Chamonix and Annecy, both of which we visited in November 2010, are located in south eastern France in the department of Haute-Savoie. The first ever Winter Olympic Games were held in Chamonix in 1924, while Annecy is now in competition with Munich and South Korea to be the venue for the Winter Olympics of 2018. However these two communities are very different. Annecy is a city with a population of 50,000 and is the departmental capital of Haute-Savoie. It sits on the northern end of Lake Annecy, which is an extraordinarily clean and beautiful lake. Last year, cyclists in the Tour de France made a circuit of Lake Annecy as Stage 18 in that competition. Annecy does not close down at any time of the year. It is at all times a thriving and bustling community. It lies only 30 miles to the south of one of Switzerland’s largest cities, Geneva, where a serious housing shortage has resulted in many people living in Annecy and commuting across the border to work in Geneva. On the other hand, Chamonix is not a city and it certainly does close down out of season. Chamonix is simply a picturesque Alpine ski resort where, out of season, one has difficulty even in finding a restaurant serving dinner.
We visited Chamonix nevertheless because, having travelled so widely in Europe, we wanted to see its highest point. Mont Blanc, rising to a height of 15,780 feet, is that highest point and Chamonix nestles in a valley immediately below it. On the floor of that valley flows the River Arve. The river flows through Chamonix and it also flows through a village named Les Houches, 4 miles to the west.
We stayed in Les Houches at a hotel called Les Campanules, named after a certain type of mountain flower. Campanules can withstand the cold, but also likes the sun. This hotel is on the northern side of the valley, facing south to give us from our hotel room a magnificent mountain panorama. However, the village of Les Houches itself lies in the shade of the Mont Blanc Massif to the south, but a road winds from the village up to Les Campanules so that its eponymous flowers do manage to receive enough sun.
That road continues past the hotel in its upward journey and finally arrives at a statue of Jesus Christ, several dozen feet high, overlooking the valley with arms outraised.
The Mont Blanc Massif is basically a string of big mountains of which Mont Blanc is the tallest. The entire Massif is about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. Ownership of its slopes is divided between three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy), the borders of which meet at the top of Mont Dolent. There are obviously plenty of mountains near Annecy, otherwise Annecy would not be a contender for a future Winter Olympics, but one does not get a sense there of being “in the mountains”.
Yet one does get that sense in Chamonix and that sense was greatly increased by a journey that we took on the Montenvers Railway. This train took us from a station in the center of Chamonix up the slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif to Montenvers at a height of over 6,000 feet. At the top of the railway, is a platform in an imposing position overlooking the Mer du Glace (Sea of Ice) glacier. This is the largest glacier in France, being over 7 miles long. We also inspected a rock crystal museum there, although the ice cave underneath the glacier was closed at the time of our visit.
The little railway was built in 1909. Before that visitors like us, unable or unwilling to climb on foot, had to rely on little carts pulled by mules. Until 1953, this was a steam railway but it is now electric. As the train moved steadily up the mountain, I hoped that it would stay on its track, because it ran alongside sheer drops of many hundred feet and more. There appeared to be no protective barriers to prevent the train falling off the rails and tumbling down the mountainside. The buildings of Chamonix in the valley below became smaller and smaller. We rose higher and higher. The steep gradient varied between 11% and 22%. This was a rack railway containing special teeth, with which the cog wheels of the train meshed. Nevertheless, it all made me very nervous. Yet I would have been a good deal more nervous had I known at the time that, on August 25th 1927, the train did tumble off the rails and fall down the mountainside. 15 passengers were killed and 40 others were injured.