When I think of things to do in Chamonix, I envision everything white – skiing, snowshoeing, snow, snow, snow. I’m here in the summer and those ice crystals have melted to reveal verdant valleys and moss-covered mountains. Even though we’re not in Austria, I do want to belt out a little “Hills are Alive!”
This time, I can breathe in the mountain air without fear of frostbite or falling down crevasses due to lack of prowess on the slopes. The sun stays out longer (even though it rained a bit when we were there) and you can venture even farther, trading skis for hiking boots.
There’s no rush to get to the slopes before the crowds or be at the end of jam-packed lift-lines – totally enough time to do what I call Le Loop D’Été de Chamonix! Like the other city loops I created for Ghent and Paris, this loop will have you circling the most historic spots in town, with a little time for shopping. Unlike the other loops, you’ll be heading straight up the mountain side for lunch and dinner.
Begin this loop at the Chamonix Train Station, home to the Mont Blanc Express which travels from St. Gervais to Martigny. (If you are staying at a hotel in the Chamonix Valley, ride the train for free with a “Carte d’Hote” – just ask the front desk for the “Guest Card”.)
Turn around and you will see the tiny Passage du Temple on your right. Head straight down this route to find Chamonix’s 19thC Protestant Church. Tiny though it may be, its presence is representative of the Brits’ obsession with conquering the Alps. Built during what is considered the golden age of climbing (1854 – 1865), the little church saw many a Brit climb all the major peaks of Savoie Mont Blanc during those years.
There was such a frenzy that, after Lord Francis Douglas perished while conquering Matterhorn, Queen Victoria wanted to ban climbing as she “would never again permit English royal blood to be wasted…!” Of course, this negative press led to even more Brits competing to getting to the top.
Continue down the Passage du Temple to the Rue Whymper (named for Edward Whymper – a famed Brit climber) and either check out the shops on the Avenue Michel Croz (you guessed it, another climber, but this time a Frenchman) behind you. One of my favs is Alp Chic, where you can find the 60’s themed, festive designs of local artist, Charlie Adam, on every item.
Return back down the Avenue Croz and make time to putter around the Musée Alpin. Originally built as one of the three great hotels of Chamonix in the early 20th C, now it’s a museum housing a collection of prints, objects and art works that show the progression of Chamonix into one of the great climbing centers of the world.
After the museum, continue down the same avenue and you come upon a statue of a seated man. If you turn your head to the left, you’ll see another statue of two men, one pointing to the sky. The former is a seated figure is Dr. Michel Paccard. Born in Chamonix, he was the first to ascend to the top of Mont Blanc, with his partner Jacques Balmat on 8 August 1786.
This other statue represents Horace Bénédict de Saussure and Jacques Balmat. De Saussure offered a reward for anyone who climbed Mont Blanc first. As we know Paccard and Balmat met the challenge. Why the two statues? Of course, it has to do with rivalries and red tape. Balmat, it seemed, edged out Paccard for all the glory and made it seem he had done it on his own. Two camps were formed. One said Balmat was first to the top and the other Paccard. The outcome was two different statues by the two camps that followed either Balmat or Paccard. It may have taken until 1986 to commemorate Paccard, but there he is now!
Keep going straight past Dr. Paccard and you will hit the Église Saint Michael and hopefully the bells will be ringing for you, as they were for me.
Opposite the church is the very first building built in Chamonix which now houses the Maison de la Montaigne, offices of La Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix Mont-Blanc (Company of the Mountain Guides) established in 1821. In order to be a mountain guide anywhere in France, you must be trained in Chamonix.
Climb up to the third floor and you will see a model of the entire valley.
Pop down the stairs and, upon exiting, go a little off-piste and down the Rue Joseph Vallot (another explorer who proved one can function at high altitudes) to Maison Arpin Chamonix – one of the oldest fabric houses still working in Savoie Mont Blanc. It’s 200 years old this year! Their après-ski jackets are still the best looking I’ve found!
Scurry down the Rue des Moulins to get back en-route. Down the Rue de Dr Paccard and when you get to Chanel, turn around. The mural in front of you represents the most famous mountain guides of Chamonix! Back down to Rue de Dr. Paccard until you reach the Avenue de Aiguille du Midi.
One of Savoie Mont Blanc’s most popular tourist attractions, the Aiguille de Midi cable car will take you from Chamonix up 3842m to the top of the Alps. Can you see it up there – that tiny point? I will admit that I would rather not drink for a month than head up there, so I didn’t go, BUT if you can go, do.
If not, do what I did, take the gondola half way and meet your friends there upon their return, because you don’t want to miss lunch at Le Refuge de Plan de l’Aiguille. Directly on exiting the station, you will see signs pointing you to the restaurant. Don’t be stymied if you seem to be walking down the mountain, you will get there if you stick to the path.
It is well, well worth it for the tartiflette and pie alone! Of course the views are incredible too. After lunch, take the cable car down and shop for cheese and sausage and chocolate at the fabulous stores, then head to the train station again.
You will be taking the train, but it will be the Chemin de Fer du Montenvers, one of the oldest rack & pinion trains in the Alps, heading directly to the Mer de Glace, the biggest glacier in France.
Up at 1913m, there is only one place to stay the Termine Neige: Refuge du Montenvers and it is really one of my Bits of Perfection. Originally opened in the 1880’s, the Grand Hotel du Montenvers was literally a refuge for all those who made it up to the top without the help of the train. Last year it was given a much needed facelift and renamed the Termine Neige: Refuge du Montenvers!
It is a fabulous place to stay. Start the evening with cocktails, have dinner (more cheese if you wanted it!), and end with local spirit Génépi or Charteuse digestifs.
Your room awaits you with a comfy bed and a huge, fluffy, down duvet in a perfectly simple, but luxurious room.
With the window slightly open, I had a fantastic sleep and awake hungry, even after all we had eaten.
Thank goodness the breakfast was so good as the sleep with homemade, slightly warm, fresh out of the oven granola, yogurt, fab bread and more cheese! I really didn’t want to leave – except I knew it was so close to London and winter is coming!
PIN IT LATER
NB: I was the guest of the Savoie-Mont-Blanc Tourism Board and I can’t thank them enough. My opinions are always my own!