Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France: Alpine Magic Part 2
Welcome back to part two of Alpine Magic where I continue my exploration of the Swiss and French Alps. If you haven’t read part 1, it’s worth a read, as I trekked around Zermatt and the Matterhorn before heading for Chamonix!
However, this part of Alpine Magic focuses on my adventures in Chamonix at the base of Mont Blanc in the French Alps.
Day 4: Monday, May 25th, 2009 – Off to France!
I awoke early in the morning, and like the day before, went out to shoot a cloud-less sunrise. I was still determined to try and get a decent Matterhorn sunrise, but unfortunately the weather never cooperated in giving me a great sunrise or sunset. Even so, it was still a blast trying and just seeing the Matterhorn left me in awe. Especially since it’s pyramid-like peak was covered in a golden alpine glow.
After the sunrise, we packed up and headed for the train station. Our train ride would take us from Zermatt back to Visp, and then to Martigny, across the border and finally to Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France! We grabbed one last amazing breakfast at Fuchs bakery on the way to the train station, and set off to visit France for the first time. The rail trips from Zermatt to Visp and then on to Martigny were beautiful. Martigny is an old Roman town, and I remember seeing at least one old castle up on a hill top that was likely Château de Tourbillon near Sion. The countryside was beautiful with the Rhone river running parallel to the train, vineyards on the hillsides and above them the Alps towering over the entire valley of Valais.
As beautiful as this train ride was, it didn’t even compare to the train ride that crossed the border from Martigny, Switzerland to Chamonix, France. This train ride is called the Mont Blanc Express and was covered by our Swiss rail pass even though Chamonix is in France. The scenery along the way is stunning. The train immediately climbs out of Martigny, passing through the Trient valley, with amazing views, dizzying heights, crashing waterfalls in beautiful forests and charming little villages. One of my biggest regrets to this trip was not having my camera out. I had expected to just enjoy the train ride to Chamonix, then take some shots when we came back this way towards the Berner Oberland a few days later, but that day was cloudy and rainy, so I missed the chance to keep a visual record, but I recall the train on the side of steep cliffs, looking off across the valleys and wondering how in the world people who lived in small houses on the mountainside ever got to their house with the incline on the side of some of these mountains. It looked like a dream mountain environment to explore.
By the time we arrived in France, the train was rolling through a few beautiful mountain towns like Vallorcine, where you changed trains to finish the ride to Chamonix. The Chamonix valley itself was gorgeous. Glacier’s hung from Mont Blanc massif, and the peaks towered over the valley in a way I’ve never seen before. Mont Blanc, which towers above the Chamonix valley on the south is the tallest mountain in Europe excluding Russia. Once we arrived in Chamonix, we had a few blocks to walk to our hotel, which gave us a good sense of the beautiful town. Hotel d’Larve, where we stayed in Chamonix, was right next to the Arve river, with great views of the Mont Blanc massif and Bossons glacier. We explored the hotel a little, and found they had a small rock climbing wall in their workout area. There was also a beautiful patio area next to the river with great views of Aiguille du Midi.
Once we had explored our hotel, we decided to walk through town and find some lunch. We happened upon an outdoor cafe, called Cafe Valentino. It took me a lot of Googling, looking at Google Maps and then pictures of restaurants to figure out what the name of this cafe was, and truthfully, I can’t even remember what I ate there for lunch. From the reviews online, it’s not surprising I can’t remember what I ate. The only thing I really remember about it was a waiter at the restaurant next door having the biggest handlebar mustache I’ve ever seen. We spent a the rest of the afternoon wandering the shops a little bit and just walking up and down some of the streets.
The best memory I have of Chamonix was when I ventured out on my own to explore the valley. In the evening, I took a walk towards the northeast in the Chamonix valley. It was in this evening that I fell in love with Chamonix. I walked along the Arve River, crossing bridges, through forests, shooting some photos and just generally enjoying an amazing evening in the quiet of this place. On a few occasions I talked to a local or two who was also out for a stroll. I was still in awe of how deep this valley was compared to the massive Mont Blanc. Mont Blanc is around 15000 feet, whereas the valley floor is around 3500 feet. That’s a HUGE different in elevation for someone living in the Great Plains of Kansas. Even Colorado, where I often visit, struggles to compare to this. Most ski resort and mountain towns are between 7500-9500 feet, and Colorado’s tallest mountains are called the 14ers, at 14000+ feet. And even those 14ers rarely nestle themselves right next to a town. So the grand scale of everything in Chamonix was impressive to say the least. Add in a beautiful evening and the sound of the glacier water roaring along the Arve River, and it made for a fantastic walk in the valley. Even as someone who is obsessed with taking photos of my travels, it was far more about the experience than the photos on this evening.
Day 5: Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 – Chamonix and the Mer de Glace
I awoke early (though a little later than I had planned), with hopes of getting a nice sunrise shot of Mont Blanc somewhere in the valley. I didn’t have a lot of time to find a good composition as the light was beginning to present some vivid colors in the clouds swirling above Mont Blanc. I set up shop in a open area near the Alpine Museum of Chamonix to shoot the beautiful sunrise unfolding above Bossons Glacier and Mont Blanc.
Breakfast at Hotel d’Larve was fantastic. There were many different types of breads and jams, local cheese, fruits and more. While we enjoyed this great food, we discussed what we wanted to do for the day. As we only had one full day in Chamonix, we had to decide how we were going to spend it. Many options were impossible. The cable cars and such on the north side of Chamonix to Brévent and Flégère were either on limited schedules or were still in off-season and not running. The original plan was to take the Aiguille du Midi cable car and then the cable car from there across the Mont Blanc massif to the Italian side at Courmayeur. The Aiguille du Midi cable car is the world’s highest vertical ascent cable car, going from just under 4000 feet in Chamonix, to the towering spires at over 12600 feet! At one point, during the trip planning, I had planned for to stay a night or two in Courmayeur, as they have a highly recommended hotel with an amazing Italian breakfast called Hotel Bouton d’Or. However, after contacting them, they informed me they were closed on the dates we were there for the off-season. This was a letdown, because the hotel and the entire area on the Italian side of Mont Blanc looked awesome.
Unfortunately, a number of things completely ended our hope to even make it to the Italian side of Mont Blanc. While the Aiguille du Midi cable car was running, the cable car running from there, across the border to Italy was in the off-season still. In addition, the weather looked a little sketchy with rain in the forecast, so we opted for taking the Montenvers train up to see the Mer de Glace instead of going up to Aiguille du Midi.
This option proved to be pretty amazing. We walked to the station that would take us from Chamonix up to the Montenvers rail station. The train that took us up here originally began operating in 1908 and the Grand Hotel in Montenvers has been open since 1880. But the real attraction to taking this train up here is the Mer de Glace which translates to “Sea of Ice.” The Mer de Glace is France’s longest glacier at almost 4.5 miles long and 650 feet deep of pure ice. We got off the train after a large group of French mountaineers with full gear, who immediately set off down the path and ladders that lead to the glacier to begin crossing it. In a few of the large stitched images I took of the glacier, this group of 20 or so mountaineers look like tiny ants on a giant sea of ice. We followed them down towards the glacier, stopping at the point where railings became sketchy without proper gear, admiring the beauty of Mer de Glace. As we went back to the train station, we found out about the Ice Cave. A cable car (or hike) with another walk down some bolted in metal stairs could take you down to the base of the glacier where you can enter the ice grotto. The Mer de Glace Ice Grotto was filled with many ice sculptures and beautiful caves. We explored these caves, reading about the history of the glacier and admiring the ice sculptures. As we left the ice grotto we decided to hike back up to the Montenvers train station. There were a lot of good look-out points to view the glacier from as we hiked back up. One of which can be seen below.
By the time we got back to Chamonix on the train, we were starving. Fortunately, Chamonix didn’t shut down shop like Zermatt did in the afternoon, so after dropping off our backpacks at the hotel we went in search of food. After walking up and down the streets of Chamonix, we decided to try a place called Poco Loco. We had eaten tons of cheese and bread most of the trip, but had been craving some protein and figured a good burger and fries would fit the bill. I got the special Poco Loco burger with fries (frites) while the others tried different kinds of burgers. Feeling satisfied from a good meal, we decided to get a nap in at the hotel for a bit.
Once we awoke in late afternoon, the stormy looking clouds that had been up at the glacier earlier in the day had made their way into the valley. We still wanted to do a little walking of the streets, knowing we would be leaving fairly early in the morning for our next destination and wouldn’t have time to explore then. So we walked the streets to check out the shops. I always like to see what local landscape photographers in mountain towns like Chamonix have to offer. I found a photo gallery of Chamonix photographer Mario Colonel that was unfortunately closed for the evening. I admired the images in the window as the rain began to fall. Within a few minutes, the drizzle turned to sheer downpour and we ducked into, of all places, a French McDonalds.
Once the rain died back off to a drizzle, we made our way back to the hotel. As this was my last night in France I wanted to make the most of it so I decided to venture out in the drizzle to explore the nearby area. While there was no chance of a sunset, the drizzle and clouds over the valley still created a nice effect moody scene. I wandered around the town square near the Tourism Office and eventually just past the church, where I eventually shot the image below.
Tour du Mont Blanc
Before finishing this part of the Alpine Magic travel series, I wanted to bring up a part of the trip that I researched heavily, but never actually did. When originally looking up where to visit in Europe, one spectacular idea called the Tour of Mont Blanc came up on a number of occasions. The Tour du Mont Blanc is an extremely amazing multi-day trek around the entire Mont Blanc massif, spanning France, Italy and Switzerland! It’s over 100 miles in length, typically starting in Chamonix, France, heading south, then cutting east into Italy, and eventually turning more northward from Courmayeur and into Switzerland before cutting back to the west and south to finish in Chamonix. The tour boasts more than 6 miles of ascent and descent in Val Veni, Val Ferret, Vallee des Glaciers, the Trient valley and more amazing places. There is a plethora of accommodations on the trek, ranging from simple dormitory based refuges to luxurious hotels. When I was considering this trek as part of my trip, I realized late May was quite a bit early for someone to tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc, as snow still covers many places of the trail, and most of the refuges and huts in the mountains, and even hotels in Courmayeur and other locations, were closed for the off season. While it didn’t work out on this trip, some day I still want to give this trek a go. The opportunities for great photography and just an amazing experience still keep me researching and thinking about this trek at least once a year.
Join me in a few days when part three of Alpine Magic continues back into Switzerland with a day spent walking the promenade of Montreux and exploring Switzerland’s famous Chateau de Chillon!