I am looking at mountain guides leaning out of windows, standing on balconies, jumping off grilles with their crampons and skis, dressed in different period costumes. “Everything you see is painted... the balcony, the shadows... it’s what they call a trompe l’oeil... an optical illusion that lets you believe that this is in three dimensions,” explains Bernadette, my elderly but sprightly local guide. I particularly appreciate the image of Gaston Rebuffat, climbing below a balcony; he was a well known Alpinist and mountain guide who was the first man to climb all of the six north faces of the Alps. I am in Chamonix Mont Blanc in France, the birthplace of modern mountaineering. Mt Blanc—at 15,771 feet, it is the highest mountain in western Europe—towers over this picturesque town. Financed by the town’s mayor and inaugurated in 2010, the larger-than-life fresco on the walls of a building on Rue Du Docteur Paccard pays homage to early Alpinists and mountain guides.
History echoes from every corner of Chamonix, the mountain town located in a deep glacial valley. Long ago the mountains and glaciers evoked fear in the hearts of the local farmers—after all it was the realm of avalanches, huge precipices, jagged rock faces, violent storms and strong winds and they thought that it was the home of scary monsters and dragons. The valley used to be inhospitable and hard to reach, with rivers of ice and impossibly high peaks. Until the 18th century, people only crossed the Alps for trade or pilgrimage; no one travelled in the Alps for pleasure.
The destiny of the town changed forever when two intrepid British tourists arrived in the region in 1741, and relayed stories to London about the majestic peaks and sea of ice (La Mer de glace), which opened the floodgates of the arrival of pilgrims, travellers and scientists. Newspapers across Europe carried stories of the adventurous expedition, and the wealthy and aristocratic class, who loved adventure, began flooding Chamonix. In August 1786, a local doctor, Michel Paccard, and his guide, Jacques Balmat, achieved the first ascent of Mt Blanc. Skiing was introduced in Chamonix at the turn of the 19th century and the town hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. By 1816, the first luxury hotel was built because the area captured the interest of mountaineers and travellers from around Europe and the UK.
The town today emanates a zeal for adventure that is palpable among the tourists and hikers in heavy-duty boots. Though most people head to Chamonix to ski or indulge in adrenalin-fuelled activities, I choose to be the contrarian, intent on getting under the skin of the town and discovering its history, architecture and heritage. As I walk around the town with Bernadette, she points out that every corner has some reference to the mountains and climbers or mountain memorabilia and most streets are named after climbers and Alpinists. From the motifs of peaks and mountain goats that adorn shop fronts, to the murals on walls, everything weaves into its fabric, the story of how this town has always thrived on the mountains. At the popular chocolate shop Aux Petits Gourmands, the latest offering is a specially moulded, snowcapped mini-mountain housed in a long, narrow box. At the Catholic Church of St Michel, I see two beautiful, modern stained-glass windows showing skiers and sledders whizzing down the slopes.
There are statues and monuments dedicated to the first climbers of Mont Blanc, as well as charming squares named after them. Two distinctive statues form the centrepiece of the town. One has two characters; Balmat and de Saussure. It is a dramatic one: two men, one of them pointing to Mont Blanc with an outstretched arm. The single figure statue is of Dr Paccard. Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was an 18th-century geologist and scientist who offered a monetary prize in 1760, to the first person to get to the top of Mt Blanc. On August 8, 1786, the reward was claimed by two local men who climbed the mountain from the Chamonix valley. They were Jacques Balmat, a hunter and crystal collector, and Dr Michel Gabriel Paccard, a doctor. A bronze statue was erected in the town’s main square in 1887 to commemorate the centenary of the first ascent. “The architecture of Chamonix reminds me of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered all over the town,” says Bernadette as she points out different buildings to me. There are diverse styles, from Art Deco to Neo Classical and Modern, rubbing shoulders with each other and in complete harmony! At the famous Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, there were lots of interesting exhibits—a wonderful Art Nouveau Swiss pavilion in the shade of bubble gum pink was incorporated into a small humble hotel, which was transformed by its owners later into café La Terrace. Today that café is a local landmark, overlooking the jade green waters of the Arve river and with a view of Mt Blanc.
The first railway line was laid in Chamonix valley in 1901 and the demand for hotels went up. Three palaces were built for those guests who wanted to see in the mountains what they were used to in places like Paris or Nice. My friend Cécile Gruffat from the local tourism board takes me to see one of these palaces now called Majestic Congress, which as a luxury hotel during the Belle Époque, was frequented by the aristocracy. I am awed by the majestic ballroom, the reading and drawing rooms all converted into meeting rooms. The ceiling filled with neo-classical decorative elements and the walls with huge paintings of the mountains by Gabriel Loppe remain intact.
My favourite building in the town turns out to be an old mansion now called La Maison des Artistes located in the small park behind the casino, which is now a place for creativity in all its forms, such as art, music and literature. This house which dates back to 1905, used to be called “La Tournette” and looks like a fairytale house straight out of Hansel and Gretel, with a pointed roof and a zillion windows. “Come back for the annual jazz festival when international musicians gather in Chamonix over a week, to play in breathtaking locations such as on mountain peaks, beside limpid lakes and sometimes even inside the cable cars,” says Cécile.
On my last day in Chamonix, I head to the Saturday market spilling with fresh produce, from blocks of cheese, pickled olives and white asparagus to sun-dried tomatoes and organic macaroons. It is a clear day and as I gaze at the peaks wreathed with snow, and remember all those people who dedicated their lives to their overpowering passion for the mountains, it seems like things have not really changed much around here. Chamonix will always be about the mountains.