After seven days hiking the Tour du Mt Blanc clockwise from Les Houches in good weather, I awoke in Courmayeur to the sweet sound of summer rain. The stone roof tiles glistened and the rain dampened down the dusty days.
Last night I was wiped out by a glass of wine and steak frito at the Hotel Edelweiss, a budget hotel in Courmayeur. I had treated myself to a private room with smooth sheets. Happiness for a hiker is the sound of rain that is not falling on you as you walk in the mountains.
Ah Courmayeur! A mountain town almost unreal in its Italian perfection. Full of glamorous shops and even more glamorous people, it is a stylish, characterful and unspoilt Italian delight. After the rain, Courmayeur’s backdrop of spectacular mountains was clear to see. By midday it was sunny and 28 degrees again as I strolled the cobbled streets.
An exquisite lunch with a view of blooming flower boxes and snow-capped mountains made for a perfect rest day.
Right opposite the church on the piazza is the Alpine Guides Society of Courmayeur, with its excellent museum full of fascinating stories about the history of mountaineering in the Val d’Aoste. The society recently celebrated 150 years since its founding.
Look out for two particular statues in the piazza while you’re licking your gelato. There is the statue of Joseph-Marie Henry, just in front of the church. A son of Courmayeur, he was known as a priest, a botanist and a mountaineer. This intrepid abbot made the first ascent of all the ridges of Mt Emilius and is famous for celebrating mass on the summit of Mt Blanc in 1893. Then there is a large stone cross with a mountain guide dog curled at the base.
The other big thing to do while in Courmayeur is to take a ride on the Skyway Monte Bianco. The advertising bumpf dubs this cable car ride the eighth wonder of the world and perhaps it is the eighth best commercial tourist attraction in the world.
Whatever, after a week on the Tour du Mt Blanc, being whisked effortlessly up to 3,500 metres into the midst of the Mt Blanc massif seemed quite appealing.
It’s easy to catch a bus from the Courmayeur town centre – from just at the end of the main shopping street. The bus runs a circular route every hour and only costs a few euros return.
The gondola cabins rotate 360 degrees as they ascend and the landscape is truly breathtaking. From the alpine meadows, past the Brenva glacier and up to the eternal snows of Mt Blanc.
There are three modern stations, including the base station, all with restaurants and the sort of commercial rubbish that seemed an afront after my days of hiking in nature. But the views, oh the views from Helbrunner!
A pretty sideshow on the Skyway ride is at the middle station where they have created an alpine botanic garden. Wandering through this and identifying some of the many gorgeous wildflowers I had seen on my Tour du Mt Blanc hike was educational and enjoyable. Especially surrounded by such incredible scenery.
I was thrilled to visit the Refuge Torino, reached via a lift and a long tunnel cut through the rock, and see mountaineering parties roping up to set out across the glaciers.
Don’t do what I did and forget to take a jumper or jacket on the Skyway. It is a lot colder at 3,500 metres than down in the valley! I was okay in the sun but I wouldn’t recommend it! Also be prepared to feel a little out of breath climbing the stairs at the top. I avoided the cafes so I can’t tell you what they (or the prices) are like.
So is the Skyway worth the nearly 50 euro price tag? If you can step to the edge of the viewing platforms and mentally distance yourself from all the commercial claptrap and selfie-taking tourists behind you, then the answer is yes.
The sheer beauty of this environment – of seeing the Giant’s Tooth and the Aiguilles de Midi, and the whole of the Italian Val Ferret where I had hiked the previous two days on the TMB – definitely worth it!
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been on the Skyway Monte Bianco? What did you think?