Two years ago, a month before the ex prime minister Matteo Renzi opened the Skyway Monte Bianco to the public, I had the chance to visit what the Valle d’Aosta natives describe as the eighth wonder of the world. And I must say, trying not to sound too parochial, that they have a point.
The new cable car station of the Monte Bianco line is a short walk from the town centre of Courmayeur – the last Italian town before the French border and a ski resort favoured by skiers who come up from Milan – and the cable car takes you directly into the heart of the mountain. The cable car stops halfway, at a place known to the regulars as Pavillon, and then – straight through – to 3466 m above sea level.
The car rotates as it climbs up the mountain: no need to push to enjoy the view. Then, when you get to the top you see the highest Alpine peaks of Europe from a viewing platform. However, you will find a breathtaking panoramic terrace if you go up another floor, perhaps knee-deep in snow and a mere few degrees above zero, or else at noon on a sunny spring day. And behind you, the famous Mer de Glace glacier, the sea of ice as it’s called: flowing down 24 km to Chamonix.
With Skyway, reaching the top is easy and it’s accessible to everyone, but please take care: don’t irritate the guides by wearing Birkenstocks and shorts.
Actually, my first trip wasn’t at all like this: I was lucky enough to be accompanied by the chief engineer of the building site’s safety department with whom I experienced what it was like to test the cable service between Pavillon and Punta Helbronner.
So, we arrived at the Torino chalet using the old cable car, and after having poked around the cranes perched on several rocks and hanging over the cliffs of the steep Italian side of the Monte Bianco, we went through a 140 m-long natural tunnel to get to the lift foundation (that was being tested) which connects the old chalet to the new structure: a 70 m high staircase, in other words 20 floors to climb on foot. But, it was worth it, the sky was clear and bright (although it snowed later on), the view from the terrace left me speechless.
But the trip back was also well worth it, when at Pavillon du Mont Fréty we were greeted by a jubilant group of workers: who told us about structures that were transported and assembled using helicopters, about snowstorms and about the top Italian engineers who are renowned for building at high altitudes, and you can’t turn down a buffet served at 2.200 metres above sea level. And then we let loose with a traditional local feast. Pavillon isn’t just a stop halfway along the route: there are a wine cooperative, two great restaurants, a cinema and a conference hall that seats 150 people.
If you fancy a weekend visit to the narrow Valle d'Aosta, after exploring the medieval castles with turrets, you can take in photography exhibitions at the Bard fort, the Christmas market in Aosta town centre or enjoy relaxing at the Pré Saint Didier Spa. Then at the end of the valley, a few hundred metres from the town of Courmayeur, there’s a new destination.
Skyway is a one of a kind experience. It doesn’t merely consist in seeing the highest mountain in Europe up close and — weather permitting — the famous 400 in the distance (Grand Combin, Cervino, Monte Rosa and Gran Paradiso), in fact it means appreciating this feat of engineering too, an extraordinary spectacle made by man to defy nature and the laws of physics. But you don’t have to defy nature, just use your common sense.
The Monte Bianco Skyway cable car info and timetable
The Monte Bianco Skyway cable car is closed at the beginning of November each year for routine maintenance work. It opens again on the first of December for the winter season. In wintertime the first inbound journey is at 8:30 and the last outbound journey is at 16:30. The full-price ticket costs 49 Euros, but there are several deals available on the official website.
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