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Chamonix: Alpine paradise

This alpine resort surrounded by mist and mountains, offers a soul-embalming experience where one can bond with nature, say Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

We huddled together in the minuscule church, along with what seemed like the entire village. In such a milieu, where the mountains wrapped around us like an amphitheatre, it was easy to believe in God. The entire congregation sang lustily and voices rose to the heavens in prayer. Just one man seemed to be immune to the all-pervasive spirituality and beauty around him. His home lay beyond the church and he was deeply involved not in cleansing his soul but his car!

Such moments of epiphany are common in and around Chamonix where mountains mark the region - rugged, rude and robust; isolated, frozen in winter and locked in time. This is France at its most profonde as they say in French, a quiet corner of the country frequented by the cognoscenti who forsake Paris's famed elegance and the Cote d'Azur's glamorous bustle for the majesty of this setting and the mystery of the mountains.

Chamonix - MontBlanc

Chamonix Twilight
All pics: Gustasp Irani

Scenic Setting: A village in Chamonix
A river view

Chamonix days consist of rising to a sea of misty clouds, seeing the soft curved outline of Mont Blanc as it emerges slowly once the mist lifts. Birds trill in unseen boughs and somewhere in the distance, one hears the throaty clang of cow bells and an occasional moo from behind as one ambles by, aimlessly. The wind whistles through the pines and this is as close to soul-enlarging solitude as one can get.

While the villages near Chamonix are quiet idyllic slices of paradise, the town is bright with open-air cafes, restaurants and swish boutiques. The car-free streets are relentlessly chic with snazzily clad holidaymakers in designer sun glasses sipping endless cups of coffee and glasses of wine, depending on the time of day. Dining out is a major preoccupation too and we enjoyed some glorious local fare made with pedigreed ingredients such as fondue, sun-dried sausages (they are hung to dry in chimneys) and slivers of veal in a delicate sauce at local eateries. Our pangs of hunger and nostalgia were stilled with platters full of Indian samosas and ruddy rogan josh that we had at Annapurna, an Indian restaurant run by Indians from Mauritius. Here the land more than history is what has shaped the people who are hardy and thrifty.

The charismatic locals are essentially reserved mountain dwellers, amiable but stubborn, characteristics that are typical of people who commune with nature on a daily basis and can predict the weather from the marshmallow clouds overhead. Yet they are imbued with a sense of hospitality and the desire to share the beauty of their environs with strangers.

We met locals who were anxious to showcase this scenic corner of the country, surrounded by mountains, lakes, forests, rivers and expansive tracts of land, untamed and much of it silent and given to wild extremes of climate. Some insisted on accompanying us to the railway station on our departure as in this largely car free-resort dragging one's suitcases across the centre of town can be rather irksome. We had to decline many such hospitable offers to ferry us around, to have tea and to dine…

Indeed Chamonix's jaw-dropping beauty has prompted many a holiday maker to stay on and on. And at the end of a few days of fun, alternating with solitude, we almost felt that there was no reason to leave. The serene mountain vistas, shaggy woods and that elusive fragrance of pine that haunts the air can be addictive. The air seemed soft and lightly chilled when we were there so our every sentence ended with a trace of vapour. However, after a few days of indolence amidst this unremitting beauty, we felt some vigorous excursions were called for.

The next morning, we awoke early even as the wind hurried the mist over the iron-hard rocky slopes of Mont Blanc, the highest in Europe, and the robust arc of snow-capped peaks surrounding it. Soon we were almost up there but not quite. We swung up from the valley of Chamonix in two cable cars to the Aiguille du Midi (3,842 m) or South Needle below Mont Blanc which soars to 4,810m (Mont Blanc is a protected area and cable cars do not go all the way to the top). After the rugged ride, we stood on an observation platform where a keen wind seeped through our heavy jackets, even as we gaped at the mountains which exerted a strange almost dreamlike power on us.

An alpine golf course
A village in Chamonix
Snow trek
Mountain train amidst Autumn foliage

Getting there

The most convenient way to get to Chamonix is by the TGV from Paris or Lyon then connect at Saint Gervais to the SNCF train station in Chamonix. Tickets for the TGV can be purchased in India from Rail Europe. (Contact: gopi@raileuropeindia.com )

Air France operates direct flights to Paris from where one can catch the TGV or drive down to Chamonix. Alternatively one can fly to Geneva in Switzerland which is just 55 km from Chamonix. The Autoroute Blanche motorway is part of the European motorway network. One can also reach Chamonix from Italy.

On arrival at your hotel, pick up a guest card that entitles you to free bus travel in the valley as well as discounts on entry fees to the public swimming pool, ice rink, Alpine museum, car parks etc.

By way of accommodation Chamonix has four star, two star and more affordable options too. There is the utterly charming La Maison Carrier, a Relais & Chateaux hotel, the Best Mont Blanc chain, a Club Med in a former palace as well as charming bed and breakfast facilities in the villages near the resort.

For more information contact Maison de la France (the French Tourist Office), Mumbai, at sheetalmunshaw@franceguide.com

Out of the mist, two figures appeared on the Glacier du Geant that unfolded below us like a river of ice. The apparitions took the form of fit muscular men with enormous packs on their backs who had trekked up the craggy slopes in search of a personal nirvana on a mountain top. To reach the summit of Mont Blanc takes two days or longer depending on individual levels of fitness and skill; one man scaled the peak in a little over five hours (breaking the record is now forbidden because of the hazards involved). Indeed the Aiguille du Midi is the starting point of many skiing trails in winter from where skiers schuss their way to the Italian side or the Swiss side of the Alps. If it's action you're looking for, Chamonix offers that as well - walking, hiking, playing golf…

The next day we chugged up in the Montenvers rack and pinion railway that now takes one to scenic vantage points such as the Mer De Glace (The Sea of Ice). Here we gazed at the 7 km long, biggest glacier in France, which had receded, leaving behind scarred, gouged-out mountain slopes. Our guide related how Chamonix was discovered by two Englishmen who rode in from Geneva on donkeys. It took them six days! As the resort developed, donkeys and horses were elbowed out by the Montenvers railway.

Back in bustling Chamonix, it was hard to imagine it as an untamed wilderness. As we relaxed at a local restaurant, we felt like we were in a quintessential alpine movie set. Lush green meadows climbed straight up from the jade-green River Arve to dissolve into the rugged snow-dusted Alps. There was a sweet pealing of church bells and the cheerful sound of a fast flowing stream in the background. We wallowed a little longer in the decaffeinated lifestyle of this pine and shingle village, for it shares its sense of peace and stunning landscape generously with tourists.

Ultimately there is a fairy tale quality about a place that wakes up in the embrace of mountains - especially one as omnipresent as Mont Blanc. The mountain dominated our dreams; it was etched on our eyelids when we awoke and haunted our days as it shimmered on the horizon. That evening we chugged out of Chamonix in the red and white Mont Blanc Express marvelling at the fact that every bend commanded out-of-the-world views. The snow-crusted Alps, veiled occasionally by clouds daubed in the setting sun's pink after glow, receded in the distance. Chamonix, we decided, is the resort that God gave to sybarites and lovers of the good life!

A church in Chamonix
Ice cave gallery
Chalet Hotel
A village church

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