Well, it has been over five months now since I decided to base myself for a while in Courmayeur, nestled in the Aosta Valley, in the Italian Alps. That should tell you that I am obviously loving it here. The hiking, for an outdoorsy person like me, is a huge draw, as is being smack bang in the middle of some of the most stunning scenery in the whole of Europe, in my humble opinion of course.
I love the sleepy, friendly and traditional feel of the village, my apartment is right on some great walking trails and Courmayeur is a really great location for allowing me to explore further afield in Italy, France and Switzerland.
As you can imagine, the big draw for most visitors to the area is the Skiing. During the winter season, the village is awash with skiers and snowboarders. It is a popular area for off-piste options and cross-country skiing and the Apres-Ski is renowned.
In the Summer there are swarms of hikers that descend on the village. Courmayeur is on the famous Tour du Mont Blanc trail. Look out for my forthcoming article on some of my favourite hikes around the area.
But, even if you are not a skier or a fan of hiking, there are lots of other great things to do in Courmayeur and its surrounds and I am going to share some of my top suggestions with you.
Views over my neighbourhood in Courmayeur
The Pre Saint Didier Terme
The Spa and Thermal Baths, located in the nearby village of Pre Saint Didier, are probably one of the areas biggest draws, and quite rightly so. It makes for a very relaxing and unique day out.
The thermal waters have been noted as far back as Roman times and the Spa itself has been around since the 19th century in some form or other, it is said that the healing properties of the water were what drew the first tourists to the Aosta Valley.
The Spa now is centred around the original building that has been around since 1834.
The outdoor area is impressive. There are three large thermal pools and plenty of sun loungers for the warmer summer months. The views as you sit back and relax are what really makes this place I think. You are nestled down in the valley and surrounded on all sides by dramatic mountain views. It really is spectacular!
Even in the winter the Spa has lots of visitors. The water filling the pools stays at a balmy 37 degrees Celsius all year round, so it is perfect for resting those weary bones after a day on the slopes.
Around the outdoor pools are a number of wooden chalets that are home to different sauna facilities and then in the warren of the old buildings, there are lots more different areas to explore. The staff tell you that there are over 40 different experiences to enjoy. These include lots of different jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms, a salt scrub experience and a floatarium room which plays music under the water surface.
There are a whole host of relaxation areas, my favourite is the ‘cloud’ room with comfy hanging bubble chairs.
I have visited a few times with some of my visitors and we all agreed that it would be handy to have a little map showing you how to navigate around all the rooms and corridors and explaining what each thing is. At first, we were not sure what rooms might be off limits and where everything was. Basically, aside from the treatment rooms, you are allowed to use pretty much all of the facilities.
The Spa costs €45 and, in comparison with some other places I have tried, I think it is really great value for many. There are a lot of areas for you to explore, you are not limited on time, you can stay all day if you want, and the price includes access throughout the day to a healthy buffet. It includes fruit, yoghurts, cereals, some crudites, cheese dips and bread (don’t expect a full meal unless you pay extra).
The buffet area, although large, can get very busy at peak times (it is probably the biggest area for improvement) so get their early or in the later afternoon to avoid the chaos spoiling your calm.
I would also recommend booking the Spa in advance. Their website is easy to use and you are allocated a time slow to arrive and it helps minimise any wait to get in. A robe, a towel and a pair of flip-flops are provided. You may want to bring an extra towel for your shower at the end as you have to use the towel provided to lie on in the sauna facilities so it can get damp.
This is not an activity suitable for children, entrants have to be over 14 years old.
The buildings that are home to the Pre Saint Didier Terme, Thermal Baths & Spa
The impressive cable cars: Skyway Monte Bianco and the Aiguille Du Midi
Okay, so if you are on a budget these ones may not be for you, but if there is one thing you want to splash out on, I would say this would be it. There are, obviously, lots of cable cars in the region for the skiing but there are two that are famous tourist attractions within themselves.
The Skyway Monte Bianco Cable Car
The Skyway Monte Bianco is the newer of the two and it is on the Courmayeur side of the Mont Blanc Massif. Only opened in 2015, the construction has garnered much attention due to the scale of the project, the impact on the landscape and the cost of over 100 million Euros to build, t is said to be the world’s most expensive cable car project.
The cable car has two stops, the mid station point of Pavillon Du Mont-Frety at an altitude of 2,200 meters and then the final destination of Punta Helbronner at an altitude of 3,466 meters.
The cable cars unique selling point is that on the journey up to Pavillon Du Mont-Frety, the cabin makes a complete 360-degree rotation giving its passengers views from all sides.
You will be able to enjoy close up views of Mont Blanc and, on a clear day, you can also see the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa in Switzerland.
At €52 for a round trip it is not cheap but, especially if you are not a hiker, you really do get to appreciate some stunning views that you would not be able to appreciate otherwise.
The Aiguille du Midi Cable Car in Chamonix
The higher and more visited of the two big cable cars is the Aiguille Du Midi on the Chamonix side of the Mont Blanc Massif.
If you only have the time or the budget to do one of the cable cars, then this is the one I would personally recommend.
In peak season the queues can get long so I would recommend getting there early or heading up out of season, do check though to make sure that it is open first. Make sure you check the weather too. It would be a shame to spend all that money for there to be heavy cloud cover spoiling your view.
Again, not cheap at €63 for a round trip. We spent over 2 hours up there on our last visit though and could have spent longer if we weren’t pressed for time and, honestly, the views really do take your breath away!
Views from the Aiguille Du Midi Cable Car. If you look close enough you can see the intrepid climbers and off-piste skiers making their way down the snowcovered ridge!
I would also recommend, if you have the time, getting the much better value for money one-day multi-pass. This costs €65 and allows you access to the Aiguille Du Midi and a number of other attractions in Chamonix, including the famous Montenvers Train up to the Mer De Glace Glacier.
With a much longer history, this cable car has been around in some form since 1955. There are, again, two stations; the first stop is the Plan de l’Aiguille at an altitude of 2,317 m and then you head up to the top station that stands at 3,777 m in altitude. A lift takes you up even further so that you end up at 3,842 m at the highest point.
It can get pretty chilly right up at the top, even in the Summer months, so make sure you bring appropriate clothing and don’t forget the sunglasses too. When we visited at the end of December it was freezing and I wished I had actually brought my skiing mittens rather than my ordinary gloves. I took one hand out of my glove for a few minutes to take some photographs and it was hard to get a good shot because of the shaking and my fingers were numb within a matter of seconds!
The ‘new’ attraction at the Aiguille is ‘A Step into the Void’. This is a glass cage that hangs over a 1000 m precipice. I didn’t actually realise what it was until we were already caught in the queue to head round to it. We waited half an hour and, if I hadn’t had visitors, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Yes, it is a bit gimmicky but, I was glad we waited as we actually got some nice photos and, given you have come all the way up there, why not!
The photo opportunities from the ‘A Step into the Void’ glass cage. Okay, so we waited about half an hour to get this photo but it was worth it, right?
The staff at this section couldn’t have been friendlier or more patient, and that is saying something given they are standing taking multiple photos of crazy tourists like us all day!
At the top platform, for safety reasons, you are not allowed to venture onto the summit but, if you come up in the Summer you are likely to be mingling in the cabin with some hardcore climbers and all their gear and then, in the winter, with some off-piste skiers and ice climbers. They have to pass through a specially designed tunnel that then gives them access to a very precipitous ice ridge to descend into the glacier below. Not for the faint-hearted!
Be aware that, for safety reasons children under 3 are not permitted, so not one to do if you are travelling with a very young family.
Montenvers Train and the Mer De Glace in Chamonix
If you are visiting Chamonix and you only have time to do one thing, for me taking the Montenvers Train up to the Mer De Glace is the the one. It is not necessarily the best tourist attraction but it is one of the most visible examples of the devastating impact of climate change so, for me, that makes it a must-see.
The rate that the Mer De Glace Glacier is shrinking as a result of Climate Change is alarming
The old fashioned train line runs from Chamonix up to the Mer De Glace (‘Sea of Ice’) Glacier. The Glacier is the largest in France, but that doesn’t mean that the rate at which it is shrinking is any less dramatic. It is a very visceral example of climate change at play.
In the space of just twenty years, the Glacier has shrunk an almost unbelievable eighty metres! Climbers used to be able to walk pretty much directly onto the ice and now they have to climb down a set of ladders pinned to the side of the rocks to make it to the retreating surface.
When you are visiting the site, providing it is open, you can make your way down to the Ice Grotto, this is a cave that has been carved out of the ice, allowing you to walk inside the glacier.
In fine weather, you can walk down from the station the whole way, in bad weather, or if you want to save yourself a steep climb, there is a gondola that takes you most of the way down. You do still need to have a degree of fitness though as there is, currently, a further 480 steps that you have to negotiate to get right down to the grotto entrance. As you wind your way down the steps there are marker points on the rock face that indicate the year the glacier reached that height. It is an effective way of illustrating just how quickly the glacier is shrinking and really hammers home the impact of climate change. Surely even Trump couldn’t argue with this if he visited?!
Whilst making your way down the 480 steps to the Ice Grotto look out for the signs illustrating how quickly the glacier is retreating
During peak season this is another attraction that can get pretty busy so be prepared to queue for the train if you arrive during the middle of the day.
It is also another one where the weather can change dramatically. When I visited at the start of November there was a harsh wind that was blowing through the valley and it made it much colder than when there was snow and ice when I visited at the end of December. Make sure you dress for the weather.
During the Summer, there is a trail that leads back down to Chamonix in a couple of hours if you are feeling energetic.
Where to eat in Courmayeur
Okay, so I am not going to sugar coat it. Eating out in Courmayeur is generally pretty expensive. It is a desirable ski resort and attracts some wealthy visitors. If you are looking to eat on a budget you may be better staying somewhere that has cooking facilities.
If you don’t mind splashing out though, the village is home to a lot of fantastic restaurants on and off the slopes.
My favourite recommendation if you don’t mind splurging a bit is the well-reviewed Ristorante Chalet Plan Goret. It is about a ten to fifteen-minute uphill walk from the village centre but it is worth the trip.
If you are looking for sophisticated and modern decor, this is not the place for you. It is furnished in a traditional alpine style with lots of kitsch love heart decorations adorning the walls – I think it is charming.
The highly rated Ristorante Chalet Plan Goret is well worth a visit if you don’t mind splashing out a bit
It is a family owned establishment and the team take great pride in the restaurant, their food and the customer service. You are always given a warm welcome. The food is always delicious, well presented and offers mountain fare with a modern twist.
It is a very popular little place so it is always best to book in advance, and very far in advance during peak season.
If you are looking for somewhere better value then I don’t think you can go wrong with Pizzeria La Remisa. Yes, it might be right next to the bus station but it does mean you can usually get a nice sunny spot with mountain views and the family that own the restaurant are really friendly, the pizzas are huge and very tasty and they are good value too. One pizza between two people is usually enough.
For great value, delicious pizzas and friendly service look no further than Pizzeria La Remisa
I also like Cafe Roma on the main shopping street in the village. Yes, their Aperol Spritz, the favourite local Cocktail, are still around 10 euros a pop, the average along this stretch, but you also get complimentary nibbles with your drink and they are very generous in their quantities and it can fill you up as a lunch. In the skiing season, they have a complimentary buffet!
Visit Aosta to soak up the history and enjoy some good value food
Aosta, the Valleys Capital City is a history lovers delight and home to lots of great restaurants.
Around 35 to 50 minutes drive away from Courmayeur. If you are driving, you can choose to minimise the journey by heading along the Toll Motorway but then you have to pay a whopping fee for the privilege, at the time of writing is was €8.90 one way. A local told me it is the most expensive stretch of toll road in Italy. The alternative is to go along the longer route through the Valley which allows you to soak up the mountain scenery and spot the many castles along the way.
Courmayeur is notoriously expensive so eating out in Aosta itself is a pleasant change with lots of great value places to stop for a bit to eat.
The pedestrianised main street is really attractive. Long, narrow, traditional and cobbled it is home to lots of independent shops, bars and restaurants. In the summer it can be nice to stop at one of the bars, grab a seat outside and watch the world go by. There is, as you would expect in any Capital, a lot of tourist tat but it tends to be more tasteful than some destinations.
If, unlike me, you are a history buff then you will love this City as it is full of Roman history and ruins. The Roman Theatre also plays host to the annual Christmas Market, “Marche Vert Noel”, which runs from the end of November to the beginning of January.
There are a lot of free parking options around a ten-minute walk from the City Centre but there is also an underground car park beside the bus station right next to the centre that is not expensive.
There are regular buses to and from Courmayeur too.
The impressive Roman Theatre in Aosta, and check out the backdrop too!
You are close to lots of other fantastic Italian Cities, including Turin and Milan
If you have hired a car and want to venture further afield there are lots of great options to consider. The most popular choices are Milan (Milano) which is around 2 and a half hours drive away, using the Toll roads, and Turin which is just under 2 hours drive away.
If you have time, take a day trip to Annecy in France
Whilst Milan and Turin are big tourist draws, I prefer my day trip destinations to be places that have easy access to green space and walks for Annie my dog. That is why, if you have a car, Annecy in France is my top day trip recommendation.
You do have to head back through the Mont Blanc Tunnel though so you will need to factor in this cost too. If you are also doing a trip to Chamonix and the drive back to Geneva Airport, this is where most people fly to, you may want to consider getting a ten trip pass for the tunnel. It is €56.90 for a return trip through the tunnel and €142.30 for a ten trip pass.
It is around an hour and a half drive from Courmayeur and it is one of my favourite towns in France and has been affectionately dubbed ‘The Venice of the Alps’.
The Old Town is really picture postcard perfect with cobbled streets and a whole host of quirky, pastel coloured buildings that run alongside the canal routes.
It does get very busy in the town centre during the peak summer season. I visited in August and it was a bit too crowded for mine and Annie’s liking but, when I visited in November it was still a beautiful day for taking a stroll along the Lake and it was much more peaceful.
There are plenty of spots for fantastic photo opportunities; from the Pont des Amours (Lovers’ Bridge) at the edge of the Lake looking in towards to the town again or the Palais de l’Isle which is now a local museum and is regarded as one of France’s most frequently photographed buildings.
The Palais de l’Isle in Annecy, you can see why it is so often photographed
For outdoor lovers, you can enjoy the crystal clear waters of Lake Annecy. If you are not feeling brave enough to take a dip, you can walk the many trails surrounding the Lake, take out a paddle boat or head out on a boat cruise.
Stunning views over Lake Annecy
The Arrancabirra and the great long distance running events
If you want to soak up a bustling, festival atmosphere in Courmayeur and enjoy spectating at some major outdoor events, Courmayeur is home to three biggies!
The Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc
The first is the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB). This is an annual race, usually at the end of August/beginning of September, that starts and ends in Chamonix and passes through Courmayeur. It is 171 kilometres (106 miles) but it is not the length that makes this one of the most punishing long distance races in the world, it is the fact that it takes in some seriously tough mountainous terrain.
There are very tough entry regulations, the runners need to have accumulated a certain number of points from other long distance races during the previous two years but, despite this, it is so tough that even many of these athletes still struggle with the challenge. In 2017, 34% of the entrants were not able to complete the race and in 2016, 42% never made it.
I went to Chamonix during the race days to watch some hardy souls cross the finish line last summer and the atmosphere and amount of goodwill towards the racers was fantastic. Xavier Thevendard was the first over the finish line in an almost unbelievable 20 hours and 44 seconds!
This year’s race also gained some positive press as a result of an image that went viral of a British female competitor called Sophie Powers. Her baby was three months old and breastfeeding at the time. At every rest stop her husband was there to meet her so that she could use the breast pump to allow him to take more milk back to their son.
The image showed a very composed looking Sophie feeding Cormac at a rest stop with a pump on her other breast. She had raced for over 16 hours before being reunited with her baby Cormac in Courmayeur. Whilst Sophie is feeding her baby there is another competitor lying on his back with his feet up, exhausted. She then had to continue on with the race before being reunited again with her family in Chamonix. She completed the race in 43 hours and 33 minutes – amazing! I love the message this image sends out that you don’t need to lose yourself or your passions just because you are a mother.
The Tor Des Geants
Another annual race, but this time one that starts and finishes in Courmayeur and follows mountain trails across the Aosta Valley. I had just moved into my apartment in the Village when the race was taking place last year and hearing the competitors running directly past my windows, poles clacking on the road surface, for a few days at all times of day and night was something I won’t forget.
At 330 kilometres (205 miles) this race, that must be completed within 150 hours, is a feat of unbelievable endurance.
In 2018 the winner of the race, Italian Franco Colle, completed it in a superhuman 74 hours and 3 seconds. So basically, he ran the equivalent of nearly 8 marathons, in extremely mountainous terrain, in just over 3 days!!
The atmosphere in the Village during the event is amazing and the route to the finish line goes directly through the town centre so you can, perhaps ironically, sit and enjoy a refreshment whilst cheering on the finishers.
The Arrancabirra – the fancy dress and beer mountain race!
This is one of my favourite events in the region. The Arrancabirra is one of the closing races of the season, at the start of October, and despite it still being 18 kilometres on mountainous trails the competitors wear fancy dress and can enjoy a beer at every one of the six stops along the way.
The event starts and ends in Courmayeur and if you are visiting the area when it is on it is so worth heading along for the start of the race to watch all the weird and wacky costumes, how some of these guys manage to run in their get-ups is beyond me! Each year there is a designated theme and, whilst some people just do their own thing, in 2018 it was ‘Lord of the Rings’ so there were plenty of Gandalf’s and Hobbits to be seen!
The end of the race can get a bit rowdy, not surprising given the potential number of beers consumed en route, and there is a party in a marquee at the finish point that is famed for going on into the wee small hours of the morning.
My best friend, Susan, was over when this was on and we had great fun watching all the competitors head over the start line. If I had been around for it next year, I would have been tempted to apply to enter, although I would have given the beer a miss!
The start of the Arrancabirra, the 2018 theme was ‘Lord of the Rings’