small spa.

Country Lodging near Chambery

4* Chateau de Candie, 533 Rue du Bois de Candie, 73000 Candie Tel. 04 79 96 63 00.
Midway between Chambery and Bourget Lake. Gastronomic restaurant L’Orangerie, noteworthy whether spending the night or not, especially in weather with dinner on the terrace.

4* Domaine des Saints Pères, 1540 Route de Chartreuse, 73000 Montagnole. Tel. 04 79 62 63 93.
Several miles south of Chambery, a lovely manor with a grand view up the valley. Small outdoor pool. Chalet-like restaurant.

Chambery - Aerial view of Lake Bourget - Photo G Garofolin Chambery Tourisme & Congres
Chambery – Aerial view of Lake Bourget – Photo G Garofolin Chambery Tourisme & Congres

Chambery’s Neighbor Aix-les-Bains, a Newcomer to the VPAH Label

Currently, 186 cities, towns and territories across France hold the label Villes et Pays d’Art et d’Histoire. Of Chambery’s relative neighbors, the lakeside towns of Annecy and Aix-les-Bains also hold the label as do, as do Albertville (site of the 1992 winter Olympics) and the rural and mountain territories of Hautes-Vallées de Savoie, Vallée d’Abondance and Voironnais. The complete list of VPAH cities, towns and territories throughout France can be found at (Also see for more about how the association of VPAH towns and territories and towns with preserved neighborhoods stick together.)

While Chambery is now an old-hand at carrying the label, Aix-les-Bains, a town of 29,000 alongside Lake Bouget 11 miles north of Chambery, is a newcomer, having received it 2014. “It took four or five years to prepare the application for the label,” says Beatrice Druhen-Charnaux, a guide with the Aix-les-Bains Tourists Office whom Mayor Dominique Dord appointed to develop the application for the label. Durhen-Charnaux says that by enabling programming for both school children and adults VPAH can nearly be considered “a label of social engagement.”

Whether on a daytrip from Chambery or on a longer stay, visitors in Aix-les-Bains architectural evidence of the town’s significance as a 19th-century spa town as well as current sporting activities related to the lake and the mountains. Boats take visitors across the lake to Hautecombe Abbey, a burial place for the House of Savoy since the 12th century. Humbert II of Savoy, the last king of Italy, was buried here in 1983.

© 2016, Gary Lee Kraut

A previous version of this article appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Connexion.


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