Watching Rick Steves’ Europe on PBS we discovered that it was possible to use gondolas and cable cars to cross from France to Italy. However, we weren’t able to find any concise explanations of how to make the trip, so I decided to write my own. If you’re ever going to try this trip, hopefully this post will help. (I’ve heard Rick Steves’ France guidebook has details about the trip, but we had his Paris ebook and “Europe Through the Backdoor,” and we were only able to glean the basics from these books.)
First, getting to Chamonix can be a pain. Rick Steves describes it as a convienient overnight train ride from Paris, but we were never able to figure out how to do that. While the trip could probably be done during the night, our experience was that it required several train changes and doing it at night would basically mean pulling an all nighter. Maybe the all night trains are seasonal, or maybe we just couldn’t find them, but we ended up doing the trip during the day. We also didn’t make reservations beforehand (a mistake), and the trip ended up taking all day.
Once in Chamonix, the departure point to go up the mountain is right at the end of the street Aiguille du Midi. Getting there is an easy 10 minute walk from anywhere in the town. If you’re starting in front of the church next to the tourist office, walk downhill (so, away from the church) for a block until you get to the main square. The square is intersected by the street Rue Docteur Paccard. Turn right onto that street. If you don’t see any street signs, just remember that it’s the big touristy road that runs perpendicular to the one you’re on. The post office is also located in the square, so if you see that in front of you, that’s where you should turn right.
After walking for a couple of minutes, turn left on Aiguille du Midi and walk until it ends. There will be on will be a big gray building with a parking lot in front, and that’s where you can buy tickets, make reservations, and begin the ascent.
You can begin taking cable cars at 6 am. We arrived around 7 am and there was a line of about 10 people in front of us buying tickets. By 8 am, we heard, the line gets longer and Laura went there a day earlier in the late morning and said there was about 300 people in line. We’ve also heard the weather is better in the morning, so it’s an all around good idea to begin this trip as early as possible. However, if you do want to go up later in the day, it’s best to make a reservation. This can be done online (sorry no link, I’m writing this with an iPod while on a train), or at the main office (gray building, directions above). I think it costs €2 to reserve a spot. However, it is free for eurail passholders. Also, if you go up at 6 or 7 am, a reservation isn’t nessecary.
A one way ticket from Chamonix to the top of Aiguille du Midi (the high point of the trip with views of Mont Blanc) costs €37 per person (round trip is only about €43). The trip to the top is done in two legs (with a cable car switch half way up) with fairly spacious cable cars (there was at least 20 people in ours). When we bought our tickets in Chamonix at 7 am, Helbonner (the next mountain, where the border is located) wasn’t open yet, so they could only sell us tickets to go as far as Aiguille du Midi (they said to just go up and by the next leg of the trip once we were on the mountain). However, later in the day (and if the weather is good) they can sell tickets all the way to Helbronner from down below in town.
In any case, a one way ticket from Aiguille du Midi to Helbronner costs €18. Also, at Aiguille du Midi there is an expensive cafe (and a restaurant that was closed while we were there). Also, make sure to take advantage of the many great lookout points on Aiguille du Midi. There are also a lot of hikes, though most of the ones we saw required ice gear. At some point (maybe at Aiguille du Midi or maybe at the transfer between the first and second legs of the ascent, I’m not sure) there is a hike to the spectacular glacier below Mont Blanc. We didn’t go on this hike because of time, but it seemed cool.
The trip from Aiguille du Midi to Helbronner is a terrifying 30 minutes of being suspended really high up in the air (to give perspective, a small airplane flew under us while we were up there). The cable cars (or gondolas, I’m not sure what the difference is), only hold four people, but they send them across in groups of three. That means a maximum of 12 people leave every five to ten minutes. Even early in the morning we had to wait about 20 minutes to get on, so later in the day this line would probably take awhile. Also, we had the car to ourselves because they weren’t splitting up goups of people. I don’t know if they fill them to capacity later in the day. Also, the trip seemed faster and smoother than we remembered it being on Rick Steves’ Europe, so we thought the system may have been updated recently (or we may simply have been mentally preparing ourselves for something slower and more ramshackle than it ended up being).
The Helbronner station is smaller than the Aiguille du Midi station, but as you walk out you go down a hallway and pass a yellow line painted on the wall and floor. One side is France, the other is Italy. There was no one there to stamp or check our passports, even if we had wanted the stamp.
From Helbronner, a one way ticket down to the town of La Palud, in Italy, is €29. The Italian gondolas are older and more rickety, though they were much less busy. In fact we were the only ones going down for most of the way. (Unfortunately that also meant we couldn’t “charm a ride” to Aosta out of anyone, as Rick Steves recommends and as I had hoped to do.)
The trip down is done in three legs and at each one we had to get out and change gondolas. We we’re also surprised to see that the Italian side of the mountain was much more lush and green than the French side. Though it doesn’t have Mont Blanc, we found it to be generally prettier and more like our stereotypical idea of what the Alps should look like (which is largely based on the movie “Heidi”). In between the second and third gondolas down we ate a snack by a small pond. I think there are also some restaurants at this last station, though we didn’t eat at them.
The last Italian gondola drops passengers off in the village of La Palud. We didn’t see much of this town, but it does have a few touristy-looking lodging options and restaurants. It’s also really small, and though touristy, much more pleasant seeming than Chamonix on the French side of the crossing.
From La Palud, there is a bus into Coermayer, the somewhat larger town down the valley. To catch the bus, walk downhill from the gondola station. The road snakes around a curve and at the bottom there is a covered bus stop. It is right before the road meets up with the larger highway. The bus costs €0.90 per person, which can be paid to the driver. The bus stops right outside the Coermayer bus station, and the ride takes roughly 20-30 minutes.
From Coermayer, there are buses to various locations in Italy (Torino, Milan, etc.). As far as I know, however, there is not a train station in the town. On Rick Steves’ recommendation, we decided to go to nearby Aosta to get the train. The bus to Aosta costs €3.20 per person and takes a little more than an hour. It’s also a spectacular ride because there are castles at virtually every bend in the road. Once in Aosta, the bus stops right outside the train station.
If you’re considering this trip, I’d highly recommend it. While definitely more expensive than simply taking the train into Italy (or the bus from Chamonix), it’s also stunning to dangle above the Alps. However, the feasability of the trip is highly dependant on weather, so check that before going. Also, keep in mind that passage for each leg of the journey can be purchased at the stations up on the mountain. Credit cards are accepted at all of them. Sometimes passage to the border can also be purchased all at once on the French side, but to get all the way to La Palud a round trip ticket must be purchased (which is a bad value if you’re only going one way), or tickets into Italy have to be purchased at the Helbronner station (the better option).
So hopefully this post is helpful. I think all of this information is available elsewhere, but we, at least, didn’t have the right guidebooks and we couldn’t find a good explanation online.