The eastern border of the Haute Savoie runs along the high peaks and passes between France and Switzerland, in the area known as the Chablais. Now it is easy to cross from one side to the other in both summer and winter, but what many do not realise is that for 150 years, until as recently as the middle of the 20th century, this was a hotbed of smuggling, as Pamela Harris explains.
For centuries, the whole of the Chablais was part of the Duchy of Savoy, but at the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the eastern side joined the confederation of Swiss states and the western side became part of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. This is when the smuggling began, for Piedmont-Sardinia imposed a heavy tax on salt, an essential commodity for preserving food.
An incredible 90% of the tax revenues of the kingdom came from this, and the poor peasants in the mountain valleys suffered greatly. But just over the border in Switzerland was the town of Bex, with enormous mines where salt was – and still is – quarried. This was too great a temptation for the Savoyards, although the penalties for being caught were extremely harsh – prisoners were sent to Nice and chained in the king’s galleys for two long years.
The smuggling of salt came to an end in 1860 when Savoy was finally ceded to France and salt was no longer taxed. But the temptation to outwit the authorities remained, for there were other goods that were much cheaper on the Swiss side of the border: luxuries like coffee, chocolate, sugar and tobacco. And the smuggling was mutually productive, for meat and dairy products were cheaper in the fertile Abondance valley on the French side. Sometimes there was a barter system, dependent on mutual trust, with items like butter and meat being left under a pre-arranged stone, to be exchanged for coffee and sugar, which would be picked up later. Men often carried packs of up to 40 kilos, and even women joined in, hiding small items in their clothing.
As the customs men became increasingly vigilant, smugglers began to search for routes where they would not be caught. At the start, the only manned customs posts were at road crossings, but between those at St Gingolph on the shores of Lake Geneva and Vallorcine near Chamonix there was only one: at Châtel near the Pas de Morgins. In between there were several passes across the mountain ridge dividing the two countries, which anyone fit could walk over, carrying kilos of contraband.
On researching the new edition of Walking in the Haute Savoie: North, we discovered some of these crossings, and visited the Museum of Smuggling at the old customs house of la Vieille Douane at Châtel, where we learnt tales of the wily smugglers.
The smugglers soon discovered that one of the easiest passes to cross was the 2000m Col de Cou, between Morzine on the French side and Champéry on the Swiss. This was frequently used, and by the end of the 19th century had become so well known as a smuggling route that a small customs post was built at the col itself.
The customs hut and border stone are still standing, and from here there is a spectacular view of the serrated peaks of the Dents du Midi in Switzerland. One of our favourite walks in this guide is up to the col on the French side, and then along to the Col de Bretolet, where there is an ornithological station that monitors the thousands of birds that migrate over here every spring and autumn.
Two other easy crossings used by smugglers are the nearby Col de Chésery and Col de Bassachaux, linked by a lovely balcony walk, which in good weather provides splendid views down onto the blue waters of the Lac de Montriond and across to Mont de Grange.
Now it is easy to get to the Col de Bassachaux, and there is even a mountain café there, but in the past even this col was dangerous in winter. One foggy night a smuggler lost his way near the col, and was found the next morning frozen to death in the snow.
More difficult cols, like the Col de la Folière above Châtel, were never manned by a customs post. The walk to the summit of Le Morclan passes this col, from where a narrow path leads down into Switzerland. Local legend has it that smugglers took this route one dark winter’s night, laden with haunches of ham. On hearing the sound of customs men, they quickly threw the meat into a hole in the snow beneath some fir trees and claimed that they were simply taking a stroll along the ridge in the moonlight. In the absence of proof, they were escorted down to their homes, but when they scurried back to retrieve their hidden contraband the next day, they found that it had been eaten by foxes – this time, justice had been done.
Getting a pig drunk
It was not only ham, sausages and cheese that were smuggled across the border from the Val d’Abondance, but live animals – pigs, sheep and even cows. It was essential to keep the animals from making a noise as they were herded up the mountain, and a contemporary illustration shows alcohol being poured down the throat of a pig to keep it quiet!
Darkness or bad weather provided the best cover, and smugglers were often out on foggy or rainy nights. Outwitting the gabelous became a game for the contrebandiers, and many continued for the thrill as much as economic necessity.
Eventually, small customs posts were built on more of the cols, although these were manned only from June until the first snows. The smugglers soon realised that they were safe in the winter months, and by the 1920s had started to use skis, with seal-skins attached to the base for walking uphill. The customs men often only had much slower snow-shoes, and there is a story that one winter two brothers were caught at the Col de Chésery with 29 kilos of coffee and 20 kilos of sugar, which they had brought over from Switzerland. They raced off on their skis, rapidly escaping the customs men who stood no chance of catching them.
This was remedied in 1947 when a ski-school for customs men was started at the Lac des Mines d’Or, where the walk up to the Col de Cou begins. A brigade of skiing customs officers was formed, who were then able to move as fast as the smugglers.
However, it was not this that brought the demise of smuggling, but the advent of skiing as a tourist industry. It soon became clear that tourism provided a more lucrative and less dangerous way of life, especially after 1964 with the development of the Portes du Soleil ski complex, linking eight resorts in France and four in Switzerland over these passes. Although the skiing customs brigade was not disbanded until 2009, by then many smugglers had already been working in the hotel trade for half a century.
Now only a few families in the valley remember the exploits of their grandparents in outwitting the customs men, and very few who race down the ski slopes of the aptly named ‘Contrebandiers’ tow-lift above Châtel realise that this was once the scene of many an exciting chase, as heavily laden smugglers tried desperately to evade the authorities.
With grateful thanks to La Vieille Douane Museum of Smuggling for their help in providing photos and illustrations.