The boulevard atmosphere, typical of much of France, is especially prevalent in Chamonix. Whatever the time of year, there’s always something going on, as if the town never rests, bustling attentively to the needs of visitors that come from all corners of the world.
The town is equally adept at catering both for summer and winter visitors, and its facilities, shops and services reflect this. During certain hours of the day the centre of town is completely pedestrianised – but sometimes you get the impression motorists don’t understand the concept!
Chamonix lies in a fairly broad and flat valley that extends from les Houches in the south to the frontier with Switzerland, high above the town of Argentière at the northern end, where the river has its source.
It was a Benedictine convent, founded in 1091, that established the first communal centre in the Arve valley, thereafter known as le Prieuré, a name that persisted until the valley was discovered by the outside world. The local inhabitants, mainly farmers and hunters, lived under the yoke of authority from the priory and were only freed from it on the eve of the French Revolution (1789-99).
In 1741, two
Englishmen, William Windham and Richard Pococke, led a small expedition to
explore the area around Montenvers and the Mer de Glace, their curiosity having
been aroused from the shores of Lake Geneva by the distant gleaming snows of
Mont Blanc. Unquestionably, the account of this first expedition did much to
encourage others, and effectively began the tourist interest in the area, known
to the locals as Chamouni. The visit of Windham and Pococke inspired its
adoption as the name for the principal settlement. The first guest house was
opened in 1770, by a Madame Coutterand, and by 1783, celebrities such as
Saussure, Goethe and Bourrit had visited the valley and raised its profile.
The main approach into the valley is from the south, from St Gervais-le-Fayet, where the valley river, the Arve, bullies a way through a narrow ravine that also accommodates the main road and the railway.
On a clear day, the mountains that flank the valley are overwhelming. At one extreme, picked out by the statue of Saussure and Balmat in the town square, rises the dome of Mont Blanc; on the other side of the valley, lower hills rise to the cliff-girt summits of le Brévent, la Glière and the Aiguilles Rouges.
of the shops and eateries are concentrated along the rue du Docteur Paccard and
the avenue Michel Croz. There is everything the visitor needs here, from chemists
and newsagents to jewellers and shops selling high quality food produce, mainly
cheese, meats and wines. As if uncertain on how to compromise, the range of
goods on sale reflects the extremes: souvenirs tend to be inexpensive and naff
– the sort of thing you wish you hadn’t bought when finally you get them home.
And yet there is a huge range of quality items too: Laguiole cutlery, knives
and corkscrews, exquisite jewellery, original and beautifully worked wood
carvings made by local artisanats, as well as branded goods mainly from
Market day is Saturday, when the place du Mont Blanc is transformed into a huge, bustling and vibrant open-air market selling everything from clothes and antiques to fresh fish and local goat’s cheeses. It’s the sort of place you can spend the whole morning, and probably will.
If you have time for only one ‘trip’ while in Chamonix, then it should be the ascent of the Aiguille du Midi, a huge cable car (téléphérique) that hoiks you in two breathtaking stages via Plan de l’Aiguille up to the 3842m (12605ft) summit of the mountain. On a clear day the views take in the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Monte Rosa in Italy. The Aiguille du Midi runs all year around except during very bad weather conditions, and boasts one of the highest gourmet restaurants in the world.
Montenvers and the Mer de Glace
With more time to spare you could take the funicular railway to Montenvers, followed by a visit to the ice cave in the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France, 7km long and 200m deep. Montenvers has a café and a hotel-restaurant. Nearby, the new Glaciorium demonstrates the creation and evolution of glaciers.
Parc de Merlet
If the world must have zoos, Merlet is how they should be. Visitors wander freely among bouquetin, chamois, marmots, llamas and fallow deer, all safe to approach most of the time, but needing caution when breeding is in the air. Approached by a long and tortuous drive from les Houches, the park is high on the slopes of the Aiguillette du Brévent. No picnics, no dogs, but lunch at the cantine has to be one of the most inspiring locations in the valley.
Bars and Cafés
There are a number of popular wine bars and drinking holes in the Rue des Moulins (Chamonix’s oldest street).
The Bistrot des Sports (182 rue Joseph Vallot, 74400 Chamonix. Tel: 04 50 53 00 46,) is a popular place to chill out, and offers a wide selection of drinks and inexpensive menus and an eclectic taste in music. For those who can’t bear to be away from Sky Sports or the internet, The Pub (225 rue du Docteur Paccard. Tel: 04 50 55 92 88,) is the ideal place to be; cheap, friendly, fun and lively.
The Chamonix Cinema Vox (allée Recteur Payot. Tel: (recorded) 04 50 53 03 39, (office) 04 50 53 89 98,) has the latest films from around the world, including a selection of French and English films.
Chamonix has several nights clubs for those looking for late night and early morning entertainment, from music to TV, video and Internet. A new night club called the White Hub (1 place du Mont Blanc, 74400 Chamonix) which is under the Hotel Alpina and accessed via the rue des Moulins, is proving very popular.
The Cantina (37 impasse des Rhododendrons. Tel: 04 50 53 83 80; www.cantina.fr) has live music and DJs. Le Moonlight (158 place Edmond Desailloud. Tel: 04 50 55 95 19), specialises in live music, while Dick’s T-Bar (80 rue des Moulins. Tel: 04 50 53 19 10) prefers DJs for their entertainment, and is a mainly Swedish bar.
With a backdrop of the Mont Blanc massif, the Chamonix Casino (12 place Saussure. Tel: 04 50 53 07 65; www.chamonix.net) offers gamblers an opportunity to chance their luck at blackjack and roulette, as well as on one-armed bandits. In the centre of town, the casino is restricted to persons over 18 years of age, and you’ll need to be presentably dressed and have some form of ID.
85, place du Triangle de l’Amitié, 74401 Chamonix.
Tel: 04 50 53 30 24
The nearest international airport is Geneva. From there SAT (the regional coach operators) run a daily bus service direct to Chamonix, dropping passengers at the railway station. The journey takes about two hours. An alternative from the airport is to take a taxi to Eaux Rives station and a train to Annemasse, connecting there with the mainline service to St Gervais.
From Paris Gare de Lyon the TGV heads south to Lyon and a connecting service to St Gervais-le-Fayet. From there the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Express heads up the Arve valley to Chamonix. All the services have good connections.
Accessible directly via the 'Autoroute Blanche' (A40), which connects to the European motorway network.
Travel up and down the Arve valley could not be easier. The Chamonix-Mont Blanc Express (Tel: 08 36 35 35 3; www.voyage-sncf.com) is a regular, frequent and inexpensive service running between St Gervais-le-Fayet and Martigny in Switzerland. It stops at all the stations in the valley, but note that some are request only and you need to signal the driver to stop at the station you want if it is not a scheduled stop. Pocket timetables are available from the main station.
The valley is also served by an excellent, and usually more frequent, bus service – Chamonix Bus. The buses get almost everywhere, including one or two places (like Le Tour) not reached by train, though they do not go any further north than the Col des Montets. Timetables are available from the tourist office.
The practical and economical lift pass! On sale from spring through to autumn, the Mont Blanc Multipass gives you unlimited access to all lifts in the Chamonix valley. On offer: visits, tours and activities in front of the spectacular panorama of Chamonix and its surroundings.