Torrents of tourists race through the centre of Chamonix like the bubbling waters of the Arve. It is not that the place is particularly beautiful, in fact it has been developed in a scrappy manner. But the place exudes excitement, being closely associated with Europe's highest peak rising so far above. From beside the heavily touristy shopping quarter by the river, the maddened statues of Balmat and Paccard point up to Mont Blanc’s summit, which they were the first to conquer.
The Musée Alpin de Chamonix (t 04 50 53 25 93) stands back just a little from the crowds, having taken over one of the many huge but dilapidated Belle Epoque hotels scattered around the centre, recalling the resort’s glamorous heyday as the 19th Century gave way to the 20th. The displays go into detail on the many major events that have taken place in these parts, from the conquest of Mont Blanc to the first Winter Olympic Games ever, held here in 1924. Separate temporary exhibitions on Alpine themes are held in the slick modern architecture of the Espace Tairraz (named after a family fascinated by the Alps for generations) beyond the offices of the legendary Compagnie des Guides beside the richly gilded interior of the town’s Baroque church, the main feature of historic little Chamonix before it was swamped by tourists and hotels.
The third most visited natural site in the world, any close encounter with the majestic meringue of Mont Blanc proves unforgettable. However, special trips are expensive and the weather high up is unpredictable – consider staying a few days to see the summit properly. And go to other parts of the Rhône-Alpes region to walk alone as there are always crowds in these parts. However, this is the most famous area for Alpine hiking in Europe, for the obvious unbeatable high drama. For the ultimate experience of climbing Mont Blanc’s summit, you must contact the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, t 04 50 53 00 24. At local tourist offices, pick up maps of the innumerable, well-signed easier hiking paths. Always take weather predictions very seriously. The lakes, especially high up west of the Arve, make for extremely popular destinations. Seasonal cafés, village inns and Alpine refuges mean the need for food, drink and comfort are surprisingly well catered for - in the higher spots, provisions are helicoptered in! The lucky spot chamois and ibex, marmots rushing away as the odd golden eagle circles. For the keenest walkers, the 170km Tour du Mont-Blanc is a famous challenge taking you through Switzerland and Italy as well as France.
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For further information on the area around Chamonix, and on the département of Haute Savoie, read the Cadogan guide to the Rhône-Alpes.
Copyright text : Philippe Barbour 2011
Copyright Images : Christian / www.hautesavoiephotos.com
You might try a magical tour of Mont Blanc by hot-air balloon (Objectif Ballons du Mont-Blanc, t 04 50 58 08 46, www.alpes-montgolfiere.com) or by helicopter (t 04 50 54 13 82, www.helico.fr). For even more exhilaration, there are several paragliding companies (e.g. Les Ailes du Mont-Blanc, t 04 50 53 96 72, www.lesailesdumontblanc.com; Kaïlash Adventure, t 06 83 29 43 67, www.kailashadventure.com; or Summits Parapente, t 04 50 53 50 14, www.summits.fr). Easier options for less adventurous mortals include several exhilarating cable car trips around Chamonix. Many are run by the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc (www.compagniedumontblanc.fr). The Aiguille du Midi (reservations, t 04 50 53 30 80 or 04 50 53 22 75) is the closest most visitors come to the top of Mont Blanc; the first viewing platform isn’t of much interest, the second is stupendous, the third even better, at 3,842m (c.12,000ft) still almost 1,000m below the summit. The climbers seem ant-sized. From level two the most magical of all cable car rides whisks you over sparkling glaciers to the Hellbronner peak on the Italian border. Many locals say though that the finest views of Mont Blanc are to be had from the heights west of Chamonix. Take the cable car to Le Brévent (reservations, t 04 50 53 13 18 or 04 50 53 22 75) at just over 2,500m, or go to Les Praz, north of town to take the cable car for La Flégère. (reservations t 04 50 53 18 58 or 04 50 53 22 75).
The journey by little red mountain train to the Mer de Glace glacier (from Montenvers station behind Chamonix railway station; reservations, t 04 50 53 12 54 or 04 50 53 22 75) is easier, but less spectacular, taking you to c.2,000m. In summer the Mer de Glace can look grubby. Its main attraction is an ice grotto. Further up are displays of crystals and fauna, and a café from which to watch parties walking on the glacier; contact the tourist office well in advance to join them. Around Chamonix, rock-climbing, canyoning, white-water rafting and mountain-biking are all possibile in summer. The Compagnie des Guides puts on a programme of mountaineering activities for youngsters (contact Cham Aventure, t 04 50 53 55 70).