Get high on the Alps

When the snow melts, summer attractions abound in the Rhone-Alps

When the snow melts, summer attractions abound in the Rhone-Alps

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A lifelong attraction to high mountain peaks, or at least close-up views of them, began for me as a youngster when I first saw Clint Eastwood in the movie, “The Eiger Sanction”.

The gritty combination of high suspense, high altitude and unforgiving nature instilled both fear and fascination in me, and although have I never quite managed to find the time or commitment required to become a rock climber, the thrill of high altitude destinations has always driven me to include a visit to the tallest peaks on my travel hit list.

Fortunately, my appetite for height is often sated when myself and my adventure-obsessed travel buddies head off somewhere in the world together on an annual search of something new to experience – there’s usually a high mountain somewhere close-by.

Peaks and Troughs

When we visited Ecuador a few years ago, although the focus was mainly on a dive trip to the Galapagos (for obvious reasons); I worked hard (and eventually succeeded) to persuade them we should also include a side trip from our initial destination of Guayaquil to the Andean town of Riobamaba, where we could stay in the shadow of Chimborazo’s six thousand metre peak (a mountain top that also happens to be the farthest point on the Earth’s surface from our planet’s core).

A couple of years later, when we selected Nepal as a new experience, I had little trouble convincing them to sign up for the two week trek to Everest base camp. It was, after all, the whole reason for the holiday. But then the following year on Bali I found it all but impossible to drag anyone away from their surf lessons for an overnight trek to the peak of holy Mount Agung to see the sunrise, even with the added thrill of it being an active volcano that sometimes still bursts forth with ash clouds.

A case for Mont Blanc

When Europe was selected from the communal travel hat as our next destination for the annual summer jaunt, my mind quickly started to scheme ways to reach high. How could I convince my fellow travellers to head for the Alps? Especially when most of them are skiers and knew full well it would be totally the wrong season for powdery pursuits.

I got down to some hard research, and soon found a whole host of reasons we should head for the Rhone-Alpes region in France, more specifically the stunning area around the village of Chamonix, which actually incorporates the peak of towering Mont Blanc.

Sense of Adventure

My first tactic, I decided, would be to appeal to their sense of adventure. France’s highest mountain rack railway, the Mont Blanc tramway, climbs through this part of the Alps. Starting from Le Fayet or Saint-Gervais, it reaches Bellevue at 1,800m, then continues through pastures and forests to reach the Nid d’Aigle at 2,372m, right under the Aiguille du Gouter peak, at the bottom of the Bionnassay glacier.

I felt sure this would grab some of the group’s imagination, but also knew it would not be enough to convince everyone, so I added a few more enticements to my list such as para-gliding, mountaineering classes and white water rafting, all of which are on offer to visitors in the Chamonix Valley.

Music in the mountains

The next argument on my Alpine case list would be cultural. We rarely take time to explore beyond the natural wonders of the locations we visit every year, so why not include some altogether more human attractions?

At the end of July, the free Cosmo Jazz festival takes place in and around Chamonix, with performances set in some of the region’s most amazing locations, including at the top of the Aiguille du Midi (3,800 metres), as well as right by the magnificent mirrored waters of Lac Blanc and also at Grand Montets, which is reached by a spectacular cable car ride that affords panoramic views of Les Drus, Aiguille Verte, the Aiguilles de Chamonix and Argentiere glacier. In Chamonix town itself, the streets are filled with the jazzy sound of brass bands and in the evenings, musicians gather for jam sessions until late every night.

If the sounds of Jazz failed to inspire them, I had even more musical morsels to add to the menu. Also in early August, in partnership with two renowned solo opera artists, Raphaelle Farman and Jacques Gay, the town puts on the Festival Musicaltitude, a cultural cocktail of music and humour that alternates between short comedy sketches and famous arias, operettas and the music of great composers like Verdi, Offenbach, Gershwin, Mozart and Bernstein. What could be more inspiring than classics in a mountainside theatre?

The rolling hills

To back up my argument for a trip to this incredible part of the world even more, I made a “note to self” that the rugged, rolling, hillside beauty of the Alps is reason enough to climb its majestic slopes – especially when they aren’t covered in snow. We could rent a private villa, hit the trails on foot or by mountain bike, breath the freshest air in Europe and savour Michelin starred cuisine and rich local cheeses washed down with endless litres of palatable French wines. The region is also home to an intriguing array of high altitude flora and fauna, including mountain hares, lynx and soaring royal eagles.

With so many treats up my sleeve, I must say my presentation went rather well. Everything is booked (including a lovely villa), and we may even stay on and catch some of the “Festival des Heures d’Orgue”, which has been running in Chamonix for almost 20 years and celebrates the region’s musical heritage with weekly organ recitals in the Eglise Saint Michel.

A little culture will certainly add to the appeal as I feed my obsession with another mountain high.

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc hosts events and competitions year round. If you plan to be there this autumn instead, here are some other dates you should mark on your calendar this year:

Village des savoir faire due Mont-Blanc (August 31 – September 1) Held in conjunction with the North Face ultra Trail du Mont Blanc event, the two-day fair will see the Place du Mont-Blanc square at Chamonix-Mont-Blanc transformed into a charming craft village held amongst picturesque mountain chalets. Entrance is free.

La fanfare de Garmisch Partenkirchen (September 6-8) For three days every September, the streets of Chamonix come alive with concerts and parades. The event celebrates the establishment of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a Bavarian resort town in southern Germany, as a twin town of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.

Week-end du patrimoine (September 14-15)
To celebrate the European heritage, the weekend festival at Servoz this year will be themed “1913-2013: one hundred years of protection”. The two-day festival will feature traditional banquets, mini conferences, walks and tours. Children’s workshops will be organized. All events and museum entrance fees will be waived this weekend of fun for the whole family.

Antiquities fair (October 11-13)
Organized by the Office de Tourisme Les houches & Servos and held at Espace Olca Les Houches, the three-day fair will offer guests a chance to get their hands on a slice of the past. Entrance fee applies.

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