The ski resort of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is famous for its ideal location at the foot of Europe’s highest peak. What was a small mountain village until the end of the 19th century has now become a cosmopolitan centre in the French Alps of Haute-Savoie.
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc: a bit of history
Before the 18th century, Chamonix (or Chamouni as it was then known) was situated in a remote position at the foot of Mont-Blanc, “the doomed mountain”.
In the end of the 18th century the little village welcomed Balmat and Paccard reached the top of the mountain for the first time in recorded history. For over two centuries, Chamonix has been welcoming travellers from all over the world, drawn to the resort by its reputation of outdoor pursuits: mountaineering, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, skiing and snowboarding.
Originally located on the lands of the Duke of Savoy, the commune of Chamonix became French on the 4th April 1860, and it took the name Chamonix-Mont-Blanc on the 21st November 1921.
Chamonix welcomed Emperor Napoleon III and empress Eugénie on 2 September 1860. The imperial couple visited the Mer de Glace and their visit contributed to the fame of the village.
But Chamonix really owes its fantastic development as a skiing resort to the first Winter Olympic Games that were held there in 1924.
The town of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc
The population of Chamonix accounts for approximately 9,000, but is prone to important demographic variations depending on the tourist seasons: 60,000 visitors enter the Valley of Chamonix in winter and more than 100,000 in summer.
There is not much of interest in the town itself apart from admiring the former palaces that once host famous visitors. It is the magnificent surroundings that make Chamonix’ so much worth a visit.
Since 1965, Chamonix has been linked to Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley by the 11.6 km long Mont Blanc Tunnel which runs beneath the mountain. Alongside the St Gotthard and the Fréjus tunnels, it constitutes one of the major trans-Alpine transport routes.
Explore the Mer de Glace with the Montenvers Railway
The Montenvers mountain railway (Chemin de fer du Montenvers) is a train service which departs from Chamonix and goes up to the Montenvers Hotel (1.913 m) on the flanks of Mont Blanc. The line is 5.1 km long and trains take 20 minutes, running at 14 to 20 kph.
The first section of the line was opened in 1909 with steam locomotives, until it was electrified in 1953.
On arrival at the Montenvers upper station, visitors can opt for a 20 minute walk or a short gondola ride down into an ice cave carved out of the Mer de Glace (in summer only).
The panorama at Montenvers is exceptional with the Mer de Glace and its two impressive “needles” (Aiguille du Dru and Aiguille Verte with the Grandes Jorasses in the background).
The Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) is a 7 km long and 200 metres deep glacier. It is the longest glacier in France. Until the 19th century, the glacier, then visible from Chamonix, was even longer, reaching the hamlet of Les Bois. It attracted painters and later photographers, such as William Turner with the 1816 painting “Source of the Arveron in the Valley of Chamouni Savoy”.
Today, the glacier is steadily retreating: at Montenvers station, it has thinned by 150 metres since 1820.
An unforgettable journey to Aiguille du Midi
The journey to Aiguille du Midi is arguably one of the most exciting cable-car rides in the Alps. It is a two stage journey, lasting only 20 minutes with an ascent of 2,800 m. The cable-car first leaves the centre of Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille (2,308 m) suspended part of the time 500 m above ground.
From there, some visitors prefer to go on a great day excursion to the Montenvers train station and take the train back down to Chamonix.
From Plan de l’Aiguille, a second cable-car rises up without any support pillar, to Aiguille du Midi with fantastic views of the jagged Aiguilles de Chamonix and the upper parts of the Mont-Blanc massif.
At the top of Aiguille du Midi, at an altitude of 3,842 metres, the view of the mountains is breath-taking and embraces the Swiss, Italian and French Alps as far as the Matterhorn and Monta Rosa.
The Aiguille du Midi (Needle of the South) is said to have been called so by the local population as its position indicated the South.
The station of Aiguille du Midi consists of two panoramic viewing platforms, a café and a gift shop. The Gourmet restaurant named “3842” is one of the highest restaurants in the world. Visitors can also find a letterbox and a post-office here with a proper “Aiguille du Midi” post stamp. The cable-car station is situated at 3,777 m and a lift inside the rock of the needle rises the final 42 m to the top terrace at 3,842 m. This is the closest visitors can get to the Mont Blanc without climbing!
From Aiguille du Midi, another cable car (summer only), continues the formidable journey for 5 km and 30 minutes towards the Pointe Helbronner (3,462 m) above the Glacier du Géant. The Pointe Helbronner, marking the border between France and Italy, is served by another cable-car descending to La Palud, a village near Courmayeur, in the Aosta Valley, Italy.
An adult ticket from Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi (as of November 2017) is €60 return.
More details about the cable-car Chamonix-Aiguille du Midi.
The majestic view to Mont-Blanc from Le Brévent
One of the best views of the Mont Blanc massif is at Le Brévent, the mountain opposite. Le Brévent is accessible by gondola from the centre of Chamonix.
The relay station of Planpraz at 2,062m is reached within 20 minutes. It offers beautiful views over the Chamonix Valley and Mont-Blanc. It is an ideal start for great classical hikes leading to magnificent mountain lakes or down to Chamonix.
The second stage of the journey, also by gondola, brings the visitors to the summit of Le Brévent at an altitude of 2,526m within 20 minutes. From here, the view reaches over to the French side of Mont Blanc.
An adult ticket from Chamonix to Le Brévent (as of November 2017) is €31.50 return.
More details about the cable-car Chamonix-Brévent.
How to get to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc
BY CAR. Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is easily accessible by car.
- From Paris, take the A6 to Mâcon and the A40 to Chamonix (this motorway is also called “Autoroute Blanche” – the white motorway!)
- From Marseille and Provence, take the A7 to Valence before connecting to the A49 to Grenoble and then the A41 through Chambéry and Annecy till it reaches the A40 motorway.
BY TRAIN. Chamonix is also easily accessible by train, with regular TGV service from Paris Gare de Lyon and to Geneva or Annecy. From there, take a TER (regional express train) to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains before connecting to Chamonix with the Mont-Blanc express service. Some TGV can also lead you directly to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, located 20 km from Chamonix.
BY AIR. If you travel from Australia or America (or overseas!), take a flight to the Swiss airport of Geneva Cointrin (88 km) or to Lyon Saint-Exupéry (220 km) and rent a car from there. Geneva, Switzerland is by far the closest airport to the Savoie region.
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