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Courmayeur at the foot of Mont Blanc

Courmayeur at the foot of Mont Blanc

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-12-22

One hour 15 minutes from Geneva and 1 hour 35 from Turin, Courmayeur is one of Italy's premier resorts. This show-case resort in the Aosta Valley has, in recent years, attracted a very select Milanese clientèle, who have not failed in creating a local property price explosion. Courmayeur, has nonetheless been able to keep a faithful clientèle of holidaymakers, thanks to its affordable hotels, quality restaurants and exceptional scenery.

A multi-faceted resort
 
For some strange reason the Aosta Valley is best known in Francefor its hams. This is surprising when you realise how small the ham production is here. It is just a tiny, cottage industry.*
The real asset of this region, nestling between Europe's highest mountains and enjoying a high degree of administrative autonomy (since 1947), is the very fact of its accessibility, with visitors able to use both the Mont Blanc and Grand-Saint-Bernard tunnels. From Pont-Saint Martin to Courmayeur the towns and villages here have kept their original French names and the French language is spoken fluently. At an altitude of 1,224 metres, Courmayeur has been a Mecca for  downhill skiing since the 1970's. The spectacular cable-car which connects the resort with Chamonix runs into the Vallée Blanche, the most famous off-piste descent in Europe.
 
Courmayeur is also appreciated by ramblers. In the summertime it is a starting point for a 7 day hike around Mont Blanc. The town is surrounded by several hamlets, such as Entrèves and Pré-Saint-Didier (renowned for its thermal baths), its historical centre has the longest street in the Alps, the Via Roma, a condensed area of stylish boutiques. However, all hotel rooms in Courmayeur look towards the main attraction - the nearby presence of Mont Blanc (4,810m.) When viewing it from the town centre, Europe's highest peak is however hidden by the proximity of Mont Chétif (2,343m) which Mussolini, in delusions of grandeur, wanted to decapitate to open up the panorama!
 
Day One: Getting into shape with Cross Country Skiing and Thermal Baths.
 
Starting off with some effort…
 
The champions of cross country skiing – the Italian team (gold medalists in the Turin 2006 Olympics) come to Courmayeur for their training, as do the army who are based here.
 
A few minutes by shuttle bus from the town centre is Val Ferret, a magnificent valley which runs along the Mont Blanc range up to the Swiss border. With a 5 euro day pass you can ski on the 10 km circuit (return distance) which brings you up to the foot of Mont Frebouze. The Val Ferret benefits from having a lot of sunshine from 11am, thus enabling you to admire the peaks of the Grandes Jorasses. From time to time you may hear a noise resembling an explosion, breaking the silence that reigns here - this is an avalanche!
 
Several traditional inns line the route. There are also guides, for the high and medium altitude mountains, who are able to introduce you to cross country skiing at heights of at least 2000 metres. 
 
Then on to something more soothing…
 
Whilst Courmayeur is renowned for its mineral water you will not find anywhere you can buy a bottle of it here. This is no problem. To drink some: simply turn on any water tap! This water, known for its therapeutic qualities, gave rise in the beginning of the 19th century, to the spa at Pré-Saint-Didier, a hamlet 4km below Courmayeur.
 
So, in the evening after the cross-country skiing, there is nothing like plunging into the open air pools, which are torch-lit, where naturally hot water of over 37°C circulates directly from Courmayeur's spring. The water is very pure from a bacteriological point of view, is not treated with chlorine and is changed every day.
 
The original architecture of these thermal baths has been preserved which gives the site a very pleasant old time feel. Inside you will find numerous aqua massage baths, saunas in wooden chalets and toning water cascades. An admission ticket for the whole day costs 35Є. Sessions of massage are also available from 29Є for 25 minutes. Towels, bathrobes, bathing costumes and sandals are provided as are drinks and fresh fruit.
 
Day two: Downhill skiing and the Cable-Car
 
Easy Skiing in the Sun
 
Skiing in the area around Mont Blanc is a truly unique experience, especially for off-piste enthusiasts. Open until 27th April 2008, Courmayeur's ski area comprises 100km of very well marked out runs which are, on the whole, quite easy (7 blue, 13 red and 4 black).
 
Leaving from Courmayeur itself (1,224m), a series of cable-cars and gondolas will take you to the top of the runs at Cresta Youla (2,624m) and likewise, if time allows, to Cresta d'Arp (2,755m) from where there is a stunning view of Mont Blanc.
 
You can also take the the cable-car leaving from Entreves (1,306m), but I advise you to wait until the afternoon in order to catch the best of the sunshine. Another advantage of the ski area (which is travelled easily with the aid of an electronic lift-pass) is the quality of  the restaurants adjacent to its slopes. No greasy chips and ketchup here, but delicious wood fired pizzas at places like 'Christiana', or excellent regional charcuterie dishes such as at 'Château Branlant', both of which are situated at Plan Checrouit.
 
Chamonix - a cable's length away…
 
Courmayeur's other big attraction is its cable-car. Leaving La Palud (1,370m) it will take you to an incredible 360 degrees panorama located at Punta Helbronner (3,462m.) The views of Mont Blanc, of  la Dent du Géant (the Giant's Tooth) and of Mont Cervin on the Swiss side are magnificent.
 
In the summertime this cable-car also connects the Aiguille du Midi (3,842m) and Chamonix situated on the other side of the Mont Blanc massif (allow 2 hours for the journey.) In the winter, off-piste enthusiasts use it to get to the Vallée Blanche which is the longest off-piste descent in Europe: 24km of descent in superb landscape. The off-piste skiing here is not very difficult although it is best to have a high mountain guide for the whole day. When you arrive in Chamonix you can take a shuttle bus back to Courmayeur.
 
*This is because the true Aosta Valley Ham (with a label guaranteeing its origin) is confused with a ham of a similar name produced industrially in France.
 
PRACTICAL INFORMATION
 
Valle del Monte Bianco Tourist Office
Piazzale Monte Bianco, 13
11013 Courmayeur
( Aosta)
+39 0165 842060
Fax +39 0165 842072
 
Cross Country Skiing Centre
Planpincieux – Courmayeur
Tel : (0039) 0165869812
 
Pré-Saint-Didier Spa
Allée des Thermes – 11010 Pré-Saint-Didier
Tel : (0039) 0165 86 72 72

One hour 15 minutes from Geneva and 1 hour 35 from Turin, Courmayeur is one of Italy's premier resorts. This show-case resort in the Aosta Valley has, in recent years, attracted a very select Milanese clientèle, who have not failed in creating a local property price explosion. Courmayeur, has nonetheless been able to keep a faithful clientèle of holidaymakers, thanks to its affordable hotels, quality restaurants and exceptional scenery.

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