Chamonix, France. A mountainous town full of charm and oozing storybook settings. But primarily, it brings to the forefront a controversy in our household, one my husband and I debate all the time: if a place is widely shared as a great place to go, is it worth visiting anymore?
It seems there is a tipping point for places. The undiscovered, the rugged, the unique – feeling like you alone have witnessed a town’s secrets and life – make it more rewarding. But when those amazing places end up being shared and published in books (1,000 Places to See Before You Die, let’s say) or on websites, there is suddenly an influx of tourists, all vying for the same unique and undiscovered experience, eradicating the Way It Was. So are those books and websites then broken? Do they recommend themselves out of good places to visit?
When it happens, when the buses come and agencies pop up to charge you for guided tours, is the place still worth visiting? When the secret is out, the secret can be ruined. My husband is firmly in one camp, I am firmly in the other when it comes to this controversy. But we never resolve it.
Way back when, I was able to head off on a trip to France. As part of that trip, I stayed in Chambery and took a trip to Annecy. After those adventures, I felt full, but we decided to squeeze one more in, because the books and websites said to. One day we decided to take the car, pack everyone in, and head off to Chamonix.
Chamonix is most notable for its winter sports. It sits in the mountains and was the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. It is a quaint place, with a small year-round population that explodes in high ski season. It sits at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in The Alps. It is dressed with chalets and twinkly Christmas lights no matter the month. It sits where France, Switzerland and Italy meet and shows influences of all three countries. It has one of the highest cable cars in the world, taking tourists to a stunning glacier field.
We weren’t very well-prepared for our trip, despite how often Chamonix is talked about.
First, we were confused by the “glacier thing.” Would it be cold? Should we be wearing boots and parkas? Would we need to rent ice picks?
Second, once we got off the cable car taking us to the top, we had no idea which way to go to get to the glacier and we immediately began following the signs…for the HIKING TRAILS. So with a toddler, a collapsible stroller, inappropriate footwear, but unsinkable spirit, we started to blindly tackle the rough trail (read my other articles on France for information about hiking in this area, it’s not for the faint of heart). Some in our group had to bow out, returning to the top with the toddler. We abandoned the stroller in the weeds, coming back later to get it, because it was too hard to scale rocks with.
Unbeknownst to us, and not clearly labeled, round the bend right at the top of the mountain, where we disembarked from the tram earlier, there was a gondola that (without extra charge) would have dumped us off at the glacier. Hiking was utterly unnecessary. Learning this later, too late, was beyond frustrating. In retrospect, we didn’t understand why no one corrected us or helped us. We didn’t understand why there wasn’t a sign or why the woman who sold us the excursion didn’t tell us. We are smart people who travel a lot, and we were utterly confused.
But some of us did it, sore feet and all, and found ourselves at the drop off point of the gondola, ready to walk the steps down into the glacier.
Here there were so many tourists who clearly had not hiked. The glacier slowly and sadly dripped and melted away under our hot breath, but it was amazing.
I freely admit, I was torn between feeling sad that humans are contributing to the death of this massive natural art piece and very grateful that I got to see it (being one of the many humans contributing).
Chamonix is an amazing town. Full of a lifestyle that I have read about – dozens of paragliders, countless thin young things in long socks running up and down mountains (for fun, I guess), people picking their way over ice, climbers scaling mountains, gliding planes quietly taking it in from a different view.
It was a town that swept me away, inviting me to daydream an alternative life I could have had. “What if I lived here?!” I thought to myself. In my head, it came out as a weird mix between Heidi and an Athleta catalog.
I am not sure, at the end of the day, how realistic my take-away from Chamonix was. Was I just prey to a tourist trap, or had I, despite the influx of buzzing cameras and foreign currency, found the heart of the real Chamonix? Was I hooked on her for who she was or who she presented to me for the sake of industry?
Ultimately, I am not sure I will ever know the answers, unless I go back. Unless I go back to stay for awhile. I am so glad I saw Chamonix and took in a few of her biggest attractions, but I am not sure that I really got to know her? There were still so many adventures we could have had, so many things we could have seen…I could have bought my own funky knee socks and headed out for an Alpine run.
Instead, we did what tourists do: we rushed in and tried to see everything we could in as short amount of time as possible. Then we left with a feeling, a memory, some gorgeous pictures, perhaps some bragging rights, and we recommended it to friends. Then they come and the tourists continue. The controversy will continue.
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