Savoie Stories and Tips

On the hop in the Chamonix valley

Les Houches, Chamonix valley Photo, Savoie, France

No visit to Chamonix comes complete unless enhanced by trips to other towns and villages that grace the fifteen-mile-long Chamonix valley. Ensnared by spectacular mountain scenery from east and west, Chamonix is the most trampled bit of this region and the most prepared to offer visitors a welcoming hand. But other towns in the valley, though not as popular are no less overrun with bags of natural splendour that can be revelled in simply by a footpath walk in pristine wilderness or a cable-car climb to a snowbound peak. A ski-run on-piste amidst snow plains or shimmering ice-fields is stuff for the daring; an off-piste run along a steep descent or a ski tour along glacial treks is best reserved for the most daring.

All towns along the Chamonix valley are kitted out with facilities for outdoor action, hiking and mountain sports in particular. The Tourist Information Centre in Chamonix is a valuable hub of stature for the supply of information, not merely about activities related to Chamonix but also about endeavours one can partake in, once one ventures into other towns and villages in the neighbourhood. Street maps of the principal towns in the Chamonix valley and piste maps of the region are in abundant supply. Booking accommodation in any Chamonix-valley town or village (or, for that matter, anywhere else along the way) from the Tourist Centre in Chamonix is an easy undertaking that sidesteps the hassle of looking for lodging on arrival. Buying ski passes from the Chamonix Tourist Centre likewise avoids the hassle of hunting around for local tourist offices or shops that deal in skiing gear.

All Chamonix-valley visitors who remain overnight are entitled to a Carte d’Hote that is given for free on arrival and lasts for the complete duration of the stay. Hotels and other places of accommodation (guesthouses and camp sites included) in the Chamonix region are obliged to provide this bank-card-size cardboard slip, duly filled in with hotel name, guest name and arrival and departure dates. Changing hotel either in the same location or from one location to another implies that a new card needs to be reissued. Asking for it at the reception desk after committing yourself only shows that you are well-versed in Chamonix matters and should in no instance be a begging plea. After all, the card donor is not the hotel you’re staying in but the Chamonix Tourist Centre and its out-of-town affiliates. Practically speaking, the Carte d’Hote is a mere transport ticket that allows free day travel by bus or train in the Chamonix valley from the northernmost locality of Le Tour to the southernmost village of Servoz. In addition to free transport, the Carte d’Hote incorporates other lesser benefits like discounted museum tickets and minor discounts in a narrow range of shops.

Free with the Carte d’Hote is an enjoyable not-to-be-missed excursion along the Chamonix valley on the Mont Blanc Express narrow-gauge train. Chugging forty miles between St Gervais on the southwest corner of the valley and Martigny right across the Franco-Swiss border, the train stops en route in Argentiere, Chamonix and Les Houches, these being the three leading locations along the route. If Chamonix is your departure station, it is wise to know that northbound trains go to Argentiere while southbound trains go to Les Houches before proceeding in the direction of their end station. In high season, the Mont Blanc Express is frequent enough (at least, twelve return trips daily) to render waiting at a station a matter of minutes; not so frequent are the off-season trips when waiting time is stepped up considerably. Being aware of which part of the trip is covered by the Carte d’Hote is of utmost importance because venturing beyond the approved boundary entails a steep penalty payable to the checking inspectors on the spot. The Argentiere-Martigny part of the route is not covered by the Carte d’Hote but being the most scenic mountainous region (think rows of spiky snow-buried peaks and shimmering glacial fields) in the entire trip, consider buying a supplementary ticket to cover this part as well. Likewise, the Les Houches-St Gervais section is off-entitlement to Carte d’Hote users but can be added on to the trip on paying an extra supplement.

A ride with scenic views of the mountains on a vintage railway coach is an exhilarating experience beyond description but… stopping along the way is restricted only to the traversed railway stations. A bus ride with similar views is equally exhilarating but the additional benefit of breaking off on many more stops along the route gives commuters greater opportunities than the train for independent hiking and sightseeing. Taking the bus from Chamonix to venture into the ridgy snowbound mountains of the north or the less rough-cut fertile zone of the south is child’s play. A pair of convenient stops, one for northbound buses and another for southbound buses face each other, a stone’s throw west of the roundabout that breaks Allee Recteur Payot in two. Another similar pair is found right across the river on Avenue du Mont-Blanc. Each stop is provided with an ultra-convenient bus schedule that shows all the stops along the route and the arrival time at each, thus eliminating the hassle of not knowing in which direction the bus is going or at which time a particular location you can’t identify is reached. As in the case of train travel, bus trips between Le Tour in the extreme north of the valley and Servoz in the south are free for Carte d’Hote holders; otherwise, a one-way ticket costs 1.50 Euro independent of the distance travelled over.

The range of hiking opportunities that prevail in the area is limitless. An extremely easy three-hour excursion that pays off with magnificent views of running streams and long belts of greenery is a walk from the bus-accessible hamlet of La Joux back to Les Praz de Chamonix. Once in Les Praz, one can take the cable car to the top of Mont Flegere for great views. Along the mountain side, a trailed footpath slope that entails less than an hour of walking climbs down to Les Tines, another hamlet on the bus route.

Somewhat longer and more demanding is the walk from La Joux to Argentiere. Running close to the Arve amidst a forested region thick with pine and birch, most footpaths are partly swamped with water that runs down the mountain sides, rendering walking arduous and exhausting unless one has a pair of waterproof hiking shoes. Before reaching Argentiere, one comes across the hamlet of Les Chosalets, a tiny place that provides chairlift access to a great skiing location ideal for beginners. A children’s fun park aimed at introducing the kids to the world of snow is ideally located at the foot of the chairlift station. Beyond Les Chosalets, the Arve branches off into two cascading waterways. One can either take the bus back to Chamonix from here or else proceed for a further half mile in the direction of Argentiere’s centre. The unrepentant may consider instead walking a further mile uphill en route for Argentiere’s pristine glacial lake, a dreamy sequestered expanse of bubbling water and glimmering melting snow, nestled high between mountain sides. Buses do not venture into the lake area and so one has to walk back to Argentiere for the bus.

Along the southernmost extremity of the Chamonix valley, the four-mile-long gorge that joins Servoz with Les Houches provides for an easy three-hour walk in a pristine isolated environment characterized by bubbling streams, muddy pastures, thick shrubberies and forested hideaways. The absence of footpaths in the area is a clear indication of virgin land, unspoiled by human activity. The hike can be waded into either way but starting from Servoz has the advantage of saving time walking down to the valley since the Servoz bus stop (located next to the train station) is right on the onset of the walking trail. Before embarking on your walk, it is suggested you take the way up to the hamlet of Vieux-Servoz where an old rural way of life is manifest in the country houses and mountain huts that dot the area. The snowbound mountain view from here in the direction of Le Mont is beyond compare.

No matter which form of transport one takes, a day in Argentiere is a must, if only to take the cable car up to the top of Les Grands Montets, the second highest Alpine peak after Mont Blanc. The lower station on the southern outskirts of Argentiere near the right bank of the Arve is only a ten-minute walk from the centre. Before embarking on the trip, it is wise to consult the Office de Tourisme d’Argentiere (located in a ski lodge on Route du Village) for a cable-car schedule and weather conditions on the peaks. Standing on the platform of the upper station amidst a bunch of daredevils ready for the action is as exciting as the frighteningly dramatic view ahead of you.

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