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Dear Readers, Happy New Year !

This is our first post of 2016. It is almost a tradition of this blog – the first post takes a look back at some of the places we visited last year.

Click on links, where provided to read more about the places of interest. There are usually a series of related posts per location, you can discover them easily in the calendar at the bottom of the post.

In reverse chronological order:

Swiss alps featuring Matterhorn – we went up to Zermatt on December 30 – this was taken from a view point at Gornergrat – ‎3,135 m (10,285 ft)

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Piazza San Marco, Venezia, Italy in October

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Tree of Life, World Expo 2015, Milano, Italy in October

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Chamonix, France in September long weekend

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Crozet, France in August, business meeting

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BBQ on Lac Leman lake front, Lausanne

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Basel, Switzerland in July

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Annecy, France in June – day trip ended with surprise firework display

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Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk, Denmark in June

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Copenhagen, Denmark in June

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See next post for the places we went in the first half of 2015.

 

 

 

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Continuing with our weekend in Chamonix …

Planpraz is a plateau that is half way up the Aiguiles Rouge at about 2000 m. If you are going to Le Brevent, one of the summits on this side of the valley, this is where one change cable car. Click here to see earlier post with more photos around Planpraz.

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Planpraz is also the official launch site for hangliders and paragliders on this side of mountain above valley. On that day, the clouds were oppressively low and there was no visibility above Planpraz (which was the reason for us to hang around Planpraz).

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Apparently, Mieusey, 50km west of Chamonix, lays claim to the birth of paragliding in 1974. There are numerous flying schools in Chamonix for the brave souls.

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Big thermals, eagles, glaciers and high peaks make the Chamonix valley one of the best flying areas in the world.

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Cool nights and hot days create large temperature gradients resulting in powerful thermals and strong valley winds. The season starts in March and ends in October, but it is possible to fly all year long.

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Most of the flights we saw there were tandem flights – a lay person flying with a pilot. There were lots of ads in town for this activity – obviously very popular with tourists. Below are a sequence of photos which follow the setup and take off of one such flights – it only took 15 minutes.

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I(Chris) did tandem hangliding and Sue did tandem paragliding in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where we flew off a cliff out towards the sea and landed on a beach. It was mindblowing.

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In my experience, the only scary part is when you start running off the side of the mountain and jump … you initially fall … and fall … then the sails pick up the wind and lift you. That short moment of falling was terrifying.

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We did not try flying here. But I am sure it will be quite an experience as the descent will be at least 1000 m. They landed somewhere in the village on the valley floor.

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It is also possible to take off on the Mount Blanc side (opposite from us) and from Aiguille du Midi which is even higher at more than 4000 meters, that is double the altitude of Planpraz ! One can stay up for at least twice as long.

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It must be freezing cold up there especially when you are riding the wind and it will take some time before you land. Just imagine your hands and fingers becoming numb or frozen and preventing the proper operation of the parachute  … oops.

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On that day, even with the clouds, there were always five or six flights up in the sky at the same time for much of the day.

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We were back in Chamonix …

We wanted to do a bit of hiking, initially hoping to walk down from one of the peaks of Aiguilles Rouges (“Red Peaks”) – Le Brevent (2525 m or 8284 feet above sea level) down to Planpraz (around 2000 m or 6562 feet).

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But due to low cloud and fog resulting in poor visibility, we scrapped the idea and did not even bother to take the second stage of the cable car up to Le Brevent.

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Planpraz is the terminal of the first stage of the cable car and the interchange to the second stage.  It is essentially a small plateau, in the form of a shoulder of the Aiguilles Rouges, situated opposite the Mount Blanc massif above the Chamonix valley. A crossroad of sorts.

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Instead, we decided to hike Le Grand Balcon Sud (“Grand Southern Balcony”) which traverses one side of Aiguilles Rouges.

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This mountain path runs from Planpraz to the Col des Montets via La Flégère, just above the treeline.

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La Flégère is just visible from here.

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We used the télécabine to get from the valley floor up to Planpraz.

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But the téléphérique at La Flégère (1877 m) has stopped running since it was offseason … and we did not want to climb down to the valley. So we just did a loop and came back to Planpraz.


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Unlike the massif of the Mont Blanc, the Aiguilles Rouges have no significant glaciers, presumably due to the direction of its faces and local weather. But it is quite different on the other side of the valley.

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The Aiguilles Rouges offer a splendid view of all the peaks of Chamonix and the glaciers of Mont Blanc.

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The little refuge on the Le Grand Balcan Nord is just visible in the middle of this photo – that is the starting point of our previous “epic” hike, see earlier post here.

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We will come back and try either of the hikes again soon. Watch this space.

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Satsuki is a Japanese eatery located just outside the pedestrian precinct of Chamonix. Brightly lit and packed at dinner time, it was.

I was expecting a disappointment when I first saw the restaurant.  But it turned out to be an authentic Japanese restaurant.

The menu was fairly simple but the food tasted right.  The patrons were a mix of locals and visitors including tourists from Japan.

We had come across sushi joints in Switzerland run by non-Japanese asians (mostly Chinese) and many were subpar in quality and execution.  We were quite pleased with Satsuki, even its offerings are basic. An inexpensive Japanese restaurant with an authentic taste is hard to find in Switzerland.  There might be some in Geneva but we have not yet discovered them.

We went back a second time for lunch and the food was consistently good.

They have a branch in Megeve too, a ski resort in a neighboring valley.  We will revisit the restaurant when we return to Chamonix.

Atmosphère is mentioned under Bib Gourmand in the 2011 Michelin Guide. It is located in the “basement” of a building which faces the main city square.  The “basement” has on the other side a waterfront view of the river Arve.

We arrived without a reservation and were glad they seated us.  I heard English spoken somewhere in the dining room and there was a Japanese couple.  Then, a party of at least 20 French people (not local) came to celebrate a birthday.  I believe it is not a foreign tourist trap.

We really enjoyed our evening meal there and recommend it. Agreeably priced. Not fancy but solid continental fare.

Carpaccio of tomato with “Burrata” and Basil  (heirloom tomato)

Preserved rabbit terrine with tomato jam and spices

Braised veal brisket

Roast breast of duck, pepper sauce

Three cheeses and salad (Beaufort, Reblochon, but I cannot remember the third) at the end.

The restaurant is located next to the River Arve, just above the surface of the water. Must be nice during the day.

A day after our 6-hour ordeal, with 3 hours spent on descending from Mer de Glace to Chamonix, we returned to the scene of our adventure – by the Montenvers mountain train that we missed the day before. Sue was kicking the train that left us stranded at 1900 meters.

The attraction at Mer de Glace is the massive glacier which we saw. Also it has an ice cave (la grotte) that was created by carving into the side of the glacier.  When I first saw the glacier, it just looked like a valley full of rocks and dirt.  But when I saw the caves, I appreciated how deep or thick is the ice in the glacier (who knows how deep, but suffice to say very deep).  What we saw from the top is just debris that were washed on top of the ice as the glacier melted and slid downhill.

Apparently the glacier has been shrinking in thickness as markers on the side of the mountain showed where the ice was going back 5, 10, 15 or so years ago.  It was remarkable how much the glacier has sunk into the valley exposing more grounded up rocks on either side of the mountain. The result of the geological process was plain to see.  It is hard to see them in the photo below but there are two beautiful waterfalls right in the middle of it.  Just like what Olafur Eliasson said (see earlier post), because the waterfalls are far away, it looked as if the water was coming down in slow motion.

A cable car service takes 6-8 people at a time to a landing and then one has to climb down 400 steps to reach the cave.  There were numerous signs warning tourists of the number of steps down to the cave and then up. It was a quite a long way when you look from the top.

As you can see, there are at least four or five caves – the ones on the left were dug a few years ago and are abandoned – apparently as the glacier moves slowly downhill, the entrances of the caves moved away from the side of the mountain where the stairs are located.  Some caves had collapsed inside and new ones are being created regularly.

Glacier ice are super hard due to compression by the weight above and they have this bright attractive light blue color.  It was the same in the glaciers of Iceland (we went two years ago) except that most of the glaciers there were covered by black volcanic ash.

This piece of rock was trapped by snow and then ice probably eons ago and had been brought by the glacier to this point where the cave was dug.

Artificial lighting of various weird colors were used inside the cave.

One of the only and most unexpected commercial activity inside the cave was an opportunity to step into a smaller cave off to one side and have your picture taken with a large San Bernard – the Swiss national dog.  The cost – 6 euros. I just happened to have captured a glimpse of the dog – it did not seem to be wearing a casket of brandy around its neck.  With its thick fur, it was probably quite comfortable in the ice cave – mind you, it was late summer outside. I knew it is a large breed but according to wikipedia, the average weight is between 140 and 264 lb ! – but their life span on average is only 8 years.

The cave is just a few interconnecting tunnels. They lined the floor with some textile material to keep the place from becoming slippery.

After a slow climb back up to the station, we took the train back down to Chamonix.

After a visit to the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m (12,605 ft), we descended by cable car half way to the Plan de l’Aiguille at about 2,300m (7,600 ft) to start our hike. The destination is the Montenvers-Mer de Glace mountain train station at 1,913m (6,276 ft). According to the official guide, this nature trail also known as the Grand Balcon Nord is of Diffculty Level 1 (easiest) and the estimated completion time is 2 hours 15 minutes. This is a view of the Massif des Aiguilles Rouge (Red Needles) across the valley.  (Sue:  that information is provided from people who hike to people who hike.  For people like me who hike once in a blue moon, difficulty level is mostly 1 with one little mountain that’s level 1,000 – good heavens, that was a real pain in the…umm…butt.  The completion time is about 3 hours and some minutes.)

Started our walk at 2pm, we first descended for about 10 minutes from the cable car landing to Refuge de Plan du l’Aiguille – which is a little house sitting prominently alone on an exposed point overlooking Chamonix. Someone lives there permanently I believe and it sold food and drinks. It had a green inflatable water storage unit which looked like a massive cushion or water bed from a distance.

View across the valley including the town of Chamonix where we are staying.

The trail traverses the sides of the Aiguilles de Chamonix and lies just above the tree line. The vegetation was mostly stunted shrubs, moss and lichen.  It must be a popular trail as we saw a lot of people mostly coming from the other side.

Because there were no trees at this altitude,  the views were unobstructed across the valley.

Looking back towards our starting point; one can just make out the Refuge du Plan du l’Aiguille

Now one can see more clearly the Refuge.

Met a hang-glider in midair.  We waved at each other.

Our destination is the train station at Montenvers (1913 m) from which we were planning to catch a mountain train back to Chamonix.

View of the hotel/restaurant from the trail – in fact, a red train is just visible amongst the evergreen trees.

View towards Aiguille des Grands Montets and Glacier du Nant Blanc – just above the Mer de Glace.

Along the way, there was a series of steep switchback leading up to Signal Forbes at 2,198m (7,211 ft ).  This section was a tough hike, truly aerobic exercise.  At this point, we had been on the trail for 3 hours.

Someone has been building this stone walls using piles of rock. Chamonix in the background below.

View of Aiguille vert (4122 m) from Signal Forbes.  This place was stunning as it afforded a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains, the valley, and a massive glacier just beneath you.

View of the Mer de Glace and Aiguille du Tacul, Aiguille du Plan, as we were descending from Signal Forbes.

After a scenic but longer-than-expected descent to le Montenvers, we found the place deserted.  Oops !  (Sue:  Oops!  No, it was more like crap!  But that’s not the word we used if you know what I mean.)  We did not know the time table and apparently the last train to Chamonix departed 10 minutes before we got there.  Since we did not expect to start so late in the day, we did not bother to check.

Stranded at 1900m, we were tired after 3+ hours of walking, and with no water.  As far as we could tell, there were no roads, no taxi, except the mountain train which left 10 minutes earlier. The adventure had just begun.  (Sue:  did y’all not see the movie The Blair Witch Project??  Except, we didn’t even have water because we drank it all right before arriving at the stupid train station thinking that we were done with walking.  Lord love a duck.)

We had to walk down to Chamonix (about 1o00m).  As we did not have a high res map of the area and although we followed the trail, we were not 100% sure that it would take us back to Chamonix. So we just walked – then we saw the sign, we were only about 2 hours 30 minutes from town !  Thankfully, we were not the only people stranded and met several small groups on this trail.  We leapfrogged each other as we rested and continued our descent.  We passed another refuge but it was closed – we were thirsty.

We crossed the train tracks twice on our way down and there were tunnels. I contemplated following the train track but it was electrified and what if there were tunnels – should we enter the tunnel even though the train stopped running?  The tunnels can be long and of course dark, duh. The danger outweighed the benefit of knowing that the train track would guide us back into town. The downhill trail was steep and very rocky.  We had to race down the mountain as the sun was setting behind the peaks and the valley was getting shady quickly.  We also descended below the tree line and we were surrounded by dense vegetation. It would be rather dangerous if it was dark.

We descended more than 1000m in the next 3 hours !  Going downhill is easy on your lungs but very hard on your knees and ankles. By the time we reached civilization, it turned out only to be the top of a ski slope and a tobaggan ride.  More walking. When we reached the bottom of the ski run, the couple in front of us on the trail were climbing over a metal gate.  The facility was closed for the summer, hence locked. We could barely stand and we had to climb over a stupid gate ?  (Sue:  I just stood there looking at the closed gate and thought : you have GOT to be effing kidding me!) Fortunately, we tried another gate nearby and it was not locked !  What a relief that was, we laughed and you have to see our faces. (Sue:  it was more like delirium.)  We reached town before dark but I missed my spa appointment. No taxi can be found nearby, so we had a quick pasta dinner (ordered and finished 2 liters of bottled water) at a restaurant in the town center and walked home slowly afterwards.  (Sue:  Chris says “walked” but I say limped.  After sitting down for dinner, my knees wouldn’t work.)

When we crawled into town, the smallest step or slope looked daunting as we did not want to use those parts of our legs.   Well, it was a memorable adventure – 6 hours of hiking in total and in 3 hours descended 1000 m.

The satellite map below shows the area we hiked.  The two blue square icons on the mountain roughly marked our start and end points (from bottom of map to top). The white streak to the right is the Mer de Glace. From there, we hiked down the mountain to Chamonix – the ski slope is just visible next to the word Blanc on the map.

The weather of our first two days in Chamonix was lousy: overcast and rain resulting in zero visibility above 2,000m.  So there is no point to go up the mountains, instead we checked out all the souvenir stores, hiking equipment stores, cafes … in town.  The 3rd day was brilliant – we had cloudless blue sky.  The entire town of tourists had been waiting for good weather in the last 2 days just like us.

The must-see sight here is Mont Blanc which can be seen from one of the nearby peaks – l’Aiguille du midi (roughly translated as the Needle of Noon, the surrounding peaks are referred to as needles “Aiguilles”). As you can see above, the line for the telepherique to go up to l’Aiguille du Midi was a mile long.  We waited for almost two hours and it was packed.  The maximum capacity per “car” is 72, standing room only, no seats.  We got a number designating us to get on a car at a specific time – about 15 minutes after we bought our 2-day Chamonix pass.  The pass granted us unlimited access to all the telepheriques, telecabines and mountain trains in the area.

Glacier du Bossons

There are two stages of the telepherique – a first stage that lands at Le Plan du l’Aiguille at 2233m and a second stage goes up to the summit at 3842m (photo below).  The whole trip was about 20 minutes. Some people did not line up, crowds rushing for the door to get the best window position, backpackers who had not taken a shower for days   –  essentially a sardine rush-hour experience in a serene alpine environment – it was surreal.

Looking back during our ascent, this is a view of the entrance to the Chamonix Valley.

Near the top (the top is not open to the public) are restaurants, viewing platforms and points from which climbers set off or return.

At this height, the air is so thin that we were out of breadth as soon as we climbed stairs.  The temperature was about minus 2 degree celsius with a slight breeze and it was blindingly sunny.  But I could easily imagine the severely hostile environment during winter.

Mount Blanc is a humble-looking flat-top summit unlike some of the other more dramatic looking needle-like peaks nearby. The logo of Montblanc pens is therefore quite appropriate given the roundness of the summit. I hope you can match up the panorama with the actual view – the first peak from right to left in the panorama is Mount Blanc at 4810 m – the highest point in Europe.

Views from an ice cave facing the Dents du Geant and la Vallée Blanche.

Trekkers in la Vallée Blanche below.

From l’Aiguille du Midi, there is another telecabine that takes people across a massive glacier for 40 minutes to Pointe Helbronner in Italy.  These cabins are much smaller than the one we used as you can see below. One need a passport to go over and since we planned to do some hiking, we promised ourselves to visit next time.  Rick Steve mentioned on his website that this route is a backdoor from France to Italy.  The trekkers above were in the background of the photo below.

Just looking at the sheer ice cliff was vertigo inducing. I wondered if I can do this hike.

The ridge was one person wide with a steep drop on either side.  The value of an ice axe cannot be underestimated here.

This is a view looking down towards the departure point of our hike at 2233m. Can you see at the left hand edge of the photo a tiny Plan du l’Aiguille – the first landing of the telepherique ?  I would like to go the little lake –  Lac Bleu at 2299m … may be next time. Our hike and unexpected adventure will be next !

We were spending a long long weekend here in Chamonix. After we checked in at the Hotel Le Morgane, we went out for a stroll. Just off the center of town, is the town church.  A wedding ceremony was to start half an hour later when we walked inside.  Unlike many churches I have been to in Europe, this one is cheerful with the chandeliers, fresh flowers and bright gold leaves. Partly because, I think, this church is not ancient.

Next to the church on one side is the tourism office.  Apparently, so many Japanese tourists visit Chamonix that they have a part-time French lady who speaks fluent Japanese to assist at the tourism office.

On the other side is an institution unique to this place.  It is the office of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, founded in 1821, reputedly the oldest mountain guide organization in the world.  From the Maison de La Montagne, you can hire walking guide or mountain guide for 1 or more days (300 euro per day) who will help you equip, teach you climbing and survival at high altitude, go with you on hikes including up to Mount Blanc and rescue you if necessary.  The guides looked hyperfit and superequiped with walkie talkie, ropes, etc.

The town has many local specialities store, selling produce from the Haute -Savoie area.  Saucissons being one (some made from wild boar, and many with various types of nuts and mushrooms), cheeses another (Tomme, Reblochon and Beaufort), and herbal liquors another (Chartreuse, and various eau de vie).

At  Maison Richard et Côté Macarons – we had coffee and sampled some new flavors.  The macarons were so attractively displayed that several Japanese tour groups had to stop and go gaga over it.

Other shops in town …

The river, Arve, runs through the town – fast and furious.  It looked as if it was boiling at dusk, I wondered about how the mist was formed.  The flow rate noticeably changed from morning to evening. Sue thought the change was due to the sun melting the snow at high altitude which arrived in town towards the end of the day.

A small local train also runs through the town. It was free for all overnight visitors.  And also SNCF which connects Chamonix to the rest of the country. Officially, the Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley (Pays du Mont-Blanc) contains the villages of (from the west to east) Servoz, Les Houches, Chamonix-Mont Blanc, Argentiere, and Vallorcine.  These villages all lie at the bottom of the valley and each has a number of mountain train, téléphériques (aerial tramway), télécabines (cable car), télésièges (ski lift with seat) and téléskis (ski lift that pulls) that take visitors up the mountain on either sides. 

Hotel Le Morgane is located at the entrance of the village center just outside of the pedestrianized area.  We parked the car in a private lot behind the hotel – which was very convenient.

Sue managed to find a good deal at this hotel.  We scored a superior room at the top floor with an oversized balcony, treatment at the spa and breakfasts.  They also have a Michelin 1-star restaurant.  We highly recommend the hotel especially when they are offering a package deal.

The decor is modern, unlike some of the other more traditional hotels in town. It is a Best Western Premier hotel.  While it lacks local character, it compensates with small luxuries, comfort and efficiency. It reminded us of Hotel Terra that we stayed at in Jackson, Wyoming.  Both hotels cater to active travelers who enjoy winter skiing or summer hike in the mountains.

Our bathroom is triangular in shape with a hexagonal bath tub.  The window opens to a view of the Arve (the main river following through town).


They provided Bogner branded toiletries (German clothings label, but never heard of their fragrances).

The view from our 5th floor terrace (or very big balcony) towards the entrance of the valley.

Low lying cloud in the valley, view towards the center of town.

The river was fast flowing so there was always the noise of rushing water –  it was kind of relaxing – we opened the window to sleep.  There were lots of casual eateries and shops around the hotel.
View of Glacier des Bossons just above town.

It was an easy 2-hour drive – highway all the way once outside Lausanne to Geneva and then into France (A1 then A40 aka Autoroute Blanche). We returned via Martigny, going down the mountain on the other side of the Chamonix valley, effectively circling Lac Leman once.

Chamonix is located near the entrance of the Mont Blanc tunnel, one of the major trans-Alps highways which link central and southern Europe.

Historically, it has been a major tourist destination and held the first Winter Olympics in 1924.

I really liked the size of the town – it has a pedestrianized town center – bigger enough that you cannot see everything down one street but small enough that allow you to cover it on foot in an afternoon. We went at the end of the summer vacations so the place is a little less crowded.

These must be the people who climbed Mont Blanc and others who turned Chamonix from a market town to an international destination of ski and mountaineering – founders of the mountain guides.


This place must be quite expensive or even glamorous during the ski season – judging by the presence of a Chanel and a casino.

There were plenty of other clothing stores –  all major brands of outdoor wear from Montcler to Patagonia, Aigle to Billabong have their own stores here.  But I saw fewer ski stores than I expected.  They were at the tail end of their summer “destockage” so there were not much bargain left on the rails.

Aigle had used a series of period graphic poster to promote their wares.

The weather was not cooperative on the first few days.  Hence, these pictures of shops. More on Chamonix to come in the next few posts.