Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4, 2011: Chamonix - 1 Bus, 3 Trains, A Rack Railway, a Cable Car and a Glacier

For our last full weekend together in France (we'll be traveling throughout the rest of June, so still in Grenoble almost another month, but not on weekends) I wanted to do one last trip. On the almost unanimous advice of my French friends we chose to visit Chamonix Mont-Blanc.

Chamonix would have been easier to reach by car. It's not a long drive, whereas the train and bus options were a bit tedious and convoluted. But we've managed to travel lots of France so far without needing a car, and we stubbornly wanted to stick to that. I also dread the notion of driving narrow hairpin turns while resurrecting my rusty stick shift abilities. It was hard to say without having been there before, but if you're visiting Europe's tallest mountain it seems like a safe assumption that there could be some twisty mountain roads.

So, no car. The trip home on Sunday would actually be quite decent (just one bus direct to Grenoble, run by the SNCF train company). But getting there was more difficult. Our best option was to head out before 7:00am on Saturday, catching an early SNCF bus to Chambéry. Once there we'd have a short 20-minute layover, then our first train to Annecy. A layover of just a few minutes and we took our second train to St-Gervais-Les-Bains. Then an hour-long layover and our third and final train to Chamonix. It took almost five hours in total, but the scenery from the train was beautiful and the ride was relaxing.

One of the final wrenches thrown into the works was that the woman at the SNCF train station in Grenoble who issued my tickets did it incorrectly. I had spent considerable time researching the best connections (not easy, since the SNCF website only calculates journeys of three legs or less, and we needed four) and I had written down the time and train number for each leg of the journey, but she didn't pay attention to that - just typed in the destinations, and ended up issuing tickets that would have made the journey more than an hour longer. I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she was being cautious about us not having missed connections. Happily we were able to use the tickets for the earlier trains, since the prices were the same. I really appreciate the flexibility of the SNCF over Via Rail in Canada!

Chamonix is definitely the most touristy place we've visited, apart from some parts of Paris (like the Eiffel Tower). It felt a bit Disneyfied, since it was nothing but hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, but you can't deny the genuine beauty of the surrounding mountains. We checked in to our hotel, then headed up on the Montenvers rack railway to the Mer de Glace. I greatly enjoyed our trip by this historic method of transit (I really do have a thing for unusual trains). It didn't follow as steep a grade as the funicular railway at Saint-Hilaire, but it was still quite steep.

There was an additional cable car at the end to take us down to the Mer de Glace, France's largest glacier. After dismounting from the cable car there are about two or three hundred more steps down to the "tunnel of ice", which is freshly carved every year so that visitors can walk INSIDE THE GLACIER! If we'd visited in 1980, however, we would have had almost no steps down from the cable car - because that's how high the glacier level was at that time. On the walk down there are multiple signs recording the glacier level in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2005. It is astounding how much the glacier has shrunk.

After returning to Chamonix we had a pleasant dinner sitting outside on a plaza that passes over the Arve river. It's a very fast-flowing river with an unusual opaque grayish-turquoise appearance from all of the mountain sediment - not exactly pretty, but very striking.

On the Montenvers railway

One of many small waterfalls coursing down

Note the high zone of eroded land at the base that's been scraped bare by the glacier

The historic hotel (from the late 1800s, even before the railway existed)

Cable car down to the glacier

There was a little British boy in our cable car - just as I pointed out the fallen wrench to Mark, he piped up with "Look - a spanner" (until that moment I didn't know the British had a different word for a wrench)

Mark would have been encased in glacier at this point in 1990 - now it is far below

We touch the inside of a glacier!

Slightly odd decorating scheme of the glacial tunnel - illuminated historic photographs. There was also carved ice furniture - but you couldn't sit on it, so what's the point?

Amazing turquoise light coming from within the ice

Standing inside the glacier looking out

Old entrances to ice tunnels of years past; the glacier advances so far each day that eventually the tunnels deform too much to be passable

A group of hikers carefully picked their way down the glacial crevasses

A small museum of mountain animals had some very odd taxidermy - this appears to be a squirrel dancing with a marmot!

The Mer de Glace

The early steam locomotive used by the Montenvers railway; if I understood the French signage correctly it had to stop periodically to "refuel" with ice, and consumed 400 kg of charcoal en route

Mark standing on the bridge over the Arve River

A restaurant overlooking the river (they must have really good spring flooding control over the river's flow)

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