Imagine you and your favorite travel partner dangling in your own private little gondola, gliding silently for 40 minutes as you cross the Mer de Glace (“sea of ice”). You just left the last stop in France. On your right is the pillowy summit of Mont Blanc – Western Europe’s tallest mountain. On your left are jagged rocks called “dents” (teeth) – each famous among the world’s best rock climbers. And, ahead of you, the next stop is Italy. You’re near where Switzerland, Italy, and France come together to high-five the sky. Miles (literally) above Chamonix, you’re riding one of Europe’s highest lifts.
Your Alpine adventure starts in the touristy French resort town of Chamonix. From there, Europe’s ultimate mountain lift, the Aiguille du Midi, zips you by cable car to the dizzy 12,602-foot-high tip of a rock needle.
The modern gondola is big enough for dozens of people. With its scratched-up interior, you can imagine it filled with stylish European skiers. But today, it’s full of families – moms rubbing sunblock on cherubic cheeks, kids toting pint-sized rucksacks, and ruddy seniors laced into their ancient boots, gripping trusty walking sticks.
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Chamonix shrinks as trees fly by, soon replaced by whizzing rocks, ice, and snow, until you reach the top. Up there, even sunshine is cold. The air is thin. People are giddy. Fun things can happen on top if you’re not too winded to join locals in the halfway-to-heaven tango.
From the Aiguille du Midi station, the highlight of the ascent is riding the elevator to the summit. From the platform, the Alps spread out before you. In the distance is the bent little Matterhorn (called “Cervin” in French). You can almost reach out and pat the head of Mont Blanc, at 15,780 feet, the Alps’ (and Western Europe’s) highest point.
If you’re riding back down to Chamonix, the most efficient way to incorporate a high-country adventure is to descend the lift only to the halfway point (Plan de l’Aiguille). From there, you’re free to frolic in the glaciers and hike to Mer de Glace. From there you can catch a train at Montenvers back to your starting point.
But for the ultimate Alpine joyride, grab a private gondola at Aiguille du Midi and continue on to Italy for what must be Europe’s most breathtaking border crossing. In the tiny red gondola, you venture south. Open the window. Explore every corner of your view. You’re sailing a new sea. Cross into Italy at Helbronner Point (11,000 feet) and descend on another lift into the remote Italian Valle d’Aosta. It’s a whole different world – where a dash of France and a splash of Switzerland blend with the already rich Italian flavor and evocative castles to give you an easy-to-like first taste of Italy.
The town of Aosta, your best valley home base, is a one-hour bus ride from the base of the lift in Pontal d’Entrèves (hourly departures, change in Courmayeur).
“The Rome of the North,” as Aosta is called, has many Roman ruins and offers a great introduction to the fine points of Italian life: cappuccino, gelato, and an obligatory evening stroll. An evening here is a fine way to ease into la dolce vita.
If you don’t go on to Italy, you can return from Helbronner Point back to Chamonix. The resort town, a convenient train ride from Paris or Nice, is packed in July and August, and during the ski season, but it’s plenty peaceful the rest of the year. Like Switzerland’s Interlaken, Chamonix is a launchpad for mountain worshippers. The town has an efficient tourist information center and plenty of affordable accommodations.
From Chamonix, there are days of hikes and cable-car rides. My favorite hike, opposite the staggering Aiguille du Midi, is a three-hour traverse between two lift stations – Planpraz and La Flégère – on the Grand Balcon Sud. If you have the time to do both this hike, which starts with a ride up the Le Brévent gondola, and the Aiguille du Midi lift, the Multipass lift ticket saves time and money.
While the resort of Chamonix is a delight, the real thrills are when you venture high above the valley floor into that high-altitude world of pristine lakes, great Mont Blanc range views, and hang gliders lunging off the cliff from their favorite springboards. Watching these daredevils fill the valley like spaced-out butterflies is a thrilling spectator sport.
If you like the Alps, you’ll love Chamonix, where hikers and non-hikers alike can enjoy the best of the Alps with a French accent.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)