Summer with the White Lady of the Alps

Chamonix, the awe-inspiring Alpine resort that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, has much to offer the modern tourist.

Mer de glace glacier on Mont Blanc390 (photo credit: Monica Dalmasso)
Mer de glace glacier on Mont Blanc390
(photo credit: Monica Dalmasso)
CHAMONIX, France – On May 25, 1816, a month after she began writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley caught her first glimpse of the mighty Mer de Glace glacier winding through the snow-capped mountains north of Mont Blanc in France.
“This,” Shelley wrote in her diary that day, “is the most desolate place in the world.”
Soon afterward, the 18-year-old Mary immortalized her impressions of the glacier in one of Frankenstein’s most gripping scenes, which culminates in the monster rushing with superhuman speed down the mountain to be “quickly lost among the undulations of the sea of ice.”
Today, almost 200 years later, the Mer de Glace still fills tourists with awe and wonder, and it is still the must-see attraction for summer holiday-makers in the nearby resort of Chamonix – even though modern technology and global warming have both reduced the size of the glacier and made the journey to see it much easier.
While the Shelleys reached the ‘Ice Sea’ via a long, perilous journey by pack mule up the steep slopes of what they dubbed “precipitous mountains, the abodes of unrelenting frost”, today’s tourists enjoy a 20-minute hop on the Montenvers rack railway.
And at the once-barren summit there is now a cafe and a souvenir shop (one doubts Mary and Percy would be impressed by the racks of decidedly non-Gothic postcards or by shelves of marmot plush toys clad in tiny Chamonix sweaters).
And while the literature it inspires may be eternal, the glacier is certainly not. Back when the Shelleys visited, it stretched all the way down into the local hamlet of Les Bois, where the local peasant farmers feared and revered it, imagining it as a sleeping dragon.
Still, it is quite an experience to see the seven kilometer long ice river meandering with mazy motion though deep romantic chasms (and here I’m sure Mary would not object to this homage to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom she knew and admired).
Just like a river, the ice is flowing – not so fast that you can see it, but at considerable speed – its own weight pushing it down the mountain at the astounding rate of one centimeter per hour, as today’s visitors to the Mer de Glace can learn at the brand-new visitors center.
After filling their minds with glacial knowledge, hungry tourists can partake of traditional Savoyard hospitality at the rather delightful Grand Hotel de Montenvers, a hostelry built by locals in 1880 to capitalize on the growing mountainclimbing trend. Today, the Grand Hotel is still providing food and accommodation to ‘mountaineers, adventurers and travelers’, and if you book in advance (or are lucky), it’s possible to spend the night in one of its nine private rooms.
The Grand Hotel manages to successfully show off its old-time, wooden-walled charm (the antique snow shoes, toboggans and sepia photographs adorning its walls are genuine).
Meals are simple, and delicious: recommended is the raclette, a local speciality that reminds one how very close Chamonix is to Switzerland.
Back down the mountain in Chamonix, the locals happily relate the resort’s foundation myth – the Cinderella-style story of how aristocratic 18th century tourists almost miraculously ‘discovered’ the Mer de Glace, and its almost overnight transformation from a remote glacier that terrified goat-herds to the Alps’ biggest tourist attraction.
Today’s Chamonix is a cluster of chic restaurants, smart hotels, fashion boutiques and ski chalets, plus (this is, after all, France) a stately casino. Its main Club Med hotel was built to rival Nice’s Negresco.
But once, locals say, Chamonix was merely a Savoyard backwater where none but the hardiest peasants dared to graze their goats.
All that changed in 1744, locals relate, when two Englishmen – Richard Pococke and William Windham – chanced by, and were so enchanted that they waxed lyrical about the place in a travelogue.
This rave review was reprinted in newspapers across Europe, causing a sensation among the well-heeled adventurer class.
Tourists began flooding to Chamonix, the locals realized they could cash in by ditching their goats and providing inns, raclette, mules and sedan chairs to schlep the less athletic tourists up the mountain. The goatherding backwater never looked back.
There’s shopping and dining to be had in Chamonix, but for those (like this author) who prefer outdoor sports, mud and nature to buying shoes and clothes, Chamonix is a perfect base for a week’s hiking, mountain biking, Nordic walking and – if you know what you’re doing – mountain climbing.
Club Med Chamonix Mont Blanc offers weeklong summer packages that include full board and lodgings, as well as a smorgasbord of daily mountain sports activities – hiking, mountain-biking and Nordic walking to name a few.
You don’t have to be a super-fit hiker to enjoy walking the gorgeous trails around Chamonix, though. Just like ski slopes, the hiking trails are color-coded according to difficulty. ‘Green’ walks, the easiest, are ideal for those looking for a leisurely ramble through nature (Club Med provide guides and each walk has a pit-stop for cheese and wine).
Club Med also provides guests with a public transport pass, allowing free use of local buses, which run to and from the starts of all the hiking trails. Even though skiing is not on the menu in summer, visitors can still ride the cable cars.
A visit to Chamonix would not be complete without a trip on the Aiguille du Midi cable car, one of the world’s highest. The exhilarating ride is split into two parts, with an initial stop at 2,317 meters where you switch cars to travel onwards and upwards to the final 3,842 meter destination.
Mont Blanc’s summit is 4,810 meters and only experienced mountaineers can hike up there (if that’s you, guides are available in Chamonix). And while it may be sunny in Chamonix, at the top of the cable ride its always cold, and often snowing – it’s an odd but not unwelcome feeling to don ski clothing in mid-June.
Views across the snowcapped mountains are superb, across to Italy and down into Chamonix, and on a clear day Mont Blanc herself, the White Lady of the Alps, may condescend to peek regally out from behind her veil of cloud.
“The immensity of these aeriel summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of extatic wonder, not unallied to madness,” wrote the Shelleys back in 1816, little imagining there would one day be a cable car to those ‘aeriel summits’.
The “extatic wonder” has not changed, however. From the top, it’s also possible to take another five kilometer cable car trip across the mountains to Helbronner in Italy (so don’t forget your passport).
Travelers should also take note that because of the altitude, the air is very thin at the summit and so you will likely need some time to recover your breath a bit afterwards.
For those staying a week or more, there are plenty of day trips farther afield from Chamonix.
Just 58 kilometers and a fast drive away is Annecy, dubbed the Venice of Savoie because of the way the old town’s buildings are constructed right on the riverfront.
Today, Annecy is calm, beautiful and charming, but its streets hide clues to its turbulent history- over time its former rulers, the Savoie dynasty, were themselves variously ruled by the Sicilians, the Sardinians, the Spanish and the Austrians.
Its most important landmark, the triangular- shaped 12th century Palais de L’Isle, resembles the prow of a galley ship. It’s one of France’s most photographed monuments – but it’s worth remembering that the “old prison”, as it is known locally, has housed prisoners since it was first built, most recently captured Nazi soldiers.
Famous Annecians include philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who fled to the city from his native Geneva at the tender age of 15, where he was taken in by a Roman Catholic Priest. In Annecy, young Rousseau met Francoise-Louise de Warens, who years later would become his lover.
Today, Annecy commemorates Rousseau’s stay in the city with a fountain, the Gold Balustrade, and much local pride.
Annecy was also the 16th century home of Saint Francois de Sales, the patron saint of journalists and writers – presumably only Catholic ones, however.
Visitors can also take a sightseeing trip on the lake – it’s the cleanest in Europe, as the locals will happily tell you, and it shows – the water is crystal clear. Come in the first weekend of August to enjoy the town’s famous lakeside firework celebration.
Those who find their sightseeing is enhanced by good food will delight in Annecy, whose weekly street market (held every Tuesday since 1170) overflows with local cheeses, fruits, beers and wines. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, which serve mostly local, French food.
A seven-night July package to Chamonix (including flights, accommodation in Club Med Chamonix and a Chamonix multipass allowing unlimited access to cable cars) costs 2,916 euros for a couple.
The writer was a guest of Atout France and Club Med