France: Experiencing the Alps with All Five Senses
View of 'Le Dru' at the Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice near Chamonix, France. Photos by Shelley Rotner.
Sensing the French Alps
By Shelley Rotner
Whenever I travel my internal barometer measures how I rate a place by sensory intake. How does a place look, smell, sound, taste and touch. I call it “spirit of place.” It’s the essence that adds up and captures the destination.
My trip to the French Alps was a multi-sensory experience. I started in Megeve, a small Alpine village whose name means village surrounded by water. I saw a landscape dotted with farmhouses and chalets, streams and forests. A medieval, pedestrian town center had narrow winding streets, giving the impression of a place little changed over time.
I heard horse’s hooves on the cobblestones, tasted artisinal cheeses and local honey, and smelled fresh baked goods. At the Hotel Les Fermes de Marie, I had a “pure altitude” facial with products that used the native sweet-smelling flower, edelweiss. It is known for its properties of withstanding extreme Alpine weather conditions and for its medicinal properties.
My skin felt soft and smooth. A delicious dinner and fine French wines followed, near a roaring fire. The hotel is comprised of twenty antique barns and chalets, preserved and decorated with farm artifacts. The rustic wooden beam near our table exhibited a row of earth tone, antique crocks. I felt as if the outside was brought inside, immersing the traveler in the elements- escaping to a serene mountain retreat.
Megeve’s Alpine Walking Trails
Megeve has a system of walking trails, three of which have water themes following streams, rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The other trails are set in natural beauty passing historical landmarks, century old churches and charming ornate bridges.
Walking the cobblestone streets of Megeve, France
Megeve is also on the map as the first town in Europe to form an environmental chapter promoting responsible tourism. In an eco-conscious way, Megeve is preserving its identity by managing the impact of tourists and climatic changes. In this way, it is protecting what it has most to offer – its natural resources.
Europe’s Highest Peak
From Megeve we went to visit Europe’s highest mountain, the famed Mont Blanc in Chamonix, France. Chamonix, is the world capital of mountaineering and the third-most visited nature spot in the world. We arrived in town at an altitude just over 3,000 feet. The jagged peaks of Mont Blanc were the backdrop, illuminated in the early morning light.
Here’s what I thought. There are many reasons to travel to a place. For me, why would I go there? If I’m not in Paris having a totally cultural experience then give me nature. And what could be more inspiring than to see this great massive peak? My other senses kicked in too. The morning started with the smell of bread baking. The French, as most of us know, take their baking seriously! The mountain air felt crisp and smelled clean. It was chilly as we headed out to ride the cable car up Mount Blanc.
7000 Feet in 9 Minutes
The Plan de Aiguille, the Mount Blanc cable car, carried us up the first stage to an altitude of over 7,000 feet in 9 minutes. I could already get a sense of the magnitude and challenge of the terrain with views of glaciers far below and 360 degrees of mountain peaks. The second stage, the Aiguille du Midi, lifted us to over 12,000 feet in twenty minutes.
Climbing to the top of Mt. Blanc in the Plan de Aiguille cable car
From this point, an elevator takes you even higher but it was not running the day we were there. I have to admit, I was kind of relieved and felt that 12,000 feet was high enough. Our guide, told us to move slowly and drink lots of water. At this altitude, oxygen is thin and the effects are quite noticeable. We all felt a bit light-headed, as if just seeing where we were, wasn’t enough to make us feel that way regardless of the altitude.
We were deposited at a viewing ledge that felt like the top of the world. I walked through a narrow ice cave to view the mountaineers, adjusting their equipment preparing to venture out into the landscape. These dare devils, in my opinion, were walking a narrow edge wearing crampons, heading off into the snowy dunes, a step away from death. They set off with intense concentration and and excited smiles as I photographed their adventure.
For those who like a good workout but take fewer risks, the Haute Route (high route) is for hiking or snowshoeing. You could actually walk from France to Switzerland, stay in rustic inns and experience 360 panoramic views of snowy mountain peaks (all year) and pristine ice blue glacial lakes. The circuit route circles Mount Blanc and goes through seven different valleys in France, Italy and Switzerland by foot.
Hiking the narrow trail on the top of Mt Blanc in the French Alps
Bright Orange Paragliders
I like to have my feet on the ground, but off in the distance, bright orange paragliders chose to sail above the mountaintops with another perspective and way to experience the landscape. I can only imagine their bird’s eye view. In the last few years, many have made it to the summit.
I’ve been talking about “senses” but another dimension for me which contributes to the “spirit of place” is scale. I had only felt so small once before in the vast landscape in Alaska. It was a humbling experience. We descended, to catch the quaint, cog railway, running for over 100 years, to Montenvers, our next destination. The 12 km ride follows the edge of the largest glacial ensemble in the alps.
Lunch at the Sea of Ice
We got there in time for lunch. Autumn was in the air but the outdoor ledge at the Grand Hotel du Montenvers, on a sunny day was the perfect setting to have lunch and view the Mer de Glace. This “Sea of Glass” called the Auguille de Dru, is the largest glacier in Europe and is best known by the rock climbers who scale its vertical peaks.
The view was surreal. It was easy to imagine how daunting it would have been the first mountaineers who were eager to have a relationship with this other-worldly landscape. The raw, untouched beauty and challenge of the unknown in the early 1800’s led adventurers to explore this new terrain. The Grand Hotel du Montenvers and restaurant are accessible only by rail or foot.
Inside the chamber where the hikers set out to climb down steep Mt. Blanc
Man’s Relationship to the Mountain
The second story has a small but exceptional museum containing artifacts and photographs documenting man’s relationship to the mountain. There were photographs of women at the turn of the century, climbing the mountain in their long skirts! We tasted the famous local dish from Savoye called tartislette, made from baked reblechon cheese, potato and smoked bacon. The meal finished with the perfect apple torte.
We were back to town in time to take in the quaint and small pedestrian town center complete with fantastic outdoor stores, my favorite anywhere, a well rounded supermarket that seemed gourmet because of the abundance of all the wonderful local foods, (breads, cheeses, wines). In addition to this were, to die for specialty food shops with homemade sausages and local cheeses.
I left the alps a few pounds heavier but filled with good tastes, sounds, smells and touched by dramatic impressions of a grand landscape with a distinct culture to match.
Accommodations in Megeve:
Accommodations in Chamonix:
Hameau Albert 1st Hotel
Useful information about visiting the French Alps, in France’s Rhone Alpes Region
Shelley Rotner is the author of more than 50 children’s books, and every day she has another idea for a new one. She is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and lives in Northampton MA and New York City.