Aosta can be considered as Italy’s gateway to the south of France. The easiest way to reach France from Aosta is to take the Savda bus (six daily) from the Aosta bus station on Via Carrel to the mountain resort of Courmayeur from where another bus operated by SAT continues the trip to Chamonix. The convenient 9:45 am bus from Aosta reaches Courmayeur one hour later but on account of the traffic that often obstructs the Mont Blanc tunnel access or the overwhelming quantity of snow that falls on the area, the scheduled time for the Courmayeur-Chamonix part of the trip is rarely kept, at times reluctantly prolonged by as much as forty minutes. A one-way ticket that covers both sections of the trip costs 14 Euro and can be bought from the Aosta bus station only on the day of departure.
The bus from Aosta to Courmayeur follows the A5 that conveniently links the two towns. Stretching along the banks of the Dora Baltea River, the motorway affords awesome mountain views dotted with snow-capped peaks and running streams. The views become more spectacular as the route climbs up to La Salle and simply superb as the bus cuts across the outskirts of Pre-Saint-Didier and approaches Courmayeur.
The bus station at Courmayeur is the most scenic stop I have ever come across. Girdled by high mountains, still tucked away under loads of snow at the end of May, it offers fabulous views of jagged peaks, crevassed glaciers and rough-cut ridges. The SAT bus was waiting when the first bus reached Courmayeur. My intended attempt to find a vantage point from where I could get more of the view was therefore rendered impossible. The winding road from Courmayeur to the Mont Blanc tunnel is a mere one-mile-long steep incline but the lengthy line of trailers that invade the way turns this short trip into a nightmare. As the bus finally reached the tunnel access, the heavy traffic subsided and in twenty minutes, we were exiting the tunnel and starting our descent on Chamonix. As the bus wended its way downhill through the suburb of Les Pelerins, it afforded fine views of more jagged crags, snow-domed peaks and staggering mountain sides. Before long, we were on the Autoroute Blanche, the motorway that hooks up with the N205 carriageway leading into Chamonix.
Just round the corner from the wooden structure of Hotel Mercure, the combined train and bus stations nestled on Place de la Gare are a mere short distance east of the centre. Lined up with an accumulation of restaurants and cafes, Avenue Michel Croz (the street that faces the stations) heads straight to the River Arve, a gushing waterway that divides the city diagonally into two. Both sides embrace graceful streets that lead uphill to mountain sides thriving with vegetation and snow for most of the year but the real centre where most everyday services are concentrated lies west of the Arve.
Small in size but utterly pretentious, the centre of Chamonix is dominated by a half-mile-long car-free boulevard (named Rue du Docteur Paccard) where off-action skiers and cross-country hikers parade, dine or simply while away the time in glitzy pursuits. Several shops that deal in souvenirs and mountain and skiing equipment line up this street. On a corner between shops stands the distinctive building of the Chamonix Mountain Guide Association. Its conspicuous artistic exterior embracing colourful drawings of famous Chamonix mountaineers deserves more than a passing glance.
Crisscrossing Rue du Docteur Paccard is Place Balmat, a graceful pedestrianized square crammed with rustic street cafes and chalet restaurants that offer a complete cuisine of appetizing French fare featuring a strong cheesy Alpine taste. Squeezed amidst the eating joints are two banks and the town’s main post office. Steps away, on Place du Triangle de l’Amitie is the Tourist Information Centre (Office de Tourisme de Chamonix Mont-Blanc), a no-nonsense Wifi-free place that provides an ultra-quick information service to tourists who are looking for accommodation, skiing and hiking possibilities, cable-car schedules and transport options in the region.
Across the square from the Tourist Information Centre is the Eglise St-Michel, a small one-steeple working church with a typical Chamonix-valley design (all churches across the Chamonix valley have similar layouts) and few interior decorations worthy of note. Next to the church in a big building, the Maison de la Montagne houses three indispensable age-old Chamonix institutions: the world-renowned Ecole de Ski Francais whose instructors show up from time to time in red skiing gear near the foot of the Aiguille du Midi cable car; the Compagnie des Guides, a highly-organized mountaineering guide association with which other similar Chamonix-based associations compete but never seem to catch up; the Office de Haute Montagne, a prime source of vital information on weather conditions, avalanche alerts, hiking trails and mountain-hut locations.
The network of tiny intersecting streets (named after flowering plants that flourish in the area) enclosed between Place de l’Eglise and the thoroughfare Allee Recteur Payot teems with a concentration of legendary manor-houses, aptly turned into two-star and three-star hotels. Definitely neither the best kitted-out places of accommodation in Chamonix nor the most comfortable, these hotels are nonetheless homely intimate, utterly noiseless and… as close to the centre as any hotel can be.
The southern end of Rue du Docteur Paccard marks the spot that all Chamonix visitors unexceptionally aim for. A short eastbound stroll on Avenue de l’Aiguille du Midi (a pleasant street lined up with an endless cluster of sportswear and mountain-equipment shops) brings one exactly in front of the Aiguille du Midi cable-car station. Viewing the Mont Blanc massif from this vantage point is tantamount to getting enthralled by scenery so shockingly spectacular it’s practically impossible not to show outward signs of admiration for this mighty wonder of nature. Once here, how can one ever desist from taking the box to the top of the Aiguille? Climbing an altitude of 3777 metres in just twenty minutes, this cable-car trip will unquestionably be the experience of a lifetime. Once one reaches the arrival terrace, one comes face to face with a pair of spiky snowbound peaks joined together by a footbridge that seems to scare even the most daring. The summit café (dubbed Le 3842) where simple food complements the revelling view is the highest snack bar in Europe. Scared of exorbitant heights or intense frost? Then stop at the Plan de l’Aiguille mid-station where several trailed hikes that climb down to the outskirts of Chamonix kick off. Buying tickets in high season is an ordeal that may last hours. So be at the ticket office as early as 8:00 am (earlier if possible in summer) unless you are not prepared to wait in long queues.
Neither as spikily steep nor as spookily scary is the top of Mont Brevent, the highest peak of the Aiguilles Rouges massif. West of the Chamonix church across Allee Recteur Payot is a steep incline (Rue de la Mollard) that leads uiphill to the Chamonix-Brevent lower station from where a cable car climbs up to the 2525-metres-high Mont Brevent. Adjoining the upper station is a restaurant (aptly named Le Panoramic) that affords in addition to tasty local fare, an incredible view of Mont Blanc from its outside terrace. Definitely neither as adventurous nor as mind-boggling as the Mont Blanc trip, the climb to Mont Brevent comes at only a fraction of the price and offers equal doses of scenery and hiking opportunities. Before embarking on a trip to Mont Brevent (or its Planpraz mid-station), enquire at the Tourist Information Centre for any interruptions in the cable-car service that may be inoperative off-season.
Steps north of the train station, a green staircase climbs up to the Passerelle de Montenvers, a graceful footbridge that heads straight to the Montenvers narrow-gauge train station. A red rack-and-pinion contrivance makes regular twenty-minute trips from Chamonix to the Mer de Glace, a ten-mile-long glacial lake perched at an altitude of 1900 metres amidst a flair of snowbound peaks. From the arrival station at Montenvers, a cable car plies down to the Grotte, an ice cave hewed out fresh of the glacier every spring. The red train operates daily throughout the year but the Grotte can only be visited in summer.
Nestled between the Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles Rouges chains, Chamonix is not the only town in the Chamonix valley with cable-car access to the mountains. North of Chamonix and accessible by bus from the stops on Allee Recteur Payot, the smaller towns of Argentiere and Le Tour both provide cable-car access to the nearby peaks. South of Chamonix, the peaks around the towns of Les Houches and Servoz are less grand but the hiking opportunities they afford are equally great. In high season, Chamonix turns into a mad playground where skiers and hikers play for space; consider instead other towns in the Chamonix valley where the atmosphere is definitely less chaotic and hotels are cheaper but the peaks are equally fantastic.