If you’re a bit of a culture vulture, you can drop in to one of the galleries or museums that are in town. The Espace Tairraz holds regular exhibitions - often focussing on exploration, the mountains, the environment and many other aspects of the natural world that are of great signifigance to the Alps.
There's also the Musée Alpin, which displays a permanent collection of historic maps of Chamonix and the Massif du Mont Blanc, as well as a tribute to many great mountain guides who risked (and often lost) their lives, in an effort to demonstrate the wonders of the Chamonix valley.
The Crystal Museum houses an impressive collection of sparkling tresures, many of which were found in the Mont Blanc region. You can learn about the people who make their living hunting down these valuable crystals, or just wander round and marvel at the pretty colours.
For those who enjoy contemporary art Chamonix's hidden gem is the Gallery Midnight. Tucked away down a side street near to the river it is easy to miss, but certainly worth a look should you stumble across it. Argentiere's latest addition to the art scene is Galerie du Globe. Housed in a beautiful period building right opposite the train station Galerie du Globe holds regularly changing exhibitions by international contemporary artists.
In 1997, the villages of Chamonix, Les Houches, Servoz and Vallorcine established a Guest Card system, whereby every visitor to the area is given a card on arrival. The normal method is to ask at your hotel reception, or request one from your chalet/apartment provider.
The card is valid in summer and winter (for the duration of your stay) and entitles you to free travel on the buses and trains between these resorts (with the exception of the Chamo’nuit night bus). If you wish to take the train all the way through to Martigny in Switzerland (which is well worth it) or down to Le Fayet and St Gervais, you just need to pay the difference from Vallorcine or Servoz.
The Guest Card also entitles you to various discounts throughout the valley, such as discounted entry to the swimming pool, Alpine Museum, cross country skiing and more. So, ask for one at the Tourist Offices of Chamonix, Les Houches, Servoz and Vallorcine if you do not receive one when you check into your accommodation.
Cinema in Chamonix
Chamonix's own Cinema Vox is situated right in the centre of town, slightly tucked back on the Place Balmat (main square in the centre). There are 3 recently refurbished screens showing the latest French and International films, as well as a number of premieres and specialist mountain-sports films. Most English language films will be shown at least a few times throughout the week in their original version (V.O.), usually with French subtitles. Cinema listings are given in French and English on their website.
The INSTED language school in Chamonix work together with the Université Stendhal in Grenoble and offers high quality French language courses for all abilities.
The language school was established in the winter of 1999 with the aim of encouraging students to combine their academic studies with their passion for the mountains. This concept has proven to be a big success with the school now not only providing 2-15 week French courses during the winter months; they also offer a 2-13 week summer program, enabling students to improve their French language skills whilst making the most of the plentiful hiking, mountain biking and more hardcore mountaineering opportunities that a summer in Chamonix offers.
I enrolled on a 3 week French course in July having spent the last 3 years living and working in Chamonix for a UK based company. Although my level of French was not too shabby, (having done GCSE many moons ago and subsequent dabblings at university and during seasons) I knew that grammatically I had a lot to re-learn and I was also guilty of making up words quite a lot of the time! This may seem fairly poor after such a time spent in France but with its enormous tourist influx and a large English speaking ex-pat community, Chamonix is not always the easiest place to learn French under your own steam. That’s why for me, undertaking a structured language course was the only way that I was ever going to blow the dust off my French books!
From day one you are encouraged to speak French the whole time, including during the enrolment and introduction to the course. There were ten of us in the group this summer (2005), including a number of other Chamonix regulars, from 8 different countries and with almost as many different ability levels. Initially I thought our varied knowledge and confidence levels would lead to a pretty dysfunctional group, but Kristof, “notre professeur”, used an array of well chosen texts and exercises that somehow managed to get everyone thinking and working together either as a group or in pairs.
Due to the range of levels in our group, we didn’t work from one specific text book but used exercises from a variety of different books, current newspaper and magazine articles, cartoons and even a bit of cheesy French pop music for aural comprehension. When appropriate, the class was spilt into two groups so the teacher could vary the difficulty of material used. However, for the rest of the time if you were working with someone less confident than yourself, it meant you had to try harder to explain the objective of the exercise to your partner using vocab that they understood. Or on the other hand, if you were paired with someone who already had a good working vocabulary then you could discuss the topics in more depth. Even when the whole group was working in pairs, nothing escaped the sharp ears of Kristof (especially not our sneaky English whisperings!) who was always there to answer questions or correct repeated pronunciation or grammatical errors.
Tuition was not always restricted to the classroom and on occasion the lesson was based around a local museum, exhibition or in the town itself where we had the opportunity to test our new found knowledge and confidence on real French people!! The school also arranged a number of optional activities, such as, guided hikes, trips to local vineyards; social evenings in the local (French!) bars, which students could partake in if they wanted.
What we actually learned during the language course varied throughout the group. Some of the more experienced students found parts of the content of the course too basic and wanted to gain a more in-depth grammatical knowledge. At other times you could see the gist of a particular exercise was lost on the beginners in the group because they didn’t have a broad enough vocabulary. However, our teacher was always encouraging and enthusiastic and ensured that nobody was ever left feeling frustrated or left out and certainly, we were all speaking more and more French with growing confidence as the course progressed. This division of interests should become less of a problem in the future as word spreads and the popularity of the summer courses increases. During the winter, class sizes tend to be bigger but the ability level within each group is more consistent.
Personally, I found the whole course very enjoyable; I learned a lot, I had a laugh and it really helped my confidence in speaking French and as a result I now use it more. It also totally revived my motivation to blow the dust of my French books and carry on with a little studying on my own.
INSTED’s language school in Chamonix is open for the majority of the year, which means that you can choose a start date and duration to match your plans. Whether you decide to spend a classic four month ski season in the Alps or combine your French studies with exciting summer activities such as trekking, mountain biking or climbing, they have the course to suit. Lesson programmes are available for two to fifteen weeks and the school can also help you arrange tailor-made courses with your own teacher. All the teachers in Chamonix are French and teach their mother tongue. They are motivated and educated for their task and all have university degrees and experience in teaching French as a foreign language. Intensive courses cost €172-240 per week with a minimum booking requirement of 2 weeks.
For more information on courses and availability click here.