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Chamonix was one of the real highlights of our seven-week, 7000km summer adventure around France and Corsica. The drive up into the mountains is stunning, as you leave the soft, rolling hills of the south and climb up and up, through dramatic landscapes that showcase some of Europe’s most famous mountains. We took a detour for lunch via Courchevel, France’s premier winter resort, checking out the summer sales. This is possibly the best place in Europe to buy top-end brands and the sales are astonishing. At 11am on a 12 degree Celsius Tuesday morning, the shop assistants were dressed to kill in slinky backless evening gowns. Only in Courchevel!
There are no shortage of good, albeit pricey, restaurants in Courchevel, including two Michelin-starred establishments. At Le Chabicho, owned and run by the Rochedy family, you can pick up a bottle of 1970 Romanée-Conti for more than $9200 a bottle. The other Michelin-awarded restaurant is Le Bateau Livre at La Pomme de Pin Hotel. Another highly rated Courchevel restaurant is Le Saulire in the centre of town. Given the drive that lay ahead, we opted for a lesser culinary event, enjoying tender frogs’ legs and an extremely good cheese fondue served with bitter greens and chunks of crusty French bread. Washed down with a crisp Alsace pinot gris, it was the perfect break to our journey.
Then it was onwards, up into the mountains, through the famous Mt Blanc tunnel and then down into the picture pretty town of Chamonix. After a visit to the local tourism office we opted to stay at a small guiding hotel, La Prairie, in des Bois, a scenic traditional village located about 4km up the valley from Chamonix.
La Prairie was originally set up in the 1920s as a guiding establishment, and the owner’s father was one of Chamonix’s top guides. With 10 bedrooms and a couple of shared bathrooms, it feels rather like staying in someone’s old family holiday home. The beds are slightly sagging, the blankets of the old woollen threadbare type your grandmother might have had, and everywhere around the walls is guiding memorabilia from the area. However, for all its lack of ‘plushness’, it was clean and friendly, and the view up across the valley onto Mt Blanc was spectacular. The village des Bois proved a great stepping-off point for many of Chamonix’s wonderful summer walking trails, and there was a local restaurant where we dined quite well (a plague of flies notwithstanding) on two occasions.
It’s easy to consider the mountains as a purely winter playground, but in summer Chamonix is magical. This is beautiful walking country with clear, crisp air, dark pine forests, gleaming glaciers, soaring rocky peaks, grassy meadows and, over the summer months, a profusion of wildflowers.
With 350km of marked paths and over 160 trails to explore, the Chamonix valley has the most comprehensive and well-marked trails in the Haute-Savoie. The full walking map is available at the Tourist Office in town. If you are seriously interested in walking, check out the little guide Chamonix Mt Blanc, A Walking Guide by Martin Collins, which describes 31 trails of various lengths in the Chamonix area. A number of guided walking tours are also available.
Among the most thrilling aspects of walking in Chamonix are the small chalets along or at the end of the trails, which provide delicious refreshments. For greedy people like me, this is sufficient incentive to put on your hiking boots. We chose to take the hike to Le Chapeau, a 75-minute walk from the village of des Bois. It’s an easy walk that winds gently up the side of the valley, starting at the village of Le Lavancher and climbing up to the chalet at just under 1600m. Le Chapeau is located near the gorges de l’Arveyro, and offers a view of the Drus and the Chamonix valley. All the food is carried in by the cook and host, who make the return journey daily. When you know that the trail is downhill from here on in, a glass of chablis and a fresh herb omelette is a very appealing prospect. As we were enjoying this delectable treat an amazing berry tart emerged from the kitchen. I was told by the cook that people often make the trip to Le Chapeau especially for her tart, phoning from the bottom of the trail to see if it is on the menu. After savouring its buttery, crisp homemade pastry and tangy wild currant filling topped with fresh raspberries, it was easy to see why. It was one of those compelling taste memories you don’t ever forget.
I have spied another nine such ‘gourmet’ chalets on the list of Chamonix’s walking trails. Roll on the next summer when I can go back.
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