What on earth is this?

“What on earth is this?” was the question someone asked me as we drove under this thing. What do you think it is?

<A paravalanche - in the Aravis area of the French Alps>
The answer is actually very simple, and the name gives it away. In French it’s called a paravalanche. During winter and early spring, this construction protects the road and those using it from avalanches. These huge tumbles of snow might look pretty, but snow is heavy, so this tunnel prevents both the road from being blocked by snow as well as death by avalanche.

These tunnels are all over the roads in the French Alps, particularly on steep areas such as this where the land cannot support much snow.

The name, however, is interesting. The jury (of me) is still out on whether it’s a joining together of ‘para’ and ‘avalanche’, or one of many uses of ‘par‘ in French, which most commonly means ‘by’. Meanwhile, ‘para‘ can mean ‘semi’. For example, a parapharmacie is a pharmacy that stocks products that do not require a prescription. It seems that neither ‘para’ nor ‘par’ means the right thing. However, both have less-common usages. I’m sticking with, ‘para‘ which can also mean ‘protection against’ in English (which the Oxford Dictionary tells me comes from French, with roots an the Italian verb which has roots in Latin). What do you think?


I’m a technical author, journalist and writer from Australia who has been living in Europe since 2000 and exploring the world from there. My passions are writing, snow sports and travel.

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6 comments on “What on earth is this?
  1. Could it be a pun on para-pluie?

  2. Wendy says:

    No, but I think it’s used in the same sense – to protect from rain, to protect from avalanche. There’s also parapente (pente = falling down) and parasol (soleil = sun)…maybe some others I can’t think of…

  3. How about para-chute (for protection from falling)well falling snow anyway. The first time I saw one of these was when the Tour de France rode under one. I had no idea what it was so I asked my husband. He, of course, knew what is was right away. I hate it when guys know that stuff 🙂

  4. Jeffrey says:

    That is cool, never seen one before. Keep up I enjoy your blog every week, it is always interesting.

  5. Wendy says:

    Ashley, parachute is indeed another! Is your husband French? I bet the tables would be turned if you were back on your turf!
    Jeffry, thanks for the kind words about my blog. I’ll endeavour to keep finding stuff that seems every-day to the French but unusual to the rest of us. I’ll run out one day!

  6. Nope-Husband is not French, 100% American (and looks like one, too!). He’s just pretty good at looking at things and knowing what they are. It sort of creeps me out sometimes and other times it amazes me.

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About me

Wendy Hollands writer in Annecy, France

I'm an experienced technical writer based in the French Alps. I enjoy learning French language nuances, winter sports and travel. Drop by wendyhollands.com, my other site.

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