What started as an unplanned visit to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc to kill a few hours in a leisurely way became a whirlwind excursion into the mountains. Diana Streak races against the clock.
It started by asking for a lift to Geneva. We had flown in there to catch a shuttle bus to Morillon in the French Alps, where a friend from London was celebrating her 50th birthday in a stylish chalet.
As we had stayed longer and the shuttle bus was no longer operating, we thought cadging a lift with friends driving a hire car back to Geneva to catch their flight would be a fun way to spend time with them and see more of the French countryside.
There was one proviso. They were going via Chamonix to meet up with a former colleague and would we mind amusing ourselves there for a few hours.
As someone in constant fear of missing out on seeing some hidden gem, I thought, let’s see if there is a quick tour we could do to make the most of it.
Off we went to the tourism office, where we were helped by Giulia. My first thought was to take Le Petit Train Touristique de Chamonix, which takes visitors on a sedate 40-minute tour of the town in a charming red and white miniature train for just 6 euros, but Giulia thought otherwise.
“That’s peanuts,” she said dismissively, “you should take the Montenvers train up the mountain.” She convinced us that our allotted three hours was enough time – the train took 20 minutes up and 20 minutes down, which left us two hours to do all the sights so we thought we’d risk it.
With a sense of excitement we set off to find the station, which Giulia said was a doddle.
After a few wrong turns we found it, bought our tickets, which we thought were pretty steep (30 euros) but we thought it was worth it as who knows when we might be back. We proffered the ticket to collector who pointed out there was only one. Bewildered husband said “but this was all they gave me”. I raced back to the ticket sellers on other side of building where I was met with blank looks. With a rising sense of panic, husband investigated his wallet and of course there it was.
The fire engine red train was about to leave, its wooden slat seats fast filling up and with a sigh of relief we started chugging through the pine forests.
The Montenvers rack, or cog, railway, which was opened in 1909, starts from Chamonix and in 20 minutes “and in total safety”, the brochure tells us, climbs to an altitude of 1,913 metres, where it reaches the bottom of the Mer de Glace, France’s largest glacier, which is 7km long and 200m thick.
The highlight is a tour of the “Grotte de Glace” or Ice Cave which takes visitors into the icy heart of the glacier. Having read there are about 430 steps from arrival of the gondola to the entrance of the cave, I wondered if Giulia’s optimism was founded.
I sat back and gazed as the scenery became more dramatic with each passing kilometre and mused on this beautiful summer’s day what it might be like in winter when the entire region is covered in a thick blanket of snow.
After the pine trees the train passed through a tunnel and emerged into Alpine countryside which reminded me of the vegetation around Morillon, where I had seen my first buttercup and eaten purple clover.
There were remnants of snow, as if an ice queen had run her fingers down the side of the mountain and left sparkling white traces of last year’s falls, and dozens of paragliders circled over the dazzling peaks.
We walked around and enjoyed the views and museum before taking the gondola, along with professionally kitted out mountain hikers, which had a prominent sign “Please keep ice axe in your hand.”
The gondola took us into the valley, from where we could walk to the ice cave but those 430 steps seemed pretty steep and, looking across at the entrance, the queues seemed worryingly long and frankly it looked as if global warming hadn’t been kind to its appeal. We reluctantly decided to skip that particular attraction and started heading back.
On our way down the train suddenly stopped and I nervously glanced at the clock on my mobile phone between taking photos. After what seemed like ages we were on our way again. But another long stop had me clock watching the entire time, becoming more and more stressed, unlike our fellow passengers who had relaxed into holiday time.
I discovered afterwards that these stops are part of the rack railway system which enables it to climb such a steep gradient – not an unexpected delay.
Back in Chamonix town we had enough time for a quick croissant and expresso to restore our nerves before Robert and Alison arrived to pick us up outside the glorious Casino Barrière at the appointed hour. We even had a few minutes to admire the historic building, which is one of Chamonix’ most dominant landmarks.
Merci, Giulia, the gamble paid off. TTW
Diana Streak travelled to France at her own expense. Photos © Diana Streak.