So you think you know Chamonix?

Here’s my round up for WRS’s Lake Geneva’s Voice magazine of a few things you may not know about the adrenaline capital of the Alps: Into the Void

But, if you want to know even more about its links with the Romantic poets, James Bond, Crystal hunting and its very own ‘Route 66,’ then read on….


frankensteinTwo hundred years ago a trio of England’s leading literary figures made a trip to Chamonix. Their sojourn in the Alps quickly become notorious for two reasons:

The poet and political agitator Percy Shelley had taken his future wife, eighteen years old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her step-sister Claire Clairmont, to visit Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, where he was staying with his personal physician, John William Polidori.

At the time, a massive volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies a year previously had changed weather patterns around the world, leaving incessant rain and dark skies in Geneva.

Cooped up inside, on one night in June 1816, Byron challenged each member of the group to write a ghost story and the first seeds of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, were sown.

A month later they booked into an isolated Alpine hotel in Chamonix to escape the miserable weather.

Their time here provided the catalyst for some of the greatest works of English literature. Here the couple first set eyes on the Mer de Glace— the Sea of Ice — a huge glacier above the Chamonix valley, which was the first place in the region to become a tourist attraction.


“This,” Mary Shelley wrote in her diary, “is the most desolate place in the world,” and she chose the dramatic setting as the stage for Victor Frankenstein and his Creation’s momentous meeting in Chapter 9.


Victor Frankenstein, filled with “sullen despair”, seeking peace and relief from “intolerable sensations”, sets off for Chamonix. The Monster has murdered his young brother and framed the family’s servant Justine, who is hanged for the crime.

They meet on the Mer de Glace, where the monster confronts him with his tale of how his cruel existence ignited his desire for revenge against his creator’s loved ones and blackmails him into creating a Demon mate.

Chamonix was also the inspiration for one of Percy Shelly’s most famous works, Mont Blanc, which explores human beings’ place in the universe and confronts the notion of religious certainty.


download-1Whilst in Chamonix Percy Shelley checked into the Hôtel de Londres with Mary and Lord Byron on July 23, 1816 where he made a declaration which sent shockwaves through respected religious English society.

Signing into the hotel, Shelley, who had been expelled from Oxford University for co-authoring an anti-religious tract, declared himself a ‘lover of humanity’, ‘democrat’, and – most outrageous of all at the time – an ‘atheist.’

In the hotel register he wrote he was coming from England and going to ‘L’Enfer’, or hell.

Shelley’s visitors’ book entry was meant to be offensive, and no-one knows by whom or why, but the page was removed from the visitors’ book by late summer 1825, three years after Shelley had drowned in the Bay of Spezia in 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday.

The manuscript was seemingly lost forever but recently resurfaced, pasted into Shelley’s copy of Byron poem, The Revolt of Islam, which addresses revolutionary politics and the long history of the nineteenth century through an elaborate mythological narrative.

This rare book, along with a first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, went on public view this summer in Trinity College Cambridge’s Wren Library.


195136-0-musee-des-cristaux-vitrine-1230 years ago, on August 8, 1786 crystal hunter Jacques Balmat, claimed the historic first ascent of Mont Blanc with Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard. It was their success that established Chamonix as the birthplace of modern mountaineering.

But since the middle ages, local inhabitants of the valley, who were hardy farmers, searched crystals to sell these to watch manufacturers and chandelier makers in Geneva and Milan. Most of the minerals they found were quartz and also the smoky fluorite.

As the interest in mountaineering developed during the nineteenth century, crystal hunters invariably became mountain guides.

The activity of extracting rock minerals diminished, probably due to the fact that glaciers were expanding and hence concealing the entrances to crystal vaults (rock cavities where the crystals are extracted). Today, the collection of these precious minerals is often a family tradition and passion. A well-kept secret, only conveyed from one generation to the next.

50 years ago Chamonix’s mineralogy club was founded, followed by a mineral trade fair, established in 1968 which is held in Chamonix every year and has gained international notoriety.

In 1996 the Ministry of Environment decreed that the collection of crystals was only permitted by traditional means, i.e. without the use of helicopter. In Chamonix a municipal decree obliges crystal seekers to declare their activity and to sign a code of honour.

Today, with the retreating glaciers, dozens of hectares of rock have been exposed. Today there are only around 20 crystal hunters in Chamonix who still perform this ancestral activity.

In 2006 the Musee de Cristaux, was inaugurated at the Tairraz exhibition centre and houses more than 500 specimens from the Mont Blanc massif, as well as from around the world and explains who how “crystal hunting” first brought wealth to Chamonix and how Mont Blanc and the Alps were formed.

There is also a permanent exhibition of the crystal collections of the Mineralogy Club of Chamonix.


chemin_muletier_musee_savoisienBefore becoming a part of France in 1860, the House of Savoy was an independent Duchy, whose lands, including the Chamonix Valley were governed by the princes of Savoy.

In 1860 the Chamonix Valley was to host the visit of their new ruler, the Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie.

Whilst Napoleon hailed the extraordinary beauty of his new province, he was appalled by the dangerous access to Chamonix and promised his citizens a road worthy of his name.

This new roadway linking the plains of Passy with Chamonix was an incredible feat of engineering, allowing travellers to avoid the steep and treacherous paths of the Montées Pelissier where they had to dismount from their mule drawn vehicles and walk.


Open from 1866, a thriving stagecoach shuttle service developed between Geneva and Chamonix. The magnificent horse-drawn coaches transported up to 20 persons, for an eight-hour journey which included a lunch stop.


3054248165_3827a2dfddIn the 007 novels, James’ parents (Andrew Bond of Scotland and Monique Delacroix-Bond of the Canton of Vaud, Switzerland were killed during a climbing accident in the Aiguilles Rouges when he was eleven years old.
After their death, Bond goes to live with his aunt, Miss Charmian Bond in the small village of Pett Bottom, Canterbury, where he completed his early education. He then attended the University of Geneva before being taught to ski in Kitzbühel.
 But it was not until the penultimate novel, You Only Live Twice, that Ian Fleming gave Bond a sense of family background, using a fictional obituary, purportedly from The Times.

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