Crashing chalets and not skiing
If you’re not there solely for the skiing or snowboarding, Chamonix can, believe it or not, be done on a budget. All you have to do is be bit cheeky about it. Our friend was in Chamonix for work and overheard some people talking about renovating their chalet and asked if they wanted him to overlook the work while they were away. They agreed and he got to stay in their spectacular two-storey chalet with mountain views (and hot tub) for free for a month. It sounds purely like a stroke of good luck, but a lot of chalet owners who don’t rent are busy people who are only too happy to have somebody responsible to look after their holiday homes or pets while they’re away. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to visit our friend for a few days.
As well as not having a massive budget, me and J are also devoid of any snow-sport skills whatsoever. Chamonix was a bad choice, you say? I’ll admit that trying to learn to snowboard without an instructor was difficult, and we spent more time on our butts than we did standing up, but it was most definitely fun, and we did get very slightly better by the end of the day. The good thing about renting gear and a pass for the day is that even of you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, you get the breathtaking views of the Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix Valley from the slopes and ski-lifts as pretty compensation. The next day, slightly defeated from the snow-boarding, we rented some snow-shoes (much cheaper than most other snow activities) and did the Les Houches trail past snowy mountains, icicle-adorned wood-huts and pine-tree forests.
The next day we got on the scenic bus towards Valtournenche/Breuil-Cervinia where we stayed with an Italian relative. Having loved our leisurely walk through the pine-forest in Chamonix, we rented out snow-shoes again and started the walk from Breuil-Cervinia base to Plan Maison. As it happened, this turned out to be anything but leisurely. Since snow-shoes necessarily have a massive surface area and pick up snow as you walk, going up-hill can be incredibly strenuous. Going straight up the steep, fresh ski-slopes of the Matterhorn with the sound of distant avalanches crashing in the background was one of the hardest, most exhilarating experiences of my life. By the time we got to the top we were in t-shirts and singing into the eerily echo-less snow to keep us going. One of the things I remember most clearly were the fresh snow crystals at the summit of our walk reflecting a stunning carpet of tiny rainbows which I determined to (totally unsuccessfully) take hundreds of pictures of. We finally reached Plan Maison where, whether because of all-consuming hunger or just good cooking, I had one of the best pastas of my whole life. We ended the day by taking the spectacular Cable Car to Plateau Rosa, home of Il Bar del Rifugio guide del Cervino, a cosy Alpine Bar at 3480m altitude.
From Valtournenche we took the long train/bus journey to the Dolomites (I’d recommend staying in Milan or Verona for a couple of days if you’re going to do this). We went in the off-season (early April to be exact, the tail-end of Ski season) when everything is cheaper – accommodation, car rental, ski-passes, husky-sledding etc. While many of the hotels and restaurants are closed, and some of the trails are closed off due to snow, you can enjoy the dramatic views of the towering rocky peaks on the trails that are open without the crowds. If you’re travelling as a couple, it can be cosy to visit at this very quiet and snowy time of year.
Things to do in Chamonix/Dolomites other than skiing/snowboarding:
- Snow shoeing
- Husky Sledding
- Hike the many trails/take Cable cars in the Dolomites
- Rent a car and drive the Great Dolomite Road (anywhere from Verona to Cortina d’Ampezzo via the Lakes) There isn’t really one single route which is fine because the scenery in the area is generally stunning.
- Eat your body weight in Speck (the local cured ham) and Spetzle
- Chamonix –Poco Loco . Great burgers and cheap beer pitchers (for the area) if you’re in a group.
- Breuil- Cervinia – La Grotta. OK this one is not exactly cheap but the pizzas are amazing and huge and definitely shareable.
- Dolomites – Malga Sella Alm. Home-style German food in an Alpine hut with lovely views of the Val Gardena Dolomites.