Chamonix is a cute little town in the Haute-Savoie region of France. It’s surrounded by beautiful vast snow-capped jagged mountains, rising high in and out of the deep blue skies. Most people visit Chamonix for the skiing – and good thing too as the slopes around Mt. Blanc are reportedly some of the best in Europe. We visited recently to explore the town proper and take a look out over Europe from the Aiguille du Midi (take a peak at our photos from Europe’s summit here). If your visiting Chamonix and the Haute-Savoie for the first time – take a look at our food and drink suggestions below.
We arrived by train from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains so it was a relatively easy trip, taking the mountain train which creeps up through a beautiful selection of alpine villages and through some stark scenery of roads gripping to the sides of mountains and waterfalls streaming with a glass like shimmer from unknown hollow rock. It takes around an hour from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. If you make the journey from nearby Annecy – then expect to travel (by train) for at around 2 hours.
The history of the town can be traced back to 1741, when two young English aristocrats, William Windham and Richard Pocock, discovered the Priory of Chamouni and recited tales of their adventures around the mountain village and the Mer de Glace to all back home – resulting in an influx of wealthy (mostly English) tourists….. well nothing much has changed. The town, at its busiest, still feels almost overrun by tourists…
The town itself has a a good selection of architecture – both traditional and modern – with baroque churches, protestant chapels, art deco hotels, traditional farmhouses, colossal villas and typical wintery European chalets lining almost every street. The problem though, is that this town was built on tourism, not a bad thing by any measure, but it gives the streets a certain feel that I’m sure many people are familiar with – a little like a shopping centre only everyone’s in skiwear and rushing past with skis and snowboards.
We arrived early to try and get a glimpse at the town before the masses started to pile onto the streets – and sure enough, the streets were all but empty until well after 12. Chamonix isn’t all that big really, and if you’re just strolling around the old streets, taking a look at the occasional church and such, then you can easily get around most of it in a day. Though as it gets fuller – most of what you’ll see becomes something of a blend of neons and dark woods – think skiwear and chalets. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not at all an ugly or bad town to visit – it’s pretty and even beautiful in places – especially the mountains, but the sheer number of people and the advertising hanging from every other window really works to remind you that you are walking the, albeit historic, streets of a resort town – and I’m jut not a fan of resorts. The food is typically mountain-like, with delicious melted cheeses stealing quite literally every inch of the limelight from the non-traditional restaurants in town (there’s quite a bit of seafood too), and the drinks are mostly served hot – from Vin Chaud to a medley of coffee and Génepi drank out of a Grolle.
Our visit coincided with the end of Christmas and so the streets were still rather Christmasy. There was even a pre-meditated spot of carolling in the town centre – performed entirely in English by mostly English and very enthusiastic Asian tourists. In-fact I would go so far to say that Christmas is actually the best time to visit (for those not intending to ski) – as the streets are rather jolly and many of the decorations are pretty and lend a lovely atmosphere to the streets
As mentioned, the streets in the busy period (winter) are generally full of people – perusing the various ski-wear shops, drinking hot wine and downing mouthful after mouthful of fondue. Dogs are a popular companion (as with most of the Savoie region) – especially little cute white Bichon Frises and similar, so take your dog if you have one – as you’ll be in the few without one. There are a few nice bars around the main part of town, some with heated outdoor areas – one such place is la Moraine, which has a typical menu but a lovely outdoor area and an agreeable mix of 50’s through modern rock ‘n’ roll playing throughout the restaurant. We stopped here for a quick lunch and a tipple – a mix of hot Génepi and coffee – which is better than it sounds – though a tad bitter.
A Food and Wine Tip for Chamonix
If you’re unfamiliar with the region and are only visiting Chamonix on your trip then let me suggest a few bits and pieces that I think that anyone visiting the Haute-Savoie should try:
The Savoie region is well known for their delicate white wines with floral aromas and dry, light, crisp flavours and low alcohol levels of 11-11.5%. The most famed of which still have yet to break it big in other parts of the world. Support the local productions on your visit! My favourite varieties are:
Roussette de Savoie (White)
Roussette is a Savoie speciality – the wines are lively, crisp and nicely scented. It has its own appellation in four communes, most notably Frangy – incidentally I recently had a beautiful Rousette de Savoie from a small Frangy producer – Vincent Courlet – I suggest you try one if you can lay your hands on one. Roussette generally pairs well with local cheeses and warm dishes such as fondues and Raclette.
Though reds aren’t as popular in the Savoie – the Mondeuse is an exception. Mondeuse wines are deep in colour, tannic, with aromas of spice (some can be very spicy), white pepper and dark fruit. Good pairings generally include meats, cheeses and dark chocolate.
The Savoie region is resplendent with fantastic food – my favourite of which is undoubtedly the wonderful Diot au Vin Blanc – eaten alongside a cheesy potato gratin – it’s quite simply beautiful food. However, this particular dish doesn’t seem to be as popular in Chamonix (try it in Annecy where it’s immensely popular) so instead I want to focus on something a little more widespread – and readily available in Chamonix. I suggest you try:
Possibly one of the worlds simplest and most delicious dishes. Raclette comes from the French word racler, which means “to scrape” and that’s what you’ll be doing. Basically thick slices of, or a whole quarter of (if you have the correct equipment) raclette cheese is toasted at high temperature – when the cheese starts to bubble and brown, you simply scrape it off onto your plate of boiled potatoes, cured meats and cornichons. Divine.
This beautiful dish is made, again rather simply, from potatoes and a mixture of cheeses – always Reblochon cheese and sometimes Gruyere and others, as well as pieces of bacon, cream and white wine. Ingredients are baked together to make what becomes something of a grown up gratin dauphinois – creamy and cheesy, hot and salty – dripping with cheese and flaked with lardons of bacon.