Claviere’s history is closely tied to the ancient and extremely eventful history of the Montgenèvre Pass and the road that runs through it.
Claviere, from antiquity to the 19th century
The first inhabitants of our mountains, dating back to pre-history, crossed the Alps for trading and, later, commercial purposes. In ancient times, the Col de Montgenèvre, a high mountain pass connecting the Upper Susa Valley in Italy to the Durance Valley in France, was the most popular route. According to some theories, it was right here, in 218 BC, that Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants on his way to attack Rome. Julius Caesar passed through here for the first time in 58 BC, when he was appointed Proconsul of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. He completed the journey from Rome to Geneva in eight days, travelling 150 km a day, and returned several times during the eight campaigns that followed, up until 51 BC. Having subdued the various mountain tribes, Cottius, an ally of Caesar’s, decided to build a road better suited to the passage of Legions. The Via Cottia per Alpem started from Turin and passed through Susa (Segusium), Oulx (Villa Martis) and Cesana (Gadaone or Gaesao), then ascending the frightening gorges of Claviere, later placed under the protection of Saint Gervasio. Here, the overhanging rock was carved out to a width of over two and a half metres, making it possible to reach the mountain pass, where a small temple in honour of the Roman god Janus stood (hence the name of Mount Janus in Montgenèvre). From here, the journey to Brigantium (now Briançon) was relatively easy.
In this valley, the village of Claviere (‘Las Clavieras’ in the Middle Ages) grew up, and we can imagine the relief of travellers arriving here, particularly in mid-winter, overcoming the heavy snowfall and risk of avalanches and falling rocks. The mountain people used to mark the way with long poles stuck into the ground. Vehicles had to be dismantled, loaded onto sledges and physically dragged up to the pass. Even in the spring, carriages could only descend the steepest slopes without overturning if attached to a strong rope held by men and oxen.
This road remained a mere mule track throughout the Middle Ages and until the time of Napoleon, and travelling it was a genuine adventure! In the Chapel of San Gervasio, an inscription commemorates the feat of a coachman who succeeded in reaching the pass in a two-horse carriage without dismounting from the box.
Even in the 1800s, despite the road Napoleon built on the slopes of Mount Chaberton, winter was a time of solitude for the remote village of Claviere. However, a livelier and faster-paced season was approaching: the great season of downhill ‘ski’, as the pioneers called it.
In 1914, E. Santi, mayor of Claviere, wrote: “After many years as a ski area, Clavières and its surroundings have proven to be the snowiest part of our Piedmont valleys, permitting a long winter season which can begin in October and end in April”.
The new equipment enabling people to slide on the snow attracted the attention of the Italian military authorities, who needed to solve the problem of moving their troops and defending the 1900 km of Alpine border. In 1901, the 3rd Alpini Regiment stationed in nearby Bousson was engaged in regular training on the snowy slopes of Cesana and Claviere.
The author, who grew up in Turin, in her novel Family Sayings:
“At that time winter sports were not yet in vogue, and my father was perhaps the only person in Turin to do them. As soon as a little snow had fallen he would be off to Clavières on Saturday evening with his skis on his back. In those days Sestrières did not exist, nor the hotels at Cervinia. As a rule he slept in a refuge above Clavières known as the ‘Capanna Mautino’. Sometimes he would take my brothers with him, and some of his assistants who like himself had a passion for the mountains. He had learned to ski as a young man during a stay in Norway