History of Chamonix

Travel Guide: Chamonix is Enriched with History and Culture

Cradled in the Haute-Savoie area of France, Chamonix is bordered by Italy and Switzerland. In this small but beautiful touristy alpine village, the highest mountain in western Europe, the magnificent Mont Blanc of four thousand and eight hundred and ten meters emphasizes the beauty of Chamonix. Along with the natural beauty of the place, the history of Chamonix enriches the alpine village.

Skiing Map of Chamonix
Skiing Map of Chamonix
Credit: Pinterest

Chamonix is a place where everyone can find something to enjoy. Though the history of Chamonix dictates the village as the birthplace of contemporary mountaineering and the Alpine skiing heart spot of the world, it has its own secluded cultural life, other sports, music, culinary delight alongside the peaceful mountain life of Chamonix. 

The base of several Olympic and World champions in snowboarding, skiing, and climbing, Chamonix’s vibrant streets are filled with sports shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes. While the name of the main town is similar to the whole valley that is extended more than twenty-eight km from Le Fayet to Switzerland. The region encompasses numerous distinct and enchanting villages, including Les Houches, Les Praz, Servoz, Les Tines, Montroc, Les Bossons, Argentiere, and at the top of the valley Vallorcine and Le Tour. However, in this article today, I am going to talk about the history of Chamonix and how it all started! 

History of Chamonix

Though the modern period of tourism in the “Valley de Chamouny” began with two English explorers named Richard Pocock and William Windham discovering Montenvers in 1741, the first mention of the village in the history of Chamonix was in 1091 when the Count Aymon I of Genevois had donated the valley to the Abbey Saint-Michel de la Cluse of the Piedmont area of Italy. At that time, the valley was occupied by sheep peasants, and the region was not appreciated for its natural beauty but was criticized for the continuous troublesome terrains, avalanches, and landslides. 

Development of Chamonix throughout the Years

Doctor Horace Benedict de Saussure of Genevois announced a prize for the first person who will reach the summit of Mont Blanc in 1760. Until then, he had observed it from the peak of Brevent. The first time, in the history of Chamonix, it was two locals named Doctor Paccard and Jacques Balmat made it to the top of the mountain on 8th August 1786. It was the following year that Saussure himself made it and led the first of several scientific expeditions that had been conducted there.

Le Brevent- History of Chamonix
Le Brevent
Credit: Wikipedia

Mme Coutterand opened the first tourist hotel in 1770, which was “l’Hotel d’Angleterre” meaning the English Hotel as English tourists outnumbered visitors from other countries even though it took nine days to make it to Chamonix. It was from then, in the history of Chamonix, the place became a spot for inspiration and an expected change of pace in the lives of the visitors including mountaineers, sports enthusiasts, painters, and writers such as Shelly and Byron.

In 1803, the first woman who reached the top of Mont Blanc was Marie Pardis and by that time the numbers of ascents had multiplied massively. Proceeding an accident in 1821, “La Compagnie des Guides” or “The Chamonix Mountain Guide Company” was established to aid the Guides and their families with financial support if they become unable to work or stricken by any mountaineering accident. The company remains the first and most prestigious foundation of its kind to this day. 

By the year 1860, as a part of an agreement of assisting the Italians against the Austrians, the people of the Haute-Savoie and Savoie regions voted outrageously to join France. In September 1860, for the arrival of Empress Eugenie and Napoleon III, an access route was beginning to open from Geneva to Chamonix. 

Peak of Mont Blanc- History of Chamonix
Peak of Mont Blanc
Credit: britannica.com

Between 1863 to 1865, mostly English Climbers reached more than a hundred peaks. But, the surrounding mountains were as fascinating, if not more, to the scientists. For the studies of the high mountain, Joseph Vallot in 1890, had permission to found an observatory as long as it was serving the purpose of refuge to the climbers as well. In 1893, Jules Janssen also built a second observatory at the exact summit point but it was destroyed by the glacial ice some years later. 

The dawn of the twentieth century witnessed blossoming tourism in the valley of Chamonix and the hoteliers dominated the mountain guides in the economic powers. Whilst the Sherpa and local guides felt threatened as their livelihood depended on it, protests started to happen along with the building of Montenvers rack railway to the Mer de Glace which is still running today. 

Montenvers Rack Railways- History of Chamonix
Montenvers Rack Railways
Credit: Wikipedia

The railway opened in 1908 and it took fifty-five minutes to complete the climb at a speed of seven km per hour. In 1954, when electrification was added to the railway, the duration of the journey decreased to twenty minutes as the speed doubled. At one point, by seeing the success of the railway, it was envisioned that the summit point of the Mont Blanc can be reached by train. 

In 1913, the formation of the Tramway du Mont Blanc was the nearest anyone ever came as it was from Le Fayet to the “The Eagle’s Nest” or “Nid d’Aigle.” Following the war, the plans of formation were dropped. Nowadays, during the summer, the Tramway still runs twelve km across the mountain to the bottom of the Glacier de Bionnassay. 

Then, there was a hectic period of construction and the growth of winter sports which led to the hosting of the Winter Olympics in Chamonix in 1924. The cable cars of Le Brevent and Planpraz were finished in 1930 and 1928 respectively ensuring access to the peaks of the mountains by suspended trains. The Flegere Cable cars were not there until the year 1956 and subsequently in 1997 was connected to the region of Brevent. 

Mer de Glace, History of Chamonix
Mer de Glace
Credit: agu.org

In the history of Chamonix, it was the year 1946 that witnessed the making of the first ice grotto that was sculpted into the heart of Mer de Glace. Because of the sliding of the glacier about 90-130m each year, the cave must be cut every year and carved in the shape of an icy chalet interior furnished with a fireplace. Even though the original project began in 1905, the goal to make it to the Aiguille du Midi by cable car was not successful until 1955. In 1924, Glacier des Bossons completed the first cable car, and eventually, the second step reached the Col du Midi but never the peak. In fact, the route was decided to be too dangerous and was abandoned in favor of the present route of which the construction started in 1951.

History of Chamonix

The Tunnel du Mont Blanc to Italy had started in 1953 which revealed all the hidden secrets and the history of Chamonix along with Mont Blanc. In the recent history of Chamonix, the valley was firmly connected with the European road network after the formation of the Autoroute Blanche. The last remaining expanse of the great valley that wasn’t explored was Les Grands Montets. In 1951, the work started in that region which was completed and opened in 1963 with the creation of a skiing area with over 2200 m descent. 

Mont Blanc Tunnel, History of Chamonix
Mont Blanc Tunnel
Credit: Structurae

In the history of Chamonix, 24th March of 1999 was a tragic day when a heavy goods vehicle, carrying margarine and flour came to a stop just 6.7 km into the tunnel after entering from the French side. The fire spread out from one vehicle to another and the intensity of the heat prevented the police from entering the tunnel. It took two days for the emergency services to control the fire which cost thirty-nine lives. 

Following the fire, the Public Prosecutor for Bonneville, Haute Savoie opened a legal inquiry. As a consequence of the inquiry, fourteen individuals and companies which included SGTMB and ATMB emerged before the court of Bonneville Magistrates on charges of manslaughter. In July 2005, the trial and verdict were finally concluded where it was found that severe mistakes had taken place which could have been avoided. For more information on the case, please visit here

After the fire, the tunnel was renovated and reopened nearly three years later on 9th March 2002. At first, it was only light vehicles that were permitted to pass the tunnel but now, heavy goods vehicles use the tunnel, and traffic flows smoothly. All security personnel check the vehicles rigorously before they are granted entry to the tunnel. 

Culture of Chamonix

Among notable cultures, the French Culture is the most noteworthy and impressive as it is renowned for its romantic ambiance, the French attitude, the incredible language, and the food culture. The history of Chamonix as well as its present environs the culture of France with the Gallic history. However, the situation of the Alpine village increases the mountain and outdoor spirit of the culture of Chamonix.

People in Chamonix are very active, as they are biking, walking or skiing, and more. There is a strong sense of community in this place and they endear their slower pace of lifestyle. In the village, people prefer shopping for bread in the bread shop and meat at the butcher’s market rather than purchasing it from any supermarket.

There is a huge sense of pride in the alpine village too. The local people are very proud of their home’s encompassing natural beauty and having been an Olympic city. The people are polite and always ready to help visitors with any endeavors they might need assistance with.

Places to Visit

Mont Blanc

As it is always covered in snow, Mont Blanc also known as the “White Mountain.” Due to the exhilarating viewpoints of Chamonix Valley and the Aiguilles Rouges mountain ranges, the Mont Blanc is also referred to as the “Roof of Europe.” It is among the best skiing areas in France. 

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc
Credit: UIAA

The Tour de Mont Blanc hiking trails involve some of the best hiking trails in the world and routes that are for all ability degrees. Although extremely strenuous, experienced climbers climb the peak of Mont Blanc with the help of Guides. The most familiar climbing route is through the Aiguille du Gouter and the Arete des Bosses. For further information, visit this official website.  

Tramway du Mont Blanc

The Tramway du Mont Blanc provides you with a chance of admiring the majestic scenery of the surroundings. From the drop-off points, you can also enjoy mountain bike rides, nature walks, hiking, etc. The highest peak that is the Eagle’s Nest is open during the summer. 

Tramway du Mont Blanc, History of Chamonix
Tramway du Mont Blanc
Credit: saintgervais.com

The tram departs from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains or Le Fayet with two stops on the way which are Bellevue or Nid d’Aigle. With appreciating the panoramic view of the Mont Blanc, you can also take a serene walk across the Bellevue plateau. From good food to walks in the Alpine meadow, you can enjoy the pace of the mountain life here.

Chamonix Village

In the history of Chamonix, Chamonix village had always been the best ski-resort destination in the world and it still continues to be to this day. Reflecting the history of Chamonix, it features a combination of conventional Alpine architecture and more contemporary buildings. There is a Baroque Church at the center of the town. 

Chamonix Village, history of Chamonix
Chamonix Village
Credit: planetware.com

In this village, past meets present as there are old-fashioned Belle Epoque hotels and Chalets are scattered around along with several rustic country lodges. The village is always busy with upscale boutiques, tourist shops, and gourmet restaurants. 

Your dining option varies from fancy gastronomic restaurants to casual cafes and bustling brasseries. If you want an authentic experience, then try the local cuisine at a mountain refuge or a welcoming auberge.

Here we are at the end! In today’s post, I have tried to touch the history of Chamonix along with the culture of the place and special places to visit while you are exploring Chamonix. Due to COVID restrictions, now Chamonix is not open, but don’t be disheartened as you can still make a trip to Chamonix by learning more about it. I hope I have inspired you enough to do that. Until then, travel well and be well.

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