Surrounded by towering peaks the French town of Chamonix is a true mountain town. Situated in the Rhone-Alpes region it caters for snowsports enthusiasts throughout the winter and is equally popular with climbers and mountain bikers during the summer. Though it is sometime since my last visit, arriving immediately felt like returning home, soaking in the atmosphere in the amphitheatre of high rock spires.
Mont Blanc and the Aiguille de Midi
The full name of the town is Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, so no prizes for guessing it is located in the shadow of Europe’s highest peak. Visiting the top of one of the summits; the Aiguille du Midi at 3842 m involves taking one of the highest cable cars in the World and is possibly the town’s most popular attraction.
The Mont Blanc Massif is a pilgrimage for climbers, reaching it’s summit is a right of passage and every ambitious European climber tests their metal here at some point. The peaks and routes of the region have played a huge part in the history of mountaineering, evocative names like the Grande Jorasses, Brenva Spur, Central Pillar of Frêney, Peuterey Ridge and the Dru conjure up images of epic battles on rock pinnacles, combatants battling with the elements and technical difficulties of alpine mountaineering. They are part of the folklore of climbing; all of the legends of the sport including Messner, Bonatti, Cassin, from Edward Whymper to Ueli Steck have fought their way up the classic lines of the massif.
Chamonix has been a popular tourism destination since the first recorded ‘visit’ in 1741, which incidentally wasn’t my first time in the town. Englishmen Richard Pococke and William Windham came to explore the Mer de Glace, an extremely intrepid endeavour when dressed in woolly socks and tweed jackets. An association of mountain guides was formed here as early as 1821 and it is also home to one of the oldest established ski schools in Europe.
It is not a built for purpose resort however, it is a genuine alpine town and those looking for the convenience of ski in, ski out hotels will be disappointed. The ski areas are not linked and it is usual to spend a several hours or a day in each area. Skiers without their own vehicle rely on free public transport to travel between areas. The buses run regularly and the Tramway du Mont-Blanc is another option. This does not excessively inconvenience solo skiers and couples but for families with small children navigating the town in full ski gear is definitely a challenge.
The reward for the effort however is some great skiing, the Grands Montets offers some amazing deep, fresh powder for good intermediate skiers and above while the Vallee Blanche is surely the most famous off piste run in the world. After alighting from the Aigulle du Midi cable car strong skiers are presented with a variety of descents. A guide is thoroughly recommended, and avalanche transceiver and snow shovel are essential. However if the conditions are good, expect one of the best days ever on the slopes. There is also some excellent ski touring, the terrain is perfect and it is even linked to Zermatt by the famous Haute Route.
Chamonix is often associated with extreme sports; and this is true of it’s skiing too but this is a misconception. While the town has it’s fair share of black runs and off piste skiing areas there are also plenty of options for intermediates and even beginners. There is a nursery slope at Savoy about a 5 minute walk from the Church Saint-Michel in the centre of town. There are plenty of blue and green runs throughout the area and the scenery on a clear day is stunning, getting to the higher slopes can leave even the most blasé visitor wide-eyed and breathless.
Huskies and skijoring
There is still plenty to do for those less active, dog sledding will be slightly less tiring and if downhill skiing sounds too energetic how about being towed behind a pretty alpine pony; skijoring? Still sound like they might burn too many calories? There are a couple of excellent museums especially the Musée Alpin, which includes displays detailing the history of tourism in Chamonix and the development of winter sports. Retail therapy unsurprisingly focuses on mountain and active sports shops though I can live with that.
Fortunately there are plenty of restaurants offering a variety of ways to replenish the calories. Although Chinese, Italian and Indian are available the local Savoyard cuisine based on potatoes, cheese and dried meats is understandably popular. I’m sure many have already tried fondue possibly the most well known alpine dish. Dining out is good value, most restaurants provide a selection of set menus which offer 3 courses from under 20 euros.
There are plenty of accommodation options from luxurious but friendly hotels to intimate chalets with teams of dedicated staff ensuring the stay is pleasant and stress free. A chalet is probably the best option for families. The staff will provide a chauffeur service around the town, transportation to and from the slopes, collecting hire equipment and lift passes. They will even arrange the transfer from Geneva airport which taking under an hour further adds to the appeal of the town.
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc may take some effort to get the most from it, but it is well worth getting to know. It is not merely the territory of the extreme sports brigade there is plenty to keep mere mortals entertained too. The atmosphere in the friendly town is great, the après-ski is welcoming and lively and there’s usually some entertainment in one of the many bars every evening.
The mountains are the real source of excitement however; one of the world’s great mountain resorts that can justifiably describe itself as an adventure playground. There are so many activities to ignite the passion for adventure. When the weather is kind with blue skies and low clouds rolling through the valleys, occasionally enshrouding the highest peaks it is breath-taking. It is impossible to think of Chamonix and not think of the mountains.