When I was based in Switzerland, in 1996-98, in the spring, summer and early autumn, I spent many weekends hiking in the mountains. For me, la randonée became a passion, and Chamonix with Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountain chains seemed like Nirvana. One summer weekend I drove to Chamonix to go hiking, but the holiday traffic was so horrific and the crowds so dense, that I turned back. It was not until 2008 that we finally went there again, staying in a hotel by the river Arve. We loved our week there so much that we returned every summer from 2009 until 2015, until our move to Cape Town.
Chamonix is close to the French borders with Italy and Switzerland. The region is extremely mountainous and is known as Haute-Savoie, a department of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The only practical access is by road and there is ample mini-bus transportation at a reasonable price from the nearest airport, that of Geneva. The journey takes about 75 minutes.
Chamonix is in a narrow V-shaped valley, cut by the rapidly flowing river Arve. To the west is the dominant summit of Le Brévent and on the east the massif of Mont Blanc. From the south, access is from Sallanches: from the north, from Martigny in Switzerland: and from the south-east, via the tunnel from Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley in Italy.
We returned in 2010, renting an apartment overlooking Place Balmat, in the heart of the town. Two of my sons, John, and Philip, met up with us at Geneva airport, and a few days later, the other two, Andrew and Bob, joined us in Chamonix, having cycled more than 900 km from England. Bob must have enjoyed the experience, for he and Philip cycled almost 1,800 km from England to Venice a few years later. And to top it all, this year Philip cycled about 5,000 km in 44 days from New York to San Diego, where he currently lives.
Oh, to be young again!
In 2011, I tried once more rent the apartment in Place Balmat, but due to it having been recently renovated, it was no longer available for short-term occupancy. After a lot of searching, I succeeded in renting the top floor of a chalet off Rue Helbronner, 400 m from the town centre. With three bedrooms and sleeping capacity for another two, albeit rather cramped, it turned out to be perfect for us, and for the next few years the chalet became our summer home. In 2015 we stayed there for four months.
When we returned in 2015, we were greeted with a construction site, complete with pile drivers, excavators, trucks, and constant noise from 08:00 to 17:00 and sometimes even later, five days a week. It turned out that our landlords knew that construction was planned, but ‘somehow had not been informed’ as to when it would start. But hey, we are understanding people and shit happens, so we received a free daily demonstration of how a modern house is constructed!
Normally, on the first day after our arrival, we would hike up to Le Chalet de la Floria, to get our ‘mountain legs’ and to feast our eyes on the beauty of the valley. The ascent is only about 300 m, but the going is steep, and on a warm day, the cold beers that await us are most welcome. And for the return, we would continue along the mountain side, then steeply down rocky paths to the river and back to the town. It was always a perfect introduction to another Chamonix holiday.
Most days we hiked up the valley, either following the main river Arve or its tributary, the Arveyron. The two rivers converged just before Chamonix. We explored every path we could find, and on our way back to Chamonix, we would always stop for a well-deserved beer. Life felt so good.
Sometimes we would take the local train further up the valley to Vallorcine, the last village before the Swiss border. It is a beautiful walk back, ascending for a while and then steeply down to Argentiere, followed by a gradual descent beside the river Arve to Camonix. The scenery is out of this world.
For the vertically ambitious hiker, there are countless paths on both sides of the valley. From La Flégère and the path to Lac Blanc, one can get an incredible view of La Mer de Glace, the second longest glacier in Europe, the longest being that of the Aletsch in the Bernese Alps of south-central Switzerland.
On the other side of the valley, one can get much closer to Mer de Glace, by taking the cog-wheel train to Montenvers at 1913 m from Chamonix at 1035 m. As I refuse to join the tourist mobs, we walk up.
On the way back down by a steep path, we stop at a beautiful little cabin and garden, offering refreshments.
For the physically endowed, there is the climb to Le Brévent at 2525 m. For the less ambitious, there is the cable car.
And once on Le Brévent, one has an uninterrupted view of Mont Blanc on the other side of the valley.
Of course, if one wants to have a closer view of Mont Blanc, there is the cable car from Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi at 3842 m. And for those with ample funds, one can continue the trip on cable cars all the way over the massif and down into Italy.
When we have been in Chamonix, the coordination of providing ample food, wine, beer etc. for six or more hungry hikers, after a day in the mountains, have always been quite beyond me. Thankfully, Lotta took responsibility for purchasing and cooking. And she also insisted that everybody took turns to provide dinner. To my surprise, all the boys reacted positively, although the first time it happened, John was a bit concerned that the only dish he could make consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, beans, and toast, more a breakfast than dinner, but we unanimously insisted that it also qualified as dinner, and it was a success.
Now my culinary efforts are modest. My idea of a 4-course meal tends to be three large glasses of wine and a baked potato with cheese. I can make an egg sandwich, and beans on toast, if I remember to buy bread. So, it was no surprise when I said that I would take everyone out to a restaurant of my choice.
And that restaurant turned out to be Le Monchu, where they specialised in mountain dishes from Haute-Savoie. My favourite was tartiflette, made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, chopped bacon, onions, and white wine. We returned many times to that restaurant.
My sons are now all grown up and living in Germany, Spain, England, and the U.S, with us now in South Africa. And with Covid, long-haul travel has become rather tedious, if not impossible at times. But I feel sure that if we were to once more schedule a stay in Chamonix, we would need accommodation for at least six.