words Chris Zacharia
I’m 3,500 metres up Mont Blanc, Europe’s most iconic mountain, gazing across a range of lower peaks veiled in wispy cloud. This is what a trip on Skyway MonteBianco looks like!
It’s sunrise here on the Italian Alps. Golden shards of light occasionally burst forth, illuminating whole stretches of pristine white valley. And since the wind is whipping my face so violently, I can barely keep my eyes open to see it.
In the past, such a breathtaking view would have been reserved solely for mountain climbers and daredevil snowsport fanatics. But Courmayeur, the picturesque ski resort on the Italian Alps, has just completed a truly spectacular new funicular experience. Skyway MonteBianco is beyond state-of-the-art: a €110 million, two-thousand metre cable car service carrying passengers to luxury terraces on the mountain. Powered entirely by hydroelectricity (like much of Courmayeur), the project marks a new high point in Alpine development.
As I stroll into the cable car on a pristine winter’s morning, I’m unprepared for how fast the Skyway MonteBianco moves. Pretty quickly we’re all gripping the rails with embarrassing grit. But the views offered by the glass-walled, fully-rotating car are enough to drive every other thought from your mind. Rocky, sloping valleys covered in bracken gradually give way to more precipitous, jagged-edge cliffs, mountain goats shyly hiding within the crevices of coffee-coloured boulders.
By the time we reach our first pit-stop on the Pavilion Du Mont-Frety, 2, 173 metres high, I get a sense of the sheer enormity of these mountains. The Alps are unusually vertiginous. Caused by the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, the resulting extreme shortening triggered the folding of steep mountain peaks, such as Mont Blanc – or, as the Italians have it, Monte Bianco – and the romantic, striking Matterhorn.
We’re ascending again, and now we’re climbing so high that other peaks begin to interrupt the horizon. Clouds drift serenely beneath us. Courmayeur, nestled in the valley below, looks no bigger than a scattering of pebbles. The whole journey takes just ten minutes.
We disembark at the highest stop-off point, the Punta Helbronner. It’s at this moment that I regret not bringing a hat. The wind is simply ferocious. Fortunately, the complex is very well insulated: a bright, open-plan conservatory split into two levels, with panoramic views on every side.
Of course, there’s a more adventurous option. A staircase leads outside, where in return for losing all feeling in your frozen ears you’ll be totally spellbound by the view. Peaks surround us like the heads of great statues, mountains gathered beneath in families and tribes, leaning against one another as if in camaraderie. Other than our unsuppressed gasps, the silence is total.
Despite the rapier-like cut of the wind, we’re unable to tear ourselves away from the mountains, taking it all in from every possible angle, preparing selfies while waiting for clouds to reveal Monte Bianco’s famous summit. A good half an hour passes before we trundle back inside, scorched red from the cold but wild-eyed with awe, exchanging superlatives in an attempt to convey our astonishment.
Conceived almost wholly in steel-and-glass, the Pavilion du Mont Frety maximises the mountain’s majesty, blending into the slopes to preserve its beauty. But there are more than just incredible views on offer. Inside, the Pavilion is an engaging hub of authentic Alpine culture. There’s a high-quality restaurant with a spacious balcony and a gallery of Alpine culture, a crystal exhibition, a cinema, and – more implausibly still – a winery. With grapes harvested from the highest-altitude vineyards in Europe, Monte Bianco’s spumante is handcrafted in tiny batches. Yeast is frozen in the bottle by stuffing the magnum in the glacier. A glass before lunch proves that their efforts are not in vain – it’s good stuff.
As anyone who has travelled even a little bit will tell you, restaurants within tourist attractions are to be treated with suspicion. After all, it would be easy for this kind of restaurant to fall into the trap of offering good-enough, tourist-pleasing fast food, but fortunately the Bellevue has more to offer than just the nice views its name promises – lunch here is a real treat. Local Alpine produce takes centre stage in a series of composed and creative dishes, articulating the cuisine and culture which has evolved around Monte Bianco and its surrounding valleys.
The cured meats of the mountain, known as mocetta, are consistently fantastic. Lardo di Arna, with D.O.P. status, is a disarmingly buttery strip of cured pork fatback, served in luscious white curls with chestnuts and crusty bread. Brined with rosemary, juniper, nutmeg and bay, the lardo has a sweet lilt which complements its delicate texture, with the flavour of the berries coming through particularly well. It’s followed by a meaty mushroom tart covered in local Fontina cheese, a nutty cow’s milk cheese made with rich Alpine pastures which goes from ‘good’ to ‘heavenly’ when melted.
A pistachio cheesecake, partnered with delicious ice wine, makes for an excellent conclusion to our lunch. Produced in the Aosta valley, ‘Chaudelune’ – ‘hot moon’ – is a fascinating example of life on the Alps. For a start, the grapes must be harvested at precisely -6°C, which means plucking the vines in the middle of the night, usually in December. The cold concentrates the sugar and strengthens the alcohol content. It’s one of the most well-rounded dessert wines I’ve ever tried, with that viscous, honey-like richness which clings convincingly to the tongue.
Yet the good eating isn’t solely confined to the upper echelons of Monte Bianco. The Courmayeur ski resort is well known for its gastronomy, uniting local produce and world-class chefs. Our hotel, the four-star Gran Baita, is no exception. Its restaurant offers creative twists on hearty mountain food, from rabbit ‘tuna’ – oiled chunks of the meat with a scattered, staccato salad enlivened by Martini jelly – and an unconventional but delicious partnership of marinated trout and crispy pig’s head, served in a crustacean broth.
After this adventurous meal, we settle down in the hotel’s wonderfully cosy fire-side snug for a snifter of genepì, a herbal high-altitude liqueur with a beautiful mint-green hue. Just five minutes from the centre of Courmayeur and ten minutes from the slopes, the Hotel Gran Baita is exactly the kind of comfortable, welcoming place you’d wish for after a long day on the mountain.
I spend my final day exploring Courmayeur, both on and off the slopes. Nestled in the Aosta valley, Courmayeur’s character has been shaped by Swiss, French and Italian culture alike, giving it a more cosmopolitan feel than its size would suggest. Yet the people have a likeable independent streak: the local dialect, Valdotain, is still widely spoken, and they take pride in protecting their community’s distinct character.
Courmayeur’s cobblestoned, pedestrianised promenade is one of those charming little boulevards you sometimes find in unspoilt parts of Europe. Almost every shop boasts artisanal craftsmanship, from traditional wooden toys reminiscent of Victorian households, to candles carved in the shape of robins, to delis groaning under the weight of the regional meats and cheeses. It has that unmistakable feel of continuity, although it comes at a cost: Courmayeur’s property prices are among the very highest on the continent.
During the winter months, the population swells. Yet by virtue of being smaller than most resorts, Courmayeur has a boutique, communal feel, with far less of the overcrowding which you find across the valley in Chamonix. At the same time, the facilities are as good as anywhere in the Alps. Everything you need for a day on the slopes is available to rent, and even if you’re a total beginner – as I am – high quality instructors are easy to come by. The Monte Bianco Ski School is the largest in Italy, and boast hundreds of qualified instructors. There’s also plenty of off-piste and Norwegian skiing for the more experienced, with guides at hand to help you get the most out of it.
Our final evening is spent not far from the slope I spent all day disgracing. Chateau Branlant, a traditional stone lodge, feels as though it has been lifted straight out of a fairytale. There’s an old-fashioned stove, huge beams of wood stretching like bicycle spokes to the lodge’s centre, and a hearty menu of traditional winter warmers. Upstairs, uproarious laughter punctuates a big feast. It’s like dining in the cottage of a friendly woodland witch in an old Disney film.
The menu is not afraid to embrace the old hunting mentality of the mountain, bringing the wilderness onto the plate. Charcuterie, as chunky and robust as you’d hope, starts meal off on an impressive note. But it’s the venison loin, flavoured with wild juniper berries, which really captures the spirit of the place. Blushing a crimson pink within, the venison loin is served with a porridge of polenta and spinach, and lent piquancy by a chutney and candied apple. It’s outrageously good, each mouthful offering a new combination of fresh Alpine flavours.
Once we find out that there’s a dessert called ‘Monte Bianco’, we somehow feel obliged to order it. And we’re very glad that we do. A heavenly upgrade on Eton Mess, it’s a gloriously chaotic indulgence: meringue sits beneath a creamy vortex of puréed praline, chestnut and almond, topped with whipped cream like the snowy cap of the mountain. “It makes me wanna yell” says another guest, shaking his head as he shovels another heaped forkful of joy into his mouth. Although the dessert has soon vanished from our plates, the memory of Monte Bianco’s summit remains long after we fly home.
To find out more about Skyway MonteBianco including Skyway Monte Bianco price, visit www.montebianco.com
Accommodation at the Hotel Gran Baita can be booked at www.hotelgranbaita.com
words Chris Zacharia