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Sailing over the French Alps

The French town of Chamonix is one of Europe's best launchpads for high-altitude thrills.

By Rick Steves
Panoramic gondolas near Mont Blanc, France
The "Panoramic Mont Blanc" gondola glides over Europe's rooftop and across the French-Italian border. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)

Imagine you and your favorite travel partner dangling in your own private little gondola, gliding silently for 40 minutes as you float above the crags and crevasses of the vast Géant Glacier. On your right is the pillowy summit of Mont Blanc — Europe's tallest mountain. On your left are jagged rocks called dents (teeth) — each famous among the world's best rock climbers. You're in the region where Switzerland, Italy, and France come together to high-five the sky. As you hover in the rare air, open the window. Notice the silence. Explore every corner of your view as you enjoy the ultimate Alpine joyride.

The ride is also Europe's most thrilling border crossing. The four-seater "Panoramic Mont Blanc" télécabines sail above a sea of snow, ice, and rocks on a cable that stretches across three miles with no solid pylon. (It's propped by a "suspended pylon," a line stretched between two peaks 1,300 feet apart.) On one end of the gondola's route: the jagged crag of France's Aiguille du Midi (12,600 feet); on the other, Italy's Pointe Helbronner (11,371 feet).

While you can reach this glacial dream world from a cable car up the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif, I'd start in the French resort town of Chamonix, one of Europe's best launchpads for mountain worshippers.

The Aiguille du Midi cable car, which zips you in two stages between the center of Chamonix and the dizzying tip of this rock needle — literally miles above the valley floor — is Europe's highest and most spectacular. The ride alone makes the Aiguille du Midi worth a visit, even if you don't hop one of the little red gondolas to Italy from here (they run only in summer, usually from late June until early September, and close down in the early afternoon).

If the weather is clear, ignore the cable car's steep price. To beat the crowds and clouds, ride the lift (up and down) as early as you can. In summer, leave no later than 8:00 to avoid major delays; no reservation needed. (While you can reserve ahead for a later time, sights and trails get busier the later you go.) No matter when you go, bring water, sunglasses, sunscreen, and plenty of layers — up on top, even sunshine is cold.

The téléphérique car fits dozens of people. As you pile in, try to grab a window spot, especially if you're shorter than average (you'll be packed in like sardines). With its scratched-up windows, you can imagine the car filled with stylish European skiers. Outside ski season, it's a mix of tourists, ruddy hikers, and — especially on the earliest departures — serious mountaineers hefting ropes and crampons.

Chamonix shrinks as trees fly by, soon replaced by whizzing rocks, ice, and snow. As you step out of the cable car onto the Aiguille du Midi, it's immediately apparent that you're high in the sky. Consider reapplying your sunscreen, and give yourself a few minutes to acclimate. Fun things can happen on top if you're not too winded to join in the goofiness that takes over when everyone around you is a little short on oxygen.

From the lofty lookout, the Alps spread out before you. In the distance is the bent little Matterhorn (look for its French name, "Cervin," on plaques labeling notable peaks). You can almost reach out and pat the head of Mont Blanc — at 15,771 feet, it's the Alps' highest point. Telescopes let you spot mountain climbers; more than 2,000 scale this mountain each year.

On your way back down, allow time to linger at the Plan de l'Aiguille, the halfway point between Chamonix and the Aiguille du Midi (where you switch cable cars). Frolic among the glacier-scraped landscape, and consider walking 15 minutes down to the cozy and cliff-hanging Refuge du Plan de l'Aiguille for a reasonably priced meal with a massive view. It's also the start of a spectacular (and strenuous) three-hour hike across the mountainside to the Mer de Glace glacier. From there you can catch a cogwheel train back down to Chamonix (before setting off, note the train's last-departure time).

Chamonix lies within easy reach of several other breathtaking hikes. The 2.5-hour walk along the Gran Balcon Sud, across the valley from the Aiguille du Midi, is one of my favorites. This is a high-altitude world of pristine lakes, great views of the Mont Blanc range, and hang-gliders lunging off the cliff from the Brévent cable-car station. Watching these daredevils fill the valley like spaced-out butterflies is a thrilling spectator sport. (The ride up to the Brévent peak is worthwhile even for non-hikers, and is hardly redundant with an Aiguille du Midi visit.) Perhaps the valley's best hike — two hours each way to peak-framed Lac Blanc — starts from the top of a lift on one end of the Grand Balcon Sud hike (hardy hikers who get an early start can do both in one day).

Chamonix, a convenient train ride from Paris or Nice, is packed in August but surprisingly easy and affordable the rest of the year. The town has an efficient tourist information center and plenty of affordable accommodations. If you like the Alps, you'll love Chamonix, where hikers and non-hikers alike can enjoy some of the world's most unforgettable mountain vistas.