French Alps: Hotel, touring, sightseeing, using aerial trams. Chamonix and Mont Blanc
Art Nouveau design in the center of Chamonix, France. (Photo by Harlan Lewin)
Aiguille du Midi Range above Chamonix. (Photo by Harlan Lewin)
Treat Yourself to Spectacular Scenery and Activities
The hardest part of getting to Chamonix, I found, was getting out of Paris in my rental car. The peripheral highway around Paris looks easy and logical on a map, but count on traffic slowdowns and even jams, and don't miss your exit or you'll end up with a grand detour. Of course you could take the train, bus or even an airplane. But I was beginning a six week tour from Paris through the Alps down to Marseilles on the Mediterranean and then back up to catch a plane back to the States at Charles de Gaulle Airport. So, to see every village and Roman antiquity, I was committed to my little Citroen C3 diesel standard shift. And I loved it.
My first stop was to see friends near Besancon which, in turn, is near France's eastern border with Germany and is south of the French region of Alsace. After the visit I drove west to the wine country of Macon (north of Lyon) to drink some Burgundy wine with other friends, and then finally took off in an easterly direction toward the French Alps. I visited Lake Annecy-a goal for many years and the subject of another Hubpage-and from there headed straight east to nearby Chamonix and Mont Blanc. Realize, this is the extreme eastern part of France-a kind of French nose that juts eastward and is actually south of Geneva, Switzerland.
It was a beautifully clear day in the beginning of October and I knew I was getting close when the autoroute (a fast highway) signs began to mention the Mont Blanc Tunnel and Turin, Italy. How I envy the Europeans. Though they suffered from wars for centuries because of being divided into so many different nations, cultures, languages and religions, today they benefit from those differences: a quick car or train ride ride, or a quick leap by commuter plane, takes them into another world, for the French to Switzerland, Germany or Italy. I shouldn't be grumpy and evious, but I'm really not that much excited to cross the border between California and Nevada or Arizona; there are differences among the states, but not quite as interesting as among the countries of Europe. I guess that's why I like to travel to Europe.
As always, I stopped too early at a rest stop when I caught my first glimpse of the white-topped chain of mountains that. The little crew of government landscapers working at the very open and clean view stop watched as I pulled my photography gear out of my trunk, set up my tripod and started looking around for the best perspectives. I fussed with lenses trying to close in on a small village on a mountain far away, but I knew that I'd never get enough pixels to blow it up where it would look like a village without smearing the details. But I did get my first shots of the Mont Blanc Range.
The signage on French highways is excellent in the tourist and ski areas, so I had no problem heading straight for Chamonix. Besides, I got deeper and deeper into the Valley of the Gave River so there wasn't much choice of direction except to head straight ahead or swerve off and climb a mountain. One small point: I said the signage was great where the French expect strangers, but it really tails off in those parts (the "boonies?") where few guests are expected: I'll speak more of that in another installment about my trip. I'm trying to make my observations useful to others who might want to explore France beyond Paris and the usual cities of Provence-not just a history of my tour.
Chamonix is a small town with a long history of mountaineering. It is small enough to find your hotel or apartment easily and to walk around to get to know it. There are large apartment houses built for skiiers and others but somehow they aren't as ugly, and blend in more, than in other resort areas I've been in. In fact, there are a lot of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century buildings that are very attractive, like the Casino, and some display art nouveau architecture and decorations (see my photo, at the top).
I was very optimistic on this trip, especially since it was in October, in between the summer and winter crowds. Fall is a great time to travel. Thus, I made no reservations in most of the cities I visited and just parked my car and went to the local Office de Tourisme. I speak French, but in every Office de Tourisme I've been in in France there is at least one person who speaks very good English.
They recommended the Hotel de l'Arve and I sincerely recommend this hotel. This is a relatively inexpensive hotel which offers much more than the price would suggest. I should mention, though that I was there in October and the prices are a bit higher in the ski season, but not unreasonable so. But check out the hotel athttp://www.hotelarve-chamonix.com/ You can also check it out at my favorite travel site:www.traveladvisor.com where I just posted a review of the hotel.
The high-point, literally of my stay in Chamonix was taking the aerial tram up to the Aiguille du Midi (which translates to "South Peak"). It was a ten minute walk through town to the tram station. I had bundled up because people said it would be cold and windy, but when I got to the top it wasn't windy so no wind chill factor and the day was glorious and comfortable. Perhaps I had got warmed up in the tram gondola, which was packed with standing tourists speaking a babble of French and English and East European and Asian languages. As usual, when I got to the top I found a couple from California, but that familiarity didn't dim the uniqueness of the place.
The tram ride was jerky in places, but when we rose to the the level of the glacier paralleling our transit, people's complaints were silenced in contemplation of the ice and the height. The buildings and streets of Chamonix were tiny dots on an elongated checkerboard. Here's a little quote from a description of the peak:
"The cable car to the summit, the Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi, was built in 1955 and held the title of the world's highest cable car for about two decades. It still holds the record as the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, from 1035m [3,398 feet] to 3842m [12,600 feet]. It travels from Chamonix to the top of the Aiguille du Midi – an altitude gain of over 2,800 m [9,186 feet] – in 20 minutes." (source: Wikipedia under Aiguille du Midi-check it out for some photos.
During the high tourist season of the summer there are three other aerial tramways up to mountains on all sides of the valley. Once you get up there, you're welcome to paraglide, mountain climb or hike. Like most of France outside the cities, there is an enormous maze of hiking trails of all degrees of difficulty. Bicycling is another sport extremely popular in all of France.
It's easy to spend a day, too, walking around the city of Chamonix, which offers commodities for all tastes and pocketbooks. As you can imagine there are a number of sporting goods stores with a full range of quality-and I do mean from really good bargains (a store near the aerial tramway entrance) to fit for a king. I found the city very photogenic, with the Arve River running through it and the residents careful to grow the most decorative flowers. The buildings, too, many in the mountain style and others from the era of the nineteen-twenties in the art nouveau style, are interesting to look at. Every convenience is available, from pharmacies to hair salons.
And don't forget the food. Chamonix' region is called Haute Savoie, which means upper Savoy. Savoy is a special region in France, known for its tasty cheeses and the recipes for using them. (O.k, o.k., what part of France isn't known for its cheeses? But Savoy is special, even in France.) The city boasts many restaurants at all price levels and they offer a great variety of foods including meat and pastry specialties of Savoy. There are spas and sports instruction services. You won't lack for anything in Chamonix.