The poor image and more promising future of a French neighbour
David Winch, UN
Bellegarde-sur-Valserine is its name, but when UN staff think of this town at all, Bellegarde appears hazily, as a sort of planet Pluto of the pays de Gex, way out beyond the normal gravitational field of local life. A place quickly glimpsed over the bridge of the autoroute when racing toward Lyon, out the window of the TGV headed for Paris, or down the Rhone valley over the wingtip of a plane veering toward Addis or Santiago or Bangkok... Even frontaliers who pride themselves on knowing every detail about exquisite Divonne or bustling Ferney may never have laid foot in this neighbouring town. Bellegarde, we hardly know you.
Yet that does not stop some healthy stereotypes from passing as truths here in Geneva from the unrelieved plainness of the town to its blocs of Le Pen-voters, to its status as « ugliest town in France » and, to boot, the local tax-collection centre.
Real estate pressures, however, are prompting more Geneva commuters to consider the vistas of the hauts de Bellegarde just 20 minutes drive on the autoroute from Bardonnex customs. How do our preconceptions about Bellegarde stand up on closer inspection? Does its river valley locale, at the junction of major highway and rail links, make it a future growth pole?
Surely that question is worth a day trip some Saturday this fall, one that takes about 45 minutes on French national roads from the Ferney market, or just 30 minutes on the autoroute from Genevas airport.
Why wait for dessert? First, the surprises about Bellegarde. Given its miserable image when viewed from the autoroute where the bridge offers a panoramic view of Bellegardes dreary industrial zone slouching along the Rhone River one pleasant surprise in Bellegarde is the riverside context of the central town. A few steps from downtown one finds a floral path leading down to the Rhone. The promenade along the river offers an broad perspective to view the steeply rising Jura mountains and the villas comfortably perched among the forests along the ridge. Walking paths lead outward from the town centre for both short-distance (see article by André Rotach) and longer jaunts, some leading into Réserve naturelle woodlands.
While not a pretty town, Bellegarde fits the standard image of a French provincial town, with its earnest but sleepy central avenue, its rusty train station, sturdy church, largish vaguely Second Empire hotel and distinctly undynamic downtown outskirts. Lycée, café, gare, marché; Gambetta, Jules Ferry, Saint-Exupéry, De Gaulle: no need to check, they are all there. Its not a town where a few well-placed cleanup strokes could change its whole look; the central town boasts no large square or leafy green park, for example, and the market gathers Thursday in a bleak parking lot. There are few if any striking architectural flourishes here, and much of central Bellegarde wears its accumulated fatigue like a layer of soot.
In truth, Bellegarde is a border town, bridging the pays de Gex that stretches toward Geneva and the broad Ain plain stretching west toward Lyon. This gives Bellegarde more in common with industrial Oyonnax, 40 kilometres west, than with, say, agricultural-suburban Thoiry.
Central Bellegarde boasts a few worthwhile sights, however, including an imaginative and colourful mural at the Papetiers square, marking the original foundations of a 19th-century paper mill on the Rhone. Any nice restaurants? Actually, yes. Hotel La Belle Epoque, near the train station, offers a classic high-ceilinged dining room and complete French menu. Five minutes outside Bellegarde, on national road 508 leading back to the autoroute, the prosperous village Eloise offers a striking, indeed in clear weather a spectacular, view of the rolling Rhone countryside. It also features a 3-star restaurant worth the trip, Le Fartoret.
Finally, a short drive away from downtown stands the Chateau de Musinens, a bulky stone border post dating back to the Middle Ages, which has marked successively the border between France and Savoie, France and the zone franche that became the pays de Gex, and also the Free French zone during the early 1940s. The Chateau offers a pleasant view of the rambling Rhone valley surrounding Bellegarde. Not surprisingly, a rising number of suburban homes can be viewed sprouting up on the hills here, many for Geneva commuters. Eventually, this demographic movement could transform the town.
Given a tax-free magic wand of the kind that small-town mayors and chambers of commerce like to fantasize about, what changes could quickly alter the image of Bellegarde and hasten its transformation into a growing alpine commuter-hub town?
First, a refurbished roundabout at the entrance to Bellegarde and a renovated train station might offer far better first impressions in two high-volume tourist passages. The train station has some lovely wrought-iron flourishes, but they have been allowed to deteriorate over the years. A bright new platform would give TGV passengers more incentive to return.
A far more substantive change, however, might be establishing a pedestrian-friendly urban roundabout at the entrance to Bellegarde, at the Place Bérard. Today, cars and trucks race past the edge of downtown, spewing noise and smoke over the café patrons trying to relax nearby. Pedestrians cross at their peril.
Instead, through-traffic should be slowed, directed around a well-designed symbolic focus, say, a striking new monument (a mountain motif?), a popular statue (Zinedine Zidane?) or sculpture (like Le Bisou?) and an adjacent area decorated with flowers, large posters and new streetlamps. The existing cafés could be linked by well-marked and policed crosswalks. Foot traffic could be drawn towards the adjacent shopping of the Rue de la République.
Imagine: 10 years from now a newly walkable, international Bellegarde, with a renovated commuter rail line crossing the pays de Gex directly to Divonne, hikers and skiers piling into municipal shuttle buses headed to Jura adventures, its main street sprouting Internet cafés and sushi bars, newsstands flourishing Tagesspiegel and Asahi Shimbun, neon tickertapes heralding recent events and cinema releases all a dream, right?