Friday, 28 March 2014

Chamonix and the Argentiere Glacier

I had my skiing 'renaissance' in Argentiere when I was 16 years old. I went with my family and a dear school friend. My ski instructor was attractive enough - not much older than ourselves - with the inevitable dark face tan, a packet of biscuits permanently in his pocket and a relentless regime of teaching us the 'stem christie' (the backbone of good skiing technique and now, sadly, usually overlooked by most instructors) while plying us with encouraging Petits Lu. I had a brand new pair of state of the art Dynastar 'Pulsar' skis (worlds apart from the skis I'd last grappled with age 11 in Val d'Isere) procured by my ski journalist father, and the sun shone every day for a week. It was a rite of passage in so many ways, and a holiday I will remember and cherish till my dying day.

I have been back a number of times over the years that have slipped by since, and every time I think of that first time, glancing across to the apartment blocks at the base of the lifts in which we stayed, their 1970s modernism looking as jaded now as my own good self, ageing in tandem! 

It is a glacier, as is so much of the Chamonix Valley (to wit the famous Vallee Blanche) and makes for reliable snow and, most times of the year, a flexible expanse of piste, off-piste - and a large proportion of moguls! Given that I frequently ski in Italy where the pistes are bashed to within an inch of their life (the Italians keener on 'Bella Figura' (looking good) than thrashing inelegantly down a mogul run full of sweat and swear words) it made a welcome change. It is not the place for beginners but it makes an excellent weekend destination for skiers who like a bit of a challenge amid stunning glacial landscapes. The lifts are shamefully old these days (though a new main cable car is about to be installed - not before time) but still managed to absorb the large numbers of weekenders like ourselves. 

We stayed in a hotel in the centre of town, the Grand Hotel des Alpes, which, last time I was in Chamonix, was sitting in a state of disuse and disrepair. I remember noticing it and thinking how nice it would be if only someone was prepared to take on the project. Well, sure enough, about five years ago, an Italian firm bought it and completely refurbished it turning it into the very attractive four star hotel it is today. It was great to be on top of the shops and restaurants but less great to be woken up all through the night by marauding drunk hoards of exuberant 'yoof'. (Note to self: book a room with the view of Mont Blanc next time). There is an attractive indoor pool and spa and a restaurant for breakfast only - but they put out a tempting array of free canap├ęs and sweet treats in the late afternoon and evening. Since it wasn't cheap (but with the only room still available in town), I'd advise you get stuck into the free stuff...!

Being cheapskates, we chose to eat breakfast in the sunshine at a cafe on the main drag each morning (considerably cheaper and more 'authentic' than eating in the essentially underground hotel breakfast room) and dined in two sister restaurants, the one offering more traditional mountain fare while the other had more of a modern European/Asian fusion sort of thing going on. Both were excellent and the environments matched the style of food - the first, La Caleche, was (attractively) full of old skis and stuffed marmosets; the second, Le Cap-Horn, had skins, furs and pendant lights. Oh, and a DJ in the adjoining wine bar (Les Caves du Pele). You get the picture. I'm still wondering if the group of three blonde English women of a certain age, dressed to kill, ended up with the English guys, also of a certain age (though balder) and on the pull, at the table next to them. The waiter was getting actively stuck in too, we noted, as were two adjacent Dutch guys. As a sad old married couple we decided to skip the wine bar and leave them to it. It was way past our bedtime anyway after a hard day on the moguls! Ah yes, how the years have changed us...


Our hotel:


The Argentiere Glacier which we skied down (with sublime view from the top of the cable car):













A well-earned final pit-stop (and a refuge you can stay the night in - stunning...):


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