Chamonix, France, is a charming ski village situated at the base of the French Alps. Above Chamonix rise the jagged peaks of the Mont Blanc massif, the largest glaciated domain in the European Alps. Through Chamonix flows the Arve River.
Most tourists come to Chamonix for the skiing or the hiking opportunities afforded by the surrounding mountains. Skiers take on epic runs such as the 11-mile Vallee Blanche. Hikers trek the Grand Balcon Nord and Grand Balcon Sud for the beauty of the wildflower meadows, the challenge of the boulder fields, and the grandeur of the mountain scenery. Sightseers of every stripe ascend the cable car to the 12,605-foot summit of L’Aiguille du Midi (Needle of the South) and marvel at Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), France’s longest glacier. But the village of Chamonix, also known as Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, in homage of its proximity to the tallest mountain in Western Europe, is also a pleasant destination in its own right. With a population under 10,000, it is a small, welcoming community with a well-developed tourism infrastructure. Excellent meat and cheese shops, fine bakeries, and appealing shops abound. Music festivals and street theater enliven the village experience. Small but engaging museums, one devoted to crystals and the other to the Alps, offer rainy day opportunities. Or just sit, if you will, at a street side café in Chamonix’s pedestrian zone, sip a glass of vin de la maison, and watch the world go by.
Strolling The Village
Chamonix’s pedestrian zone stretches along the spine of Rue du Docteur Paccard (which becomes Avenue Ravanel le Rouge at one end and Rue Joseph Vallot at the other, a block or two of which are also pedestrian-only). Visit the Tourism Office two blocks north of Rue du Docteur Paccard; signs point the way and information can be found about lesser-known activities such as spas, personally guided hikes and off-the-beaten-path restaurants. Cross the bridge at Avenue de l’Aiguille du Midiand check out the lift schedule, perhaps making your reservation for a subsequent visit to the top of the lift. Walk back past the train stations and get information on schedules. Do not mistake the regional train from the main station (Gare SNCF) for the scenic train to the glacier, which departs the separate Gare du Montenvers, just across the tracks. The entire central village and its tourist services are all within easy walking distance of one another.
Walking The Arve Riverbank to Les Praz
The mountainside trails above Chamonix, easily reached by a network of cable cars, trains, and ski lifts, are the star attractions for hikers. But a good deal of their magic comes from the views they afford across the valley and up into the mountain peaks. If you find yourself in Chamonix on an overcast day and want to stretch your legs beyond the village pedestrian zone, while saving the view hikes for a clear day, take the 2-mile stroll from Chamonix to Les Praz along the banks of the Arve River.
Begin this walk on the south (southeast) side of the Ave du Mont Blanc bridge, where it crosses the Arve. (Just across the bridge, you’ll see the Hotel Alpina.) Follow the Promedade du Fori upstream along the river, away from central Chamonix, with the river on your left. You will pass a school complex and tennis courts.
After the tennis courts, you’ll cross a bridge to your left, over L’Arveyron, a small river that feeds the Arve, following the signs to continue toward Les Praz. Optionally, if you find yourself on this walk on a relatively clear day with light or no wind, you can go right at this junction, following the Promenade des Crémeries a short distance to a field signed “Parapente,” and watch for paragliders to touch down. It’s an easy walk back to cross the bridge and continue to Les Praz along the Promenade des Econtres.
In Les Praz, you will find several casual dining venues, a church, and a village green. You can retrace the hour-long walk back to Chamonix or catch one of the frequent buses back to Chamonix.
(Top Photo: Along the banks of the Arve River.)