What better way to start your day than with a proper espresso and two scoops of real Italian gelato? As we fled the poor weather in Chamonix, driving through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Courmayeur, it never fails to amaze me how different this side of the mountain can be.
The Magic Tunnel
This summer has all been about getting settled here in Chamonix, the free abandon of going out climbing or running whenever I want has taken a back seat to starting The Mountain Foundry, learning French, and making this place a real home. Time has been more limited and so, when I do have a day off, I want to make sure I get out and make the most of it.
The weather doesn’t always cooperate, however.
But, enter the Magic Tunnel. At 11,611m the Mont Blanc Tunnel is an incredible feat of engineering. Straightlining it from Chamonix, the tunnel cuts underneath and right through the 4,810m of hulking mountain, Mont Blanc, delivering us to Courmayeur, Italy. Courmayeur’s tag line is The Sunny Side and it rarely disappoints. Almost no matter what the weather in Chamonix, you drive through the tunnel and the sun is shining, skies are clear, and you are welcomed to Italian hospitality, food, and drink.
It has become a bit of a tradition now, that when we go through to Italy we need to tick a few boxes and have our routine pretty well dialled. Though we could get to whichever of the hundreds of awesome crags in Italian in less than an hour, for some reason it always takes about 2 to get there..
Italian road trip routine
There are some things that the French do better than anyone else – fresh croissants, warm baguettes, cheese.. – but there are also a few things that they just simply don’t do as well as their neighbours. Just a 20 minute drive through the tunnel brings into Italy and the home of 3 of my favourite things that we just can’t get as good at home; coffee, pizza, and gelato.
As we drive down from Courmayeur now, we alway stop in Morgex at the little roadside cafe, Pilier Central, named after the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc which looms massive over the valley from afar. This small, family run pastry shop and cafe hits the mark on the head with real italian coffee but what really makes this place special is the gelato – real, Italian, creamy ice cream.
Though I try to eat well, nothing is going to stop me starting my day here with two scoops of whatever awesome new flavours they have conjured up in the back; from classics like chocolate, amaretto, and pistacchio to amazing creamy fruit flavours like fig or date. If you find yourself in the area, it is well worth making a detour to search out.
Onto the supermarket..
After we’ve had our fill of coffee and ice cream, next door is a supermarket. Chamonix, being up in a valley, can be pretty expensive for groceries and the vegetables are not always that great. Here, however, it is a completely different kettle of fish with local farmers being the main suppliers – kilos of vine ripened tomatoes for 1€, litres of rich olive oil for not much more, and cured hams and fresh mozzarella all make their way into my basket, ready for a perfect lunch between rock climbs and sun bathing.
Finally, after all this has been completed, we can head off for our main objective – climbing – though I do wonder if the climbing is just an excuse for the rest of the trip..
Sport climbing in Italy
Just through the tunnel opens up some of the most amazing climbing I’ve ever experienced. With often zero walk in, the limestone sport climbing of the Aosta Valley is very hard to beat in terms of quality, access, and variety. Crags cover every grade and that means, once we have filled a car with people, there is something for everyone.
With my more limited time this summer, I’ve really wanted to focus on improving my rock climbing and day trips to Italy allow me to get lots of volume in with very little effort. It is on these trips that I get to learn from all the amazing climbers we have not just in Chamonix but coming through with technique being developed as well as strength and endurance.
Whether you are after steep, powerful overhangs or delicate, technical slabs, you can take your pick safe in the knowledge that the crags are rarely busy and the bolts are good quality.
I’m having good days where I feel strong and that I’m climbing well coupled with days where things are not so great, I feel weak, and climbing like a beginner but it is all volume, it is all progress, and it is all bookended with ice cream and coffee.
I know how lucky I am to live in Chamonix, with all it has to offer, but it is also what is just around the corner that makes this such a special place.
Ciao, for now, Italia!