Why I Keep Returning to Chamonix France
I had always wanted to come to the Alps to ski, so as I looked at the mountain range from the window of the plane, it felt surreal. I was eating a piece of chocolate that I’d just been handed before we began our descent over Lake Geneva. I was giddy trying to contain myself, and the sugar probably didn’t help. I wanted to be surrounded by slopes and glaciers: there’s something about feeling small and insignificant that I find comforting.
Part of the reason I love being in the mountains is that sense of “your shit really doesn’t matter as much as you think it does”. It just puts things into perspective like nothing else can. I had moved to Ireland earlier that month, so I was still getting my bearings around my new apartment in Dublin and decided that a ski trip would be a good way to celebrate the move.
The shuttle from Geneva airport takes about an hour. Six mountain-loving strangers packed into a transfer van, and we were off to France. With Geneva fading fast behind our bus — and us crammed in with all manner of gear — we soon found ourselves engulfed by staggering cliff faces and jagged peaks. And the signs were now en Français!
We were in Chamonix in what felt like no time. The city center is picturesque, and my first glimpse of the silhouettes of sloping roofs reaching up towards the towering peaks dotting the sky around the village is one that I will never forget.
As I write this, I am actually starting to pack for my next trip to Chamonix. It will be my fifth time, but the first in the summer, so I want to explain how I fell in love with this place. Like all good relationships, it started with a spark of curiosity. The mix of French food (read: cheese) and mountains really spoke to me.
My interest turned into a deep fondness for this mountain village shortly after arriving. Maybe it was the quaint Airbnb that sat atop a hill at the base of Le Brevent, or maybe the bakery down the lane that made the best croissants that I had ever tasted. In hindsight, it was probably the fact that my accommodation was owned by a charming couple who also were the proprietors of a nearly slope-side bar, La Cab, whose specialty in winter months is vin chaud. And there is truly no better way to bookend a day on the slopes than with a vin chaud.
Part of the reason I love being in the mountains is that sense of “your shit really doesn’t matter as much as you think it does”. It just puts things into perspective like nothing else can.
The people I met were all so helpful, and tolerated my French. The scenery combined with the food: it was almost too much! The people who lived there seem to have a little secret playing on their lips as you pass them on the streets, it was like they had figured out this whole life thing. Just be outside, eat good food, and be kind. Appreciating this landscape seemed to matter most. I felt a connection to that environment unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The mountains around the valley are a dizzying expanse – you can explore for weeks by any means of transport and never cross a path twice. For a village so small, it allowed for intrepid explorations and the comforts of home. It was so clear when you walk into a cafe around dusk and there is nothing but windburned, smiling faces recounting their day in the hills.
I knew this was more than an infatuation when I started planning a trip back the same week I returned home to Dublin. I couldn’t eat! Couldn’t sleep! It’s hard to explain since I’ve been to dozens of cute ski villages, but this one was special. I love its quaint homes, its winding streets: the crisp mountain air, the simple but impeccable food. But having become so close with this place is still a bit funny to me, just like when someone you think is out of your league becomes your closest confidante. Do people go on vacations and find home? With both people and places, when it works, it works!
Two years later and I am still in love. It’s hard to explain what keeps bringing me back. It’s a very John Muir “the mountains are calling” kind of thing. But more than that, I feel like I belong there. The culture and values that weave this beautiful place together make up the backdrop of the place. I think I could be happy in most occupations if I could wake up each day and look out at Aguille de midi, and start my morning with a trail run up Brevent. Just being is the most magnificent feeling there. I think it is probably the closest thing I have felt to wanting to settle down.
When you find a place that combines all of the things you hold dear in life, you are bound to long for it. For me, being outside, eating good food, and sharing it with people who appreciate it — that’s the holy grail. It’s the ultimate happy place. And I think me and Cham, we might get serious.