On the roof of Europe
Courmayeur didn’t impress me. The name itself is impossibly difficult to write without hitting the wrong keys at least twice. I swear I have tried hard to find something interesting in this town in Aosta Valley, in the north of Italy, but all my efforts have been useless.
Maybe it’s because the main street is an eyesore, what with its old-fashioned buildings dating back to the Seventies and with the Gucci, Hermès, Balenciaga and Rolex boutiques springing up at every corner. Or maybe because the hotel owner took the meaning of the word hospitality to an entirely new level. My first encounter is with a sign on the hotel door: “I’m in town – Will be back soon”.
I guess that also the word soon means something entirely different here, since I have to wait for thirty minutes for the dear old lady to come back from the shops. And it is not a B&B where all’s fair, but a family-owned hotel. This last concept gets distorted too: after showing me to a room which is quite big, rather outdated and way too smelly, the landlady invites me to vacate my room no later 8.00am on the following morning.
“My grandson is getting married,” she offers, as this is a good enough reason to pack off a group of twenty people, “but no hurry, uh?”
There’s a possibility that all this contributed to my negative judgment of the town. Still, there’s a silver lining: leaving the hotel at dawn on Sunday morning means that I manage to find something worth the trip to Courmayeur. Shall I mention that I cannot use use my car because of the innovative approach to the concept of “family owned hotel”? But being compelled to walk takes me to Entrèves, a small village just a couple of miles from the center of Courmayeur. I don’t have a water bottle because the lack of a mini bar in the room and I couldn’t find any member of staff around when I left, so I throw myself at the fountain, with its spring water gushing out. It is ice cold and crystal clear, and I have to fight the urge to dive into the drinking trough.
From the fountain square, I follow a maze of cobbled streets leading to the heart of the small town, with old stone houses, heavy wooden doors and windows decorated with flowers. It looks like a ghost town though: the only people in sight are a young boy and his grandpa, but probably the streets are just too narrow to let cars drive through.
I walk along the alleys, stopping here and there to take pictures when something grabs my attention: a corner, a window, and a restaurant serving cheese dishes. Hoping not be noticed, I follow the steps of the old man and his grandchild: they walk into the Auberge de la Maison, a stone building surrounded by a meadow dotted with some scattered sun chairs. I take a mental note: should I ever come back, this is the hotel where I’d like to stay.
After leaving Entrèves behind, I am ready for the last effort: the steep road leading to Pontal. Because even though Courmayeur and I didn’t hit it off, this is where you have to go if you want to climb Mont Blanc. I walk less than a mile to the Skyway, the cable car linking Pontal to the uppermost tip of Europe’s highest mountain. I was prepared to stand in a mile-long line under the scorching July sun, but there is just a handful of visitors.
The ticket costs 48 euros – not cheap, but worth every single cent. After a couple of minutes I am on board the cable car going up along the first leg of the route, climbing from Pontal at 1,300 meters to Pavillon du Mont Fréty at 2,173 meters. We are just halfway and there’s a second cable car to ride to get to the top. It’s advisable to stop at Mont Fréty for some time in order to allow your body to get used to the abrupt change in temperature and elevation.
I take the opportunity to take a walk among the flowerbeds of Saussurea Botanic Garden, founded in 1984 with the aim of preserving the alpine flower species of Mont Blanc. With its location at 2,175 meters above sea level, it is one of the highest gardens in Europe. It is named after Horace Bénédict de Saussure, a geologist who promoted the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786.
I do not linger among the rocks and plants because the weather can change abruptly and I fear the cloud and the fog. I go back to the station and board the second cable car linking Mont Fréty to the mountain top. The cabin rotates 360°, thus offering a full view on the landscape that changes inch after inch. So if green was the dominating color down at the botanic garden, now shades of grey from the rocks and white from the ice are taking over. The cable car climbs 1,290 meters in ten minutes and I have the impression that the steel cables are running parallel to the wall of the mountain. At a certain point I am sure I could touch the glacier if I only had a chance to stick my hand out the window.
When I get off at Helbronner, I struggle to climb the handful of steps leading from the crystal-shaped station up to the panoramic terrace at 3,466 meters. Thin air makes my heart beat faster and when I get to the top I feel slightly dizzy. I don’t know where to look first: all around me there are mountains, peaks and glaciers. The only colors are the dazzling white of the snow and the deep blue of the sky. I get a glimpse of Rifugio Torino beneath the terrace: it’s a shelter built for climbers and skiers, but you can also walk there from Pontal. I am told that it takes about seven hours among rocks and glaciers.
Behind me there is Dente del Gigante, or giant’s tooth, with its sharp peak; beyond the Aiguille du Midi I can see as far as Cervino and Monte Rosa. It’s an intoxicating feeling: it’s probably caused either by thin air or by the difference in temperature, with 30° degrees centigrade down in Pontal and minus one on the terrace.
My head is buzzing with words that I could use to describe what’s in front of me: breathtaking view, being walking on air, being in seventh heaven. I am sure that these combinations of words have been invented here, on the roof of Europe.