Birthplace of the Winter Olympics and home to some of the Alps’ most challenging pistes, the Chamonix valley in France is a magnet for snow-sporting types throughout the winter months.
But as warmer weather arrives and the snow disappears, so do most of the tourists, and the thousands of skiers are replaced by a trickle of mountaineering enthusiasts keen to reach the top of Mont Blanc – Europe’s highest mountain west of Russia.
This was not always the case, however. Long before skiing was introduced, fashionable and wealthy Britons flocked to the valley to test their climbing and glacier-walking skills all year round. In fact, at least 34 of the first Mont Blanc massif ascents were made by people from the UK in the 1800s, clearly unafraid of the dragons locals claimed roamed the mountains at the time.
In celebration of the valley’s mountaineering heritage, there will be a huge festival in Chamonix this summer, brining life to the area from June to September. Summer visitors will be able to see one-off art and photography exhibitions, watch plays and films depicting tales of the first climbs, and try out the many Michelin-star restaurants there.
Two main events will be the Alpine Museum’s display of artefacts from the first mountaineering days, including paintings by British artist Edward Compton, and a photography exhibition showing how the region’s landscape has evolved since the first ascents.
The town itself is pleasant enough to walk around, but you don't travel to Chamonix for the architecture. Tucked into the Rhone-Alps region of south-east France, it is right in the heart of some of Europe’s most picturesque landscape, with walks, fishing, mountain biking, and mountain climbing at its doorstep.
The stroll to Vallorcine, a nearby town also involved in the summer festivities, is perfect for those looking to enjoy spectacular views without having to haul themselves up a mountain. During a 20 minute train ride through Alpine woodland, you’ll find yourself surrounded by huge waterfalls, forests, mountain goats and pretty-postcard villages. The most popular restaurant there, Café Comptoir, serves European food and doles out portions fit for an Olympic skier.
The only time you may have to get your snow shoes out will be when venturing further afield on the Mont Blanc Express, which will take you to a more challenging walk halfway up Mont Blanc itself. After only ten minutes of uphill struggle, Chamonix will look like a tiny speck down below, surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks and vertigo-inducing descents. Further on, you’ll even pass the start of the first ever Winter Olympic ski run. Not bad, for a walk that's 20 minutes in total.
But if all the gentle walking and generous portions leave you feeling a bit sluggish, it’s easy to take the activity up a notch. Chamonix is a playground for thrill seekers, after all, which was once described by Alpine legend Mark Twight as the “death sport capital of the world” because of its steep slopes and difficult climbs. Every mountain sport is on offer here, from mountain climbing and canoeing to the more unusual ice climbing and wingsuit flying.
For those who like their thrills relatively risk-free, there is also a new “step into the void” structure close to Chamonix – a 2.5m long glass cage suspended over a 1,000m drop into the abyss, which you can reach using the Aguille du midi cable car.
Whether it's great food, scenic walks or thrills at high altitude, Chamonix has it all, come snow or shine.