|The Chamonix Valley's appeal can be summed up in two words: Mont Blanc. Europe's tallest mountain towers over the valley's towns and resorts, offering a constant snow-capped reminder as to why this is one of the most popular area's in the Alps. And whilst it's true that living here can have its drawbacks and that the area may have lost some of its traditional charm, the soaring 4810 metres of the white mountain create a picturesque setting that for most is hard to beat.|
As a ski resort, Chamonix is unlike anywhere else in the Alps. For a start it's not a ski-out/ski-in destination and lacks any slope-side accommodation to speak of. It has no huge area of well-connected lifts and flattering slopes. With none of the runs dropping directly into town, the ski areas are spread along a valley almost 15 km long. Only two of the areas are interconnected, whilst the shuttlebuses can be crowded and erratic and the density of traffic is also a real problem. For peak times of the season queuing is part and parcel of life, particularly in Chamonix Mont-Blanc. Furthermore, the weather can change in a matter of hours from glorious sunshine to a stormy whiteout.
But whilst Chamonix is neither convenient nor conventional, it is special. The area offers what is perhaps the best expert and advanced skiing in the world, on spectacular mountains rising more than 4000 metres above the valley. The views are stunning and the runs are everything really tough runs should be - not only steep, but high and long. Perhaps most famous of all, any intermediate skier can ski the Vallée Blanche with the help of a guide; its 20km make an unforgettable excursion across glaciers amidst breathtaking scenery. This atmosphere alone can make one forget about the logistics of getting on the trails. And it's not just skiers and snowboarders who take pleasure in the surroundings - climbers and mountaineers, paragliders and mountain bikers, hikers and nature lovers all delight in what the area has to offer. Nowhere in the Alps does life revolve so much around the mountains than in Chamonix, as demonstrated in both the thriving summer and winter seasons.
The unique, omnipresent sporty atmosphere to the area has undoubtedly influenced the character of its towns and resorts. In stark contrast to neighboring Mégève, there is a distinctly vivacious and dynamic feel about the place. The wide supply of bars and restaurants are crowded with a young, energetic crowd who aren't here for the ritz and the glitz, but for the challenge and the exhilaration of testing themselves against Europe's most spectacular slopes. United by their love of the outdoors and the desire for a hedonistic lifestyle, people are also attracted from all over the world, meaning Chamonix can also be characterised by its international nature and diversity.
That's not to say the Chamonix Valley is void of tradition. Although it contains one of the largest towns in the Alps (with both facilities and traffic to match!), it is still possible to find that small village coziness so distinctive of the Haute Savoie region. And whilst you can't help but be aware of the towering mountain panorama that greets you from all angles, you will also find delightfully small and narrow streets containing some charming Alpine architecture. Despite the liveliness of much of the area, it is still quite possible to ski hard all day long, then sit at a café in a small square and sip a kir or vin chaud.
In fact, the Chamonix Valley is an area dominated by contrasts. At any one time it can be lively and animated, whilst its mountains remain charmingly serene. It is undeniably French, yet equally cosmopolitan and international. And whilst the frustrating battle to get to and from the pistes is one you shall probably choose to forget, the exhilaration of skiing some of the best runs in the world is a feeling the will live with you forever.
- Cutting deeply through Europe's highest mountains and glaciers, the valley's scenery is simply stunning
- Probably the best mountain pursuits on offer in the Alps - from skiing to cycling to mountaineering
- Excellent shopping and a wide range of facilities means there is lots to do off the slopes
- The popularity of the area dictates that the centre of the towns can be rather crowded, noisy and full of traffic
- Unpredictable weather can shut the best runs
- Low on skiing convenience with separate skiing areas and a fragmented and un-modernised lift system
One visit to the Mégève valley and it's not hard to see why the upper crust of French society make it their winter home once they abandon the Riviera. Its charming towns are typically French, exuding old-fashioned charm with narrow streets, small squares and quaint stone and wood buildings. However, such allure is coupled with world-class facilities and the splendid luxury that make the Mégève valley one of the premier Alpine destinations.
Nowhere is this juxtaposition exemplified more than in the world renowned Mégève resort itself. At its heart, the core of the village is 13th century with narrow streets huddled around the old church, a medieval tower and the town hall. This area forms the center piece of the town's famous Christmas celebrations, when people come from miles around to see the beautiful light display. It is also from here that horse-drawn sleighs whisk visitors down the cobbled paths and alleyways. However, it is these same streets that are home to some of the most stylish shops in the Alps. Trendy boutiques sit side by side with classy antique shops, crowded bistros and gourmet restaurants. Once night falls, evenings can be spent in relaxing jazz bars, hedonistic discos or even the pulsating casino.
Despite such style and elegance, there is a understated discreteness about the Mégève valley not found in other glamorous resorts held in similar regard such as Courcheval. There is a traditional family atmosphere with lots of activities for children as well as adults in both the summer and winter. Furthermore, in contrast to adrenalin fueled Chamonix in the neighbouring valley, there is an emphasis on more cultural pursuits - from the art galleries of Mégève town to the impressive 'Summer Nights' concert program, there is a varied range of enriching activities available.
With respect to skiing, in their own right the ski areas of the respective towns and resorts are relatively un-demanding for the advanced skier or snowboarder. Top skiers who want to be challenged frequently look over the horizon to the Chamonix valley with the skiing, though pleasant, often just too gentle to be testing for the advanced skier. However, a great deal of effort has been made in recent times to link the different ski resorts to create an area with an exceptional variety of terrain. It is now possible to ski the neighbouring slopes of Mégève, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, Flumet and Combloux, giving an overall ski area of 400 km of trails with something for most levels of skier. With Praz sur Arly and La Giettaz next in the pipeline to be linked to the Mégève skiing domain, property buyers are starting to look further afield than the traditional pastures of Mégève town.
For most the skiing is only a small part of the valley's appeal. However, all these attractions come at a cost, and not surprisingly Mégève comes out on top in this department as well. As well as the highest property prices in the Alps, eating, drinking and pampering oneself in such lavish surroundings can also be an extremely expensive pastime. The area's appeal also draws big crowds, which can make the towns seem overcrowded, particularly during the busy French holidays. For the rest of the time though, it is usually possible to find tranquility in one of the small cobbled streets, pleasant tree lined pistes or quiet hidden corners that make this valley so alluring.
- Good access via the A40 motorway at only one and a half hours from Geneva airport
- Wonderfully traditional old French towns and villages with some charming buildings and surroundings
- Some of the best equipped and most luxurious services and amenities in the Alps
- An extensive skiing area with particularly good slopes for beginners and intermediates
- Top-end prices are too prohibitive for most buyers, particularly in the established towns and resorts
- Not very challenging for more advanced skiers and snowboarders
- Although linked by lift, some ski areas are not linked by slope meaning you can't ski between them
- Can be crowded and busy during peak times
St Gervais and Les Contamines
The St Gervais and Les Contamines valley is around 15km long. It runs perpendicular to the neighbouring Chamonix valley on one side, and parallel to the valley of Megève on the other. The valley is accessed by St Gervais, and Les Contamines marks the end of the car accessible road, so benefits from no through traffic.
Both places are authentic mountain villages with plenty of charm and a year-round community. St Gervais is the larger of the two with a population of around 6,000. In recent times there has been significant investment in local infrastructure, enhancing traffic flow and pedestrian access. This has been done sensitively, maintaining the original character and charm whilst adding a real air of quality to the valley. The ski area has also seen lots of investment with new lifts and new pistes. The valley has the Mont Joly, Monb d'Arbois and Mont Joux mountains on one side and the stunning glaciers of the Dômes de Miages and the Mont-Blanc massif on the other. From the ski area, there are views directly over to the Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley mountain range. A little known fact is that the Mont Blanc towering at 4810m, is under the jurisdiction of the St Gervais commune and it is the Mayor of St Gervais who decides whether to close access if conditions dictate.
Both villages have lovely historical buildings and St Gervais in particular is steeped in history due to the renowned thermal spa which has attracted visitors from all over France since 1806. This facility, still operating as a spa today, led to period hotels and homes for the wealthy Swiss and Parisian clients. The area retains much of its original character and, unlike some purpose built resorts, you'll be in no doubt that you are nestling in one of France's historical alpine towns. Other typical architecture includes the many Baroque churches dotted throughout the valley and the outlying traditional farms. The Tramway du Mont Blanc, which takes you from Le Fayet, through St Gervais and up to the Nid d'Aigle (2380m) is the last of three narrow-gauge railways in France and one of the highest and oldest, dating back to 1906.
Both St Gervais and Les Contamines have everything you need in terms of schools, dentists, doctors, pharmacies, supermarkets and sport shops. For the large hypermarket, DIY or builder's merchants, the nearest large town is Sallanches, just 11km away.
As in most places in the Alps, there is both a summer and winter holiday season which has long been enjoyed by a traditionally French clientele. However, with easy access from Geneva and increased awareness, foreign holidaymakers are starting to discover the valley's appeal.
Some useful links:
Tourist office and Mairie website - St Gervais www.saintgervais.com
Visit St Gervais virtually www.st-gervais.phenomedia.fr
Tourist office Les Contamines www.lescontamines.com
The skiing and summer activities
St Gervais boasts a long history as a leading alpine resort and ski lifts were first installed in the 1930s. The ski area, called the Evasion domaine, is vast, offering 450KM of marked pistes. The domaine includes St Gervais, Les Contaimes and the ski areas of Megève, Combloux, Cordon and La Giettaz. The variety and diversity of terrain therefore offers something for skiers of every ability and there are more marked runs than the whole of the Chamonix valley's 5 separate resorts put together! Skiers and snowboarders will find big open runs for beginners and a good selection of more challenging steeps for the more advanced. Offpiste is also great when you know your way around, but being largely family orientated skiing, untracked powder can be found days after a snow fall.
Les Contamines has an enviable snow record, largely due to its proximity to Mont Blanc and its micro-climate. The village has a dedicated X-zone with a half pipe for those wishing to try out freestyle skiing or snowboarding and both St Gervais and Les Contamines build snow parks with ramps, jumps and rails.
The valley has two cross country ski areas (Bettex and Les Contamines), with the latter also having biathlon facilities and husky sledge rides. World cup events are regularly hosted each year which always bring drama and both resorts have invested in snow cannons to ensure the end of lower runs can remain open in the event of warmer conditions.
Holiday Tour Operators are not present in the valley, so locals and second home owners can look forward to reasonably priced lift passes, quiet runs and virtually no lift queues. There is also the irony of skiing the exact same runs as the high class clientele of neighbouring Megève, one of France's top ski resorts, who access the area from their side of the mountain.
In addition to the skiing, St Gervais has an Olympic size ice rink that hosts hockey matches and figure skating competitions and, when conditions allow, Les Contamines has an outdoor rink. St Gervais is also investing in a new indoor swimming pool centre.
In the summer, the valley is host to walkers, climbers, trail runners, mountain bikers, fishermen and paragliders to name but a few of the activities on offer. There are a wide range of facilities such as clay tennis courts, lakes and outdoor pools for bathing, golf courses and many activities and events organised. At the end of the valley at Les Contamines is a nature reserve and activity park where you can rock climb, participate in "parcours adventures" up in the trees, ride horses or simply picnic by the lake. Close by, on the lower plains of Passy, there are lakes where you can swim, sunbathe and picnic, surrounded by trees and looking up at the Mont Blanc. It is also possible to fish and windsurf in designated areas and it proves a popular place for locals and holidaymakers alike.
Throughout the year the villages plays host to firework displays, festivals, fetes and concerts, from rock and jazz to comedy and classical recitals.