Sailing over the French Alps
|Rocky Mountain High: Swing across the Alps in Europe's highest gondola.|
By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
Europe's ultimate mountain lift towers high above the tourist-choked French resort town of Chamonix. Ride the Aiguille du Midi téléphérique (gondola) to the dizzy 12,600-foot-high tip of a rock needle. As you get in, remind yourself that this thing has been going back and forth now since 1954; surely it'll make it one more time. 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 (those prone to altitude sickness are less giddy). Fun things can happen if you're not too winded to join locals in the halfway-to-heaven tango.
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 15,771 feet, the Alps' highest point.
Next, for Europe's most exciting border crossing, get into the tiny red gondola and head south. Dangle silently for 40 minutes as you glide over glaciers and a forest of peaks to Italy. Hang your head out the window; explore every corner of your view. You're sailing a new sea.
Your starting point for this adventure is Chamonix, a convenient overnight train ride from Paris or Nice. Chamonix is a resort town — packed in August but surprisingly easy and affordable the rest of the year. Like Switzerland's Interlaken, it's a launchpad for mountain worshippers. The town has an efficient tourist information center and plenty of affordable accommodations.
From Chamonix, days of hikes and cable-car rides are within easy reach. The best hikes are opposite the most staggering peaks on the Gran Balcon Sud, a world of pristine lakes, great Mont Blanc range views, and hang gliders lunging off the cliff from the Brévent lift station. Watching these daredevils fill the valley like spaced-out butterflies is a thrilling spectator sport. Probably the best hike — two hours each way — is from the top of the Flégère lift to Lac Blanc. While demanding, the trail is well signed and the views are breathtaking.
For the ultimate ride, take that téléphérique to the Aiguille du Midi. This lift is Europe's highest and most spectacular. If the weather is good, forget your budget. Afternoons are most likely clouded and crowded. In August, ride very early to avoid miserable delays. If you plan to dillydally, ride directly to your farthest point and linger on your return.
To both save a little money and enjoy a hike, buy a ticket to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, but ride only halfway back down. This gives you a chance to look down at the Alps and over at the summit of Mont Blanc from your lofty 12,600-foot lookout. Then you descend to the halfway point (Plan de l'Aiguille), where you're free to frolic in the glaciers and hike to Mer de Glace. Then you can catch a train at Montenvers back to Chamonix.
Chamonix and the Aiguille du Midi — surely a high point in anyone's European vacation.