Chamonix – gateway to the European Cascades

Jennie Carr explores the stunning landscape around the French alpine resort of Chamonix

Les Praz de Chamonix and Aiguille Dru mountain

This charming town is located high in the Alps, dominated by the stunning Mont Blanc, just an hour’s drive from Geneva on fast roads.  It has been a popular holiday resort for centuries, for skiers in the winter as well as serious walkers and climbers in the summer. Known as the ‘gateway to the European Cascades’, Chamonix hosted the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924.  It currently receives around 5 million visitors each year.

Blooming flowers in the Alps

Blooming flowers in the Alps

A key organisation in the success of Chamonix as a centre for mountain activities is the Chamonix Guides’ Company, established in 1821, which is the oldest and largest guides’ association in the world. Nowadays there are a total of 240 self-employed mountain guides and leaders working in the Company, which considers itself as world class and ground breaking in terms of the specialist knowledge and training offered by the guides. They meet every evening at 5pm when the work for the next day is handed out. International climbers visit Chamonix in order to train as professional guides by taking the rigorous and testing course, which eventually enables them to become a member of the highly respected Chamonix Guides’ Company. This is a very great honour and the first foreigner was admitted to the Company in 1930. Each year, on August 15 the guides are celebrated in the local church with the Fete des Guides service.

Chamonix has an interesting history, with a Benedictine priory being established here in the 13th century. Sadly, very little of the buildings remain today, just a door and a few stones which are part of the mountain guide centre in the middle of the town. The town has only been French since 1860 and back in the 1400’s the region was considered to be as important as France itself.

Windham and Pococke, two adventurous Brits, arrived in the valley in 1741, and whilst the local population were primarily farmers, they began spreading the word about this mountain paradise, so initially a trickle, then a stream of Brits regularly visited and still visit Chamonix. In 1860 the area was handed from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to the French Napoleon III. This was the real beginning of the development of popular tourism here. However, even today there are still residents who believe Chamonix should be part of Switzerland.

Mont Blanc soars above the town; for a stunning view, try standing in front of the Hotel Sapiniere on Rue Mummery close to the town centre and with luck, and your glasses, on a clear day you may be able to see the tiny observatory on the mountain. The Alpine Museum near the Place du Mont Blanc has a great deal of information about the mountains and region.

Cable car in the Alps

Cable car in the Alps

If you fancy exploring and have no desire to actually climb, there are regular cable cars to up to the top of the mountain, with observation stations on the way, so pick a fine day. There’s even a cable car to travel over the glacier into Italy. Be sure to buy a multi-pass if you’re planning to do this as it does save money. A further super excursion is to the Mer de Glace by the little red Montenvers railway, starting next to the town’s station and taking about twenty minutes to travel up 1000 metres. The glacier is the largest in France at 7 kilometres long and 200 metres deep. The unique Grand Hotel du Montenvers has fabulous views from the terrace and is worth an evening visit too. There are many walking trails in the glacier region suitable for all abilities, with a man-made Ice Cave to visit and exhibitions on glaciology too. The weather forecast is of paramount importance whenever out and about on this mountain, as the situation can change unexpectedly and fast. Due care needs to be taken.

If you prefer the flat, fear not, there is much to do in this valley town. There are plenty of shops and cafes (try a coffee and a macaroon in the delightful Café Macarons in Rue Vallot) where you can enjoy watching the world go by or amble beside the River Arve or take the Mont Blanc Express, free travel with a card from hotels or the information centre, which runs along the valley linking the many delightful, pretty villages, whilst passing through wonderful scenery. There are also free concerts in the church near the Information Centre, which has good maps and leaflets available. The EspaceTairraz offers an excellent climbing exhibition and crystal display. The films on sky lining and the early climbing in Mont Blanc are fascinating.  Why not pop into one the amazing climbing stores and watch the experts buying a bewildering array of kit for their adventures. You could then go along to Les Gaillands, where there’s a climbing school and spend some time watching mountaineers train. There is an excellent market on a Saturday morning in the Place du Mont Blanc selling local produce, clothes and even grandfather clocks!

A final top tip is to prepare for all weathers: take stout walking boots, a waterproof jacket and layers. When the sun is out, it is very warm and when the clouds close in, watch out for almost anything!

Hiking in Chamonix

Hiking in Chamonix

This article comes to you from Silver Travel Advisor, who recommend for holidays to Chamonix.

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Images: Chamonix Tourist Board/Thinkstock

Last modified: June 10, 2021

Written by 3:58 pm Europe