The following article is scheduled to be published in Global Geneva’s Nov. 2018 – January 2018 print and e-edition.
Upon their return home, Windham and Pococke’s gushing tales found favour in the European press. The first recorded ascent of Mont Blanc was by two Savoyards in 1786. The Savoy/Savoie was then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, but credit for conquering the summit went to a far more famous Alpine explorer from Conches near Geneva (then an independent republic): Horace-Bénédict de Saussure initiated the climb and offered a reward for anyone making the successful ascent. He himself made it to the top on his fourth attempt in 1787. As a result, in a mixture of Swiss and French history that has characterized Chamonix, the Swiss is often credited with the exploit, More legitimately, perhaps, he is considered the founder of modern mountaineering.
In a familiar trend, inns were opened and tourists began trudging up to Chamonix – albeit with great difficulty. In a letter to his friend James Forster, Charles Dickens recalled, “…you climb up and up and up [from the Col de Balme pass] for five hours and more, and look – from a mere unguarded ledge of path on the side of the precipice – into such awful valleys, that at last you are firm in the belief that you have got above everything in the world.”
So awful was the climb that horses were known to slip, carts to slide off the path and climbers to pitch to a certain death on the ominous approach to town.
Chamonix itself sits tightly in a valley surrounded by summits, the most famous (and the highest in Europe at 4,808 meters) being the Mont Blanc. You may not have visited yet, but you’re probably familiar with it. Your heart may have leapt at the sight of the grandiose peaks in Sean Connery’s and Michael Caine’s “The Man Who Would Be King”. Or perhaps your imagination was set alight by John Ruskin’s swirling landscapes, or by William Wordsworth’s description of Chamonix (then spelled Chamouny) as “…a scene more fair than what the Grecian feigns”.
Switzerland’s lost chance to own the Mont Blanc
In 1860, Savoy, which ruled Chamonix, became part of France. Many Savoyards haven’t yet swallowed this affront. At one point, prior to taking power as emperor of the French in 1852, Napoleon III (formerly Louis Napoleon Bonaparte) had been forced to seek refuge in Switzerland. With gratitude, he offered part of Savoy, including the Mont Blanc, as a present to his former hosts. However, political dithering in protestant Geneva – reluctant to have more Catholics – and in German-speaking Berne – not wanting more Francophones – prompted him to annex the region to France through a forced referendum in favour of ‘reunion’. So Switzerland lost its chance to own the Mont Blanc.
To celebrate Savoy’s annexation under the Treaty of Turin, Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie decided to visit Chamonix but after bumping and bouncing their way up the craggy mountain, they eventually paid to build a road. The muddy ruts and slick slabs they battled have now gone, replaced by a motorway – an hour’s drive from Geneva – which, while modern and far safer, still tests the mettle of the fainthearted with its sharp curves and steep angles of descent.
However well portrayed by others, Chamonix – as befits this most alpine of towns – is best seen from above, from the Dents du Midi, the Montenvers or even from the lower heights of the receding Mer de Glace; there is no shortage of transport to get to the highest vantage points. The scenery is anything but soothing and serene. It is wild and gritty and when the clouds come in, scary, hostile rather than harmonious, with domes, cracks, crevices, glaciers, cliffs, needles, scree, snow, as though the earth had hiccupped and violently burped. The mountain range is deadly: it kills a hundred climbers a year.
Getting itself onto the international circuit
Yet begin your descent from the mountains and that speck in the distance becomes a rambunctious, populated town, which Art Nouveau posters still celebrate as the host of the first Winter Olympics, the event which “launched” Chamonix, like a nervous debutante, into society in 1924.
Hungry for the cachet of its Belle Epoque luxury hotels and oak-panelled trains, an international clientele has not only sustained Chamonix but transformed it into an eclectic resort where contrasts fraternize comfortably. The English who once explored the region hardly seem to have left. So numerous were they at one point that an Anglican church was built for them. Clearly, France’s premier mountain gathering place is… not very French. Raclettes and fondues are on offer in maybe half the establishments, but those dishes too are Swiss in origin.
So sit back and observe as designer-clad day trippers from Italy share cheese plates with sunburned snowboarders, and violet-haired ladies sip tea on terraces next to hungry youngsters wolfing down their hamburgers while trying to stuff their cumbersome mountaineering gear under the table.
A leading outdoor adventure hub – but also for Alpine wildlife
In winter, it is the jumping off point for the world’s largest ski domain and in summer, Chamonix sheds its crispy white cloak and emerges as a challenging mountaineering centre. Now touted as the extreme sports or adventure capital of the world, it increasingly attracts dedicated enthusiasts for outdoor activities such as mountain biking, trail-running, rafting, paragliding, canyoning, hydrospeeding and even tree-top zipping.
For the less sporty, the Crystal Museum, casino, shops and eateries help time fly while reinforcing their conviction that simply breathing pure mountain air is the equivalent of exercise and health. Yet, not unlike other mountain resorts across the Alps seeking to broaden their appeal to year-round visitors of all ages, Chamonix also offers less strenuous exploits such as bird-watching and mountain flora walks. There are at least a score of nearby regional parks and nature reserves. The outdoors may rule the day, but in the evening culture takes over, with concerts, travel lectures and other events on offer throughout the town.
Chamonix can officially trace its ancestry back nearly 1,000 years, when Count Aymon I of Geneva gave away the valley’s title to a nearby Piedmontese monastery. In fact, the belfry (though not the rest of the church) of the Eglise Saint-Michel dates back to 1119. While it has plenty of modern touches, Chamonix has managed to cling to its mountain charm.
The luxurious boutiques and trendy streets would be unrecognizable to generations who, otherwise locked in by winter’s snow, were forced to emigrate to find jobs. These days the town is a job-seekers’ magnet and the population of nearly 10,000 almost doubles during the winter resort season. Growing numbers of outdoor-obsessed business professionals also base themselves here year-round, some of them shuttling to and from London or Brussels by plane on a weekly basis from Geneva.
The town’s first auberge was opened in 1770 by a Madame Coutterand. Her descendant Sylvain Coutterand remains a son of Chamonix. As the region’s foremost glaciologist, his books and conferences help conserve the region and confirm that visitors’ infatuation with this valley is as robust as ever, bringing five million of them into the resort each year. And another Coutterand from Chamonix, Leslie, has made an international name as an actress, model and documentarian. Like Chamonix, they are children of the region and though they roam, they always return. While clinging deeply to their Savoyard roots, they are equally comfortable with the international current that flows through this mountain capital’s history.
Leyla Giray Alyanak is a Contributing Editor of Global Geneva and writes about travel at www.womenontheroad.com