Nestled between the Aiguilles Rouges and the Mont Blanc massif lies the alpine town of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, a haven for winter sport enthusiasts and hikers alike. Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, more commonly referred to as Chamonix, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Over the past century, it has become a firm favourite amongst lovers of the great outdoors, offering everything from off-piste runs and paragliding to nature trails and via ferrata. Back in February, Laurence and I spent three days exploring this alpine wonderland – and our only regret was not spending more time there.
Armed with a bag of pastries and a cup of hot chocolate, we set off for Lyon Part Dieu. Destination: Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. Letting the train(s) take the strain, we settled back in our seats to admire the views, which got better and better the closer we got to Chamonix. Our second train (of three) spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on the tracks going nowhere, to the point that it looked like we were going to miss our connection for the Mont Blanc Express. Fortunately, the SNCF were uncharacteristically kind and held the train for those of us continuing up the Chamonix valley. As the bright red train chugged up the line, twisting and turning through the valley, we caught sight of the craggy peaks of the Mont Blanc massif, their slopes covered with a thick blanket of snow and dotted with conifers.
In our eagerness to explore the area, we ended up hopping off the train at Chamonix-Aiguille-du-Midi, and making our way into the town centre on foot. As it was lunchtime, we set about picking up supplies for a picnic lunch. Having munched our ham baguettes in the sunshine, we set off for the tourist information centre – only to get distracted by some chocolate tarts calling out for us from the display unit of a nearby bakery. (It takes an incredible amount of self-restraint to not eat French pastries every day of the week, but when on holiday such idealism goes straight out of the window.)
Tour of the Office du Tourisme complete, and armed with several maps and leaflets, we headed out of the town centre. It wasn’t long before we spotted some hiking signs – none of which corresponded to the suggested routes we had in front of us. Scrapping any plans to continue further up the valley, we decided to follow signs to the Petit Balcon Sud/ La Floria. Chamonix itself is at an altitude of 1035m; although there had been no snowfall for the past few days, snowdrifts and icy patches lingered on the trail, which was heavily flanked by conifers. At intervals, the trees cleared and we had stellar views of the Mont Blanc Massif. Below us, Chamonix and its suburbs filled the valley floor.
Just as we were beginning to wonder how much further we had to walk to our destination – and whether we had the time to do so – we rounded a bend and caught sight of a wood store and traces of civilisation. Chalet de la Floria is closed during the winter months, but the viewpoint remains accessible to visitors. (It has pretty good reviews on TripAdvisor, so if you’re there in the summer months it would likely make a good refreshment stop.)
We didn’t encounter a single living soul on the trail, but at the viewpoint we chatted to an older man, who cracked a few jokes while snapping away with his 360° camera, and a young woman, who told us that the walk we had just done was one of her favourites in the area. They both gave us plenty of tips on things to see and do while we were in Chamonix; their insider knowledge was infinitely more helpful than my guidebook.
Bright blue skies contrasted against the charcoal rock faces of the Mont Blanc massif; swathes of snow covered the mountainside. Hovering on the horizon was Mont Blanc itself, an understated white mound to the right of the aiguilles.
As time slipped by, we let our Airbnb host know we’d be arriving a little later than expected. The views from our short, and entirely unanticipated, walk only heightened our excitement to ascend the Aiguille du Midi the following day. Eventually, we tore ourselves away and retraced our steps through the conifers, taking care not to slip where the snow had compacted into ice.
Located a kilometre or so outside of Chamonix, our Airbnb was lovely and cosy, with wooden beams across the ceilings and a quaint spiral staircase leading to the second floor. After settling in and unloading our bags, we left the house just in time to see sunset over Mont Blanc. Tinged with pink, the aiguilles looked magical.
Once the sun had gone down, the temperature began to drop. Since we didn’t fancy the après ski scene in Chamonix, we paid a quick trip to the local supermarket and came out with reasonably priced steaks and an assortment of vegetables for our tea.
- We felt hotels and hostels in Chamonix were a little overpriced, so opted for this Airbnb. Our hosts, Marco and Veronica, were welcoming, and we had a pleasant stay which clocked in at £123 for two nights.
- Hiking trails in France are generally well-signposted, but it would be advisable to be armed with the relevant IGN map, in case you encounter difficulties. (Depending on where you plan to hike, you’re likely to want one of the following: Samoëns Haut-Giffre IGN3530 ET for the Aiguilles Rouges, and either Chamonix Massif du Mont Blanc IGN3630 OT or St. Gervais-les-Bains Massif du Mont Blanc IGN3531 ET for the Mont Blanc massif.)