In July, I went to Chamonix in the French Alps and instantly fell in love. Having also spent time in the Alps in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia, I can now say that France was my favorite. You’re probably wondering why I’m just now writing about this, but why not now?! I still find myself raving about this adorable mountain town to everyone I meet and after my recent trip to the states, I feel motivated to catch up on my blogging and tackle my next few months of travel.
The love affair started basically as soon as we crossed the border from Switzerland to France. My mom and I drove from Wiesbaden, which was supposed to take about 6 hours but ended up taking 8.5 hours with Germany’s consistently heavy traffic. Once we got to France, passing the scenic Lake Geneva, we were on narrow, windy roads and the traffic dissipated. Over the next hour or so we climbed high into the Alps. By about 7:30 p.m. we arrived at our hotel, which by the way had a mountain-view room for us, and we immediately headed into town for dinner. I did my routine research to find us a well-rated, mid-range restaurant serving seasonal French cuisine, and I was instantly blown away by the food in this town. So I’ll start by talking about the food rather than the sights!
Our meals were expensive but some of the best quality food I’ve had in Europe. We tried to eat at all French restaurants, and most of the menus included some sort of prix-fixe, three-course option that we almost always took advantage of. Here were some of the highlights:
After dinner, we took a stroll around town, which was surprisingly lively on a summer Friday night, considering it’s not ski season. The town really stood out to me because it’s nestled in a narrow valley between two towering mountains, whereas in Garmisch, for example, where we go for the German Alps, the peaks are much more spread out. One of those towering mountains in Chamonix is Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in continental Europe (not counting the higher summits in Russia and Georgia), and it’s over 6,000 feet higher than Germany’s tallest mountain, the Zugspitze near Garmisch.
The other thing that put Chamonix above the rest of the alpine villages I’ve visited is the wide variety of activities we were able to do.
We started our Saturday morning by going up the Aiguille du Midi mountain, where a cable car gets you up super close to the peak of Mont Blanc. We had a mostly clear morning so it was well worth the expensive price tag. There was a whole system of walkways at the top with panoramic views in all different directions. And it was surprisingly about 45 degrees up there. I was expecting much cooler but being close to the sun warmed us up.
That afternoon, we went to the Merlet Animal Park in the nearby town of Les Houches. I am unapologetically a big zoo fan, and this one allowed animals native to the region to roam freely through the large park while visitors observe from trails. So it basically combines hiking and animal watching! Because this is something I have never seen before, it was a really exciting and enjoyable experience for me.
Our second day, we began our morning on the Montenvers train from Chamonix to the Mer de Glace, or sea of ice. After the scenic ride up the mountain, a cable car takes you down toward the glacier, and then another 400 steps or so go down to the ice cave. As you descend, there are signs marking the ice level at various years in the past. At the bottom of the steps, you can walk through the cold tunnels of the ice cave, carved into the small amount of glacier remaining. This was certainly a huge wake-up call about climate change, and it was interesting to see the direct impact through the glacier’s melting.
Then we drove over to the Gorges de la Diosaz, which are also in Les Houches just like the wildlife park. A trail took us over a mile along the gorge to a big waterfall, and we happened to be there during the only two months of the year when the water is flowing naturally and the dam is turned off! It was a nice way to spend our afternoon and get a little hike in, but it was probably the least impressive of all the alpine gorges I’ve seen so far.
We had to hurry back to our hotel because it was the day of the World Cup, and France was playing! We’re not soccer fans and didn’t plan to be in France for the game. We actually originally wanted to go to Paris until we realized how chaotic it would be that weekend. Chamonix was a much better choice. We watched France win from our hotel room, and then headed to town for dinner where everyone was celebrating. The atmosphere was exciting and not too overwhelming considering it’s a small town full of non-French tourists. It really was the best way to end the already incredible trip.
So if you’re looking for the ultimate mountain experience, Chamonix is the way to go. I hear a lot of people say they want to go to Switzerland specifically to see the Alps, but it’s important to remember the Alps cover 8 countries and each one offers something a little different.