Tour du Mont Blanc fini. Hello, lie-in, I thought. Alas, it’s not to be: I wake up at half six, sans alarm clock. (Trust me, there’s no chance of me waking up at that hour without an alarm these days.) I doze for another couple of hours; half-eight is a bit more like it. Time for a spot of pastry-hunting. There’s no shortage of boulangeries and cafés to try in Chamonix, but we opt for tried-and-tested Le Fournil Chamoniard. I chomp my way through a pain aux raisins; Laurence opts for a croix de Savoie myrtille (a cross-shaped pastry, filled with crème pâtissière and blueberries) and a café au lait.
After a solid nine days of walking, a low-key day is on the cards. We spend the day pottering around Chamonix, browsing bookshops (I came away with a copy of La Chambre des Merveilles) and outdoors shops. We venture inside Église St Michel; it’s nowhere near as ornate as Église d’Argentière, but has some lovely pieces of stained glass. I’ve not seen stained glass skiers or sledders anywhere else!
The Coupe du Monde Escalade (Climbing World Cup) happens to coincide with our few days in Chamonix, so we plonk ourselves down on a bench across from Place du Mont Blanc for a slice of the action. Chamonix isn’t the cheapest place to eat out, so we plan to make the most of the small but well-equipped kitchen back at our Airbnb. Off to Super U we go. We’re in the queue, basket in hand, weighing up which steaks to buy. In front of us, a couple of Japanese climbers (in full club kit) order eight kilos of faux-filet: we can’t quite believe our ears; nor can the butcher. We swing by a boulangerie for a baguette on our way back, and enjoy our tea on the balcony.
We sleep like logs, waking only when our alarms trill away. We’ve decided to spend our last full day in Chamonix hiking up to Mer de Glace, France’s longest and largest glacier. After picking up breakfast and some supplies for lunch, we hit the trail. Many visitors ride the Chemin de fer du Montenvers, a rack-and-pinion railway line which climbs the sides of the aiguilles and deposits passengers a stone’s throw from Mer de Glace. At €33.50 for an adult ticket (return train trip, plus access to the gondola and ice cave), it’s a tad pricey to say the least.
Without a ticket, we weren’t really sure what – if anything – we’d be able to see once we got up there. As it turned out, for those prepared to break a sweat getting up there, once you’re up, you’re in (so to speak). Our first stop was the Galerie des Cristaux, which houses gigantic chunks of local minerals and semi-precious gemstones.
When I think of glaciers, I think of snow-clad tongues of ice like those you see on David Attenborough’s documentaries. Mer de Glace – at least at 1,913m – looks nothing like that: its surface is covered with moraine and scree, along with makeshift tarps to protect the area around the Grotte de Glace from the harsh summer sun.
We take the footpath down to the Grotte de Glace (Ice Cave). As we make our way down the footpath, then the higgledy-piggledy mass of walkways and steps, we spot markers indicating the glacier’s height in years gone by; a stark wake-up call to the realities of climate change in these fragile landscapes. See the vegetation line in the photo above? That was the level of the glacier in 1885. Since then, it’s shrunk considerably.
So much so, in fact, that next year’s Grotte de Glace might well be the last. According to this New Scientist article, the team in charge of carving out the cave came upon a spit of rock this year, which suggests they’re nearing the bottom of the glacier.
We pull on our fleeces before heading inside. We take the shorter tunnel first: the surfaces are smooth with a blueish tinge; up close, we spot air bubbles trapped in the ice. Even with the tarps on top of the glacier, droplets of water drip from the ceiling of the cave. The second tunnel features lots of carved furniture: settees, giant armchairs, even an ice bar.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the Grotte de Glace. On the one hand, it educates visitors about glacial retreat and forces them to come face-to-face with the impact of human activity on glacial regions. On the other, carving out pockets of the glacier, year on year, for the benefit of tourists can’t exactly be helping the situation.
We head back up the steps – all five hundred and eighty of them (that’s five hundred and seventy-seven more than there were in 1988) – and catch a ride on the gondola to the viewing platform, where we tuck into baguettes and fruit.
Post-picnic, we set our sights on Plan de l’Aiguille. There are a few steep switchbacks up to Signal Forbes (c. 2,200m), a boulder-strewn peak with stunning views over Mer de Glace, but after that it’s fairly easy-going. We pause for a while to take in the view, then pick up the Grand Balcon North, a rocky path which traces the contours of the aiguilles.
Clouds are rolling in, smothering the summits. Overhead, a couple of canary-yellow rescue helicopters circle the mountains. Three hours later, we reach Plan de l’Aiguille, and begin the (rather tedious, it must be said) descent into Chamonix. We share three scoops of ice cream (melon, passion fruit and blackcurrant) from Chez Richard; a well-earned treat.
We spend the next morning strolling round the marché, eyeing up enormous tomes of nougat, punnets of fresh fruit and spit-roasted chickens. I came away with a bag of cherries, and Laurence can’t resist buying half a chicken for lunch. We’re flying home from Geneva later, and figure it’d be cheaper to buy our picnic supplies in Chamonix.
We catch a (stiflingly hot) Flixbus to Geneva and arrive just as a triathlon through the city centre was winding down. Pre-TMB, we focused on Geneva’s picture-perfect old town – a maze of cobbled streets – and the waterfront. Now, we make a beeline for green spaces: first, Parc Mon Repos (lunch trumps sightseeing); then, the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques.
Founded in 1817, the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques spans some twenty-eight hectares and is home to over sixteen thousand species of plants, trees and flowers. If you’re ever in – or passing through – Geneva, I’d highly recommend a visit.
We while away the rest of the afternoon by the lake, chocolate and raspberry imitation Magnums in hand (thank goodness Geneva has a Lidl!), before making our way to the airport. Most of our flights are uneventful, though on this occasion Laurence spies Roy Hodgson, with the Crystal Palace FC team in tow. Who knew Premier League footballers flew easyJet with the plebs, eh?
- From Chamonix, it takes roughly two hours to hike up to Mer de Glace. If that’s not an option for you, consider catching the choo-choo (train) to the top. Check the official Chamonx-Mont-Blanc website for timetables and ticket prices.
- Switzerland has a reputation for being expensive, but you can see a lot in Geneva without spending a cent – including the Jet d’Eau, Horloge Fleurie, Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques, Promenade des Bastions and Cathédrale Saint-Pierre.