Chamonix actually owes a lot to Art. Science may have motivated its first Alpine visitors, but it was the artistic renditions through word or canvas that inspired the urbane citizens of London, Geneva and Paris to make their pilgrimage to the austere and intimidating peaks of Chamonix.
For most this involved simply marvelling at the majesty of the mountains and musing in awe on both the natural and (more eerily) the supernatural – the dragons said to inhabit the ice caves above. The more adventurous dared to venture out onto the Mer de Glace, accompanied by their local ‘pirates’ – the nautical title the glacier guides had given themselves – and witness the waves of ice in person.
The scientists may have been fascinated, but it was the stories they brought back, tales of immense glaciers and stunning landscapes, that mesmerized the artists. As the melodrama of the Romantic age bit deep, Chamonix became a natural wonder that had to be beheld. Lord Byron and Percy Shelley came here and were intensely affected by the grandeur they saw. Mary Shelley sent her monster-incarnate hero out onto the Chamonix glacier at the end of Frankenstein. As the literary reports and landscape paintings such luminaries sent back home captured the imagination of the British public, so Chamonix became a key fixture on the European Grand Tour and the Alpine tourist industry was borne.
With a tourist legacy stretching back over 250 years, Chamonix is arguably ‘the capital’ of the Alps. It still attracts swathes of visitors each year and does so the whole year-round. In keeping with its status, it remains a very cosmopolitan place. People from all points of the globe converge on the town and from varieties of life. Here you will see students on the tightest of budget camping underneath the boulders they will spend all day climbing or the ‘high society’ from Geneva sipping on Champagne at the opening of a local artist’s exhibition. Yet the goal is common – to soak up and draw energy from the most stunning and extreme scenery in Europe. Frequented by the rich and famous, poor and infamous, and every tier in-between, it is no wonder why Chamonix is one of the most re-visited places on the planet.