Several hundred years ago, it was customary for European Alpine villages to invite visiting priests to take on the mountain demons who locals believed were responsible for rapidly advancing glaciers and avalanches. With the Alps experiencing records snowfalls, Sevenoaks publisher and editor of the Skier & Snowboarder magazine, Frank Baldwin, delves into the folklore of Chamonix.
There is an impressive scale model of the Chamonix Valley in the High Mountain Office on the top floor of what is the oldest building in the famous ski resort. The Maison de la Montagne dates back to the 1200s and was built as a priory for Benedictine monks but is now the HQ for the local ESF.
As well as all the Chamonix ski lifts, etc, the model shows the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), which is the second largest glacier in the Alps – and if you ask one of the staff nicely, they’ll show you how much of the glacier has disappeared in recent years.
But there was a time when the few farmers who lived and worked in the valley were so afraid of how fast all the glaciers in the area were advancing that they held religious ceremonies in an attempt to exorcise the demons and witches they believed were responsible. These ceremonies took place during the last ‘little ice age’ between the mid-1500s and mid-1800s, when the glaciers were advancing quite dramatically. Priests were asked to place a cross at the terminal snout of the biggest glacier to encourage its recession.
This was just one of the long-forgotten ceremonies held in high Alpine villages to ward off evil spirits. Another involved burying eggs in the snow during winter at the bottom of avalanche-prone slopes in the hope of appeasing the witches that locals believed caused the slides. In fact, some even thought the mountains were cursed.
The famous peaks around Chamonix, such as Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi, are well known among skiers and snowboarders who regularly visit the area. But when the area was first mapped out in detail in 1730, the mountains and glaciers were excluded.
None of the mountains had names, and the entire Mont-Blanc Massif was called the ‘Montagne Maudite’ – damned/cursed – up until 1742, when Mont Blanc was given its name by the scientist Pierre Martel.
Like several other French ski areas, the British pioneering spirit played its part in the birth of Chamonix as a tourist destination. Two Englishmen, William Windham and Richard Pococke, were considered to be the first ‘travellers for pleasure’ in the area when they visited in 1741.
During a hike with a guide they named the Mer de Glace glacier, and their published reports helped identify Chamonix’s potential.
Chamonix soon earned a reputation as a mecca for climbers and hikers. The hamlet started to expand into a town, but it was not until the early 1900s that skiers such as Sir Arnold Lunn were encouraged to visit the area during winter to take advantage of the hotels and restaurants which were already in place for summer tourists.
Many of the old buildings that were built in the now historic town are still standing, but I wonder what Windham and Pococke would have made of The RockyPop, the latest 3-star hotel to be built in the area?
First there is the entrance, which looks more like the outside of your local cinema than a hotel – and this ‘look’ is carried through into reception, where you are greeted by Star War robots R2-D2 and C-3PO.
But this is the feel owner and developer Romain Trollet was going for. He wanted a fun, funky retro look to the place that would attract couples, groups and families.
The contemporary restaurant and bar area are designed to encourage communal dining, and some of the tables have been sunk into the floor to offer something a bit different. There are other nice touches such as Space Invader décor in the lifts, and even the tissue boxes in the toilets are shaped like Rubix Cubes.
There is a cathedral-like under-cover outdoor area where even in cold winter conditions guests can sit on large sofas under heaters, or play games like table tennis surrounded by interesting artefacts and giant beach ball-type globes that hang over head.
The retro feel continues into the 148 bedrooms, which are comfortable and well equipped. The TV has plenty of UK channels, which is a bonus as all Brits normally get in French hotels is the tedious BBC 24-hour news channel.
And here’s another interesting feature of the hotel: On the top floor there are two dormitory rooms that sleep 12 people in each. Even during high season these are only €10 per person a night… yes, you read that right, €10 a night! So, if you don’t mind sleeping with all your mates, or fancy a big family get together, you can book the accommodation at a very reasonable rate.
My only real criticism of the place is the location of the well-equipped ski room and hire shop. Why, when the designers had the chance to build a ski hotel from scratch, did they still put the equipment room in the basement? There is a lift to get up and down to it from inside the hotel, but to get outside you have to climb a fairly steep and narrow staircase with all your gear – the bane of every skier and snowboarder I know!
The RockyPop has been built on former farmland in Les Houches away from the local village centres, but the hotel offers its own free morning and afternoon shuttle service to get you to and from the slopes. Plus, there is a bus stop almost right outside where you can catch one of the free and regular local buses that connect with the town and the various ski areas, including Chamonix, Brévent-Flégère, Domaine de Balme/Vallorcine, Les Houches, Le Tour/Argentière, and Grand Montets.
The RockyPop is one of the latest additions to this historic area, and Chamonix continues to move with the times, as from 19-21 April the village will be hosting another modern-day spectacle – an outdoor pop-rock music festival.
The Musilac Mont Blanc will feature around 15 bands in the Bois du Bouchet, which has a capacity for 15,000 spectators (possibly not witches and demons, though!)
I wonder what Windham and Pococke would think if they knew what they had started?
Frank Baldwin stayed at the RockyPop Hotel – www.rockypop-chamonix.com – as a guest of Inghams – www.inghams.co.uk – and the Chamonix Tourist Office. For more information on Chamonix, and details about the Musilac Mont Blanc festival, go to www.chamonix.com