The sun is starting to sink behind the mountains as I arrive in the French town of Chamonix. A town, but it feels like a village; it’s bustling as folks stock up on dinner supplies and buy out the last of the baguettes (good luck finding decent bread here after 5 p.m.). Outside the bars and restaurants, skis and snowboards lean against the walls as their owners happily tip back frosty pints and steamy mugs of vin chaud. I park my rental car and navigate narrow, snowy paths on foot, en route to the chalet where I’ll be staying. My friend Amy has rented the place, a three-bedroom spot near the centre of the town. There will be eight of us in the house.
A small community, Chamonix: home to just under 10,000 residents, but up to 100,000 visitors at any given point, season-dependent. No matter where you are in the town, you feel Mont Blanc towering over you; almost 5,000 vertical metres of rock, snow and ice, it’s the third-most visited natural site in the world. Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics, in 1924, and has remained a favoured tourist attraction ever since. Although somewhat geographically cut off, it’s a destination town and thus a bit of a condensed world: Everywhere you turn, you can hear conversations in foreign languages. The town itself is a centre for architectural diversity; baroque churches and farmhouses stand side by side with modern chalets, perfectly blending contemporary and traditional designs.
At the chalet, I am greeted with a glass of wine. The crew is gathered around a wooden cutting board, scattered with sliced baguette, hunks of cheese and ample portions of saucisson sec, a local delicacy. It’s a ski-less après ski.
My welcome is warm, but the chalet isn’t quite as hot as expected. It’s only the ground floor of the lovely house shown in the ads; our landlord, it turns out, lives upstairs. Kudos to the photographer that made the sauna look so spacious: It’s the size of a closet, with room for two. (Not to suggest that we don’t cram in five people and a case of beer.) Very little comes cheap in The Alps; this modest chalet runs about $5,000 a week at peak season.
By seven, we’re into dinner: a hearty, home-cooked lasagna. Sitting along the long benches of our rustic wooden table, we eat and drink prodigiously; Kronenbourg and Bordeaux are plentiful and (relatively) affordable. We are all keen to get an early start tomorrow, but we are sustained by our faith in the hangover-curing capacities of the fresh mountain air.
A post-dinner Scotch leads to MBC: Micro Brasserie de Chamonix. Founded in 2002 by four Canadian ski bums, MBC was the region’s first microbrewery. We arrive in time to catch the end of the Gary Bigham and the Crevasseholes set. (The best thing about the band is its name.) We sample the Blanche des Guides and the Blonde de Chamonix. And the Stout des Drous. And then the, uh, tequila. (Decidedly not a house specialty.) Before we know it, the bar is quiet. But we are not.
It’s just past midnight, and heading home would be utterly sensible. Still, tequila isn’t known for making people particularly sensible. We find ourselves in Le Tof, Chamonix’s leading (politely, only) gay bar, and among the few places open late. A dark, red-lit basement space, complete with a stripper pole in the centre of the room, Le Tof might just be enough to scare some dudes straight. Not us, it seems: After another pint, we try our best manoeuvres on the pole. “When in Chamonix…”
We spill out onto the street. It’s been snowing. Fat, light flakes are falling. It’s beautiful, and I’m pleased; London doesn’t get much snow. But three of my friends were born and raised in Singapore. They’re in awe. Snowball madness ensues as we slip and slide our way back towards the chalet.
Tomorrow morning, surely ski and snowboard madness will ensue. I can’t wait.
Image courtesy of Trent Strohm.