Combining French lessons with a holiday on the Alpine slopes was too good an opportunity to miss for Judy Armstrong
France is at my feet: the view is so huge, it makes my head spin. All around, white mountains glitter under a cobalt sky. Directly below is the Vall�e de Chamonix, a narrow slot between soaring peaks, with silver-blue glaciers frozen to the sides. Above are the great domes of Western Europe’s highest mountains and chuntering to my left is the world’s most famous cable car.
I am standing on an airy platform under the rocket-top of the Aiguille du Midi, at an altitude of nearly 4,000 metres. The temperature is -15�C and my hands have just frozen on to the camera; I have been foolish enough to attempt a photograph of Mont Blanc without wearing gloves.
Normally, I would have made this trip with skis in order to slide down the Vall�e Blanche, Europe’s longest and best-loved off-piste run. But today I check my watch, make my way back to the cable car and descend in gut-wrenching swoops to the valley floor. I have an appointment to conjugate verbs in the present tense and my teacher has issued stern warnings to be punctual. School? Me? I know. It’s more than 25 years since I sat in a classroom and attempted to learn – well, anything. But I’ve had one foot in France and the other in Britain for ten years, and I’m becoming aware that my ability to participate fully in conversations with French friends and strangers needs a boost.
I’ve never had a formal lesson but have picked up the language by ear as I’ve gone along. I can chat away on any number of topics, but now I need to improve. The problem is timing: in summer I want to hike and bike; in winter, I want to ski. So when I heard about Insted, a language school in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc with the slogan Ski & Study, I realised I had run out of excuses and so signed up for a week’s intensive course in mid-winter. Insted’s Linda Larsson advised me that two weeks was the recommended minimum, but I was nervous about whether I was capable of absorbing knowledge handed out from the front of a room.
The intensive seasonal courses (winter for Ski & Study, summer for Hike, Bike & Study) run for 15 weeks and many students move to Chamonix for the duration. The average course length is six or seven weeks, and Linda is happy to be flexible over timings, although beginners do need to join at the start of each term. She considers a 15-week course ideal to give a complete beginner a working grasp of French, although basic ‘tourist French’ could be picked up within a couple of weeks. Private lessons are also available, with extra tuition for students who need specific help to stay within their group.
“Our students are young in spirit and attitude; they are usually sporty but not exclusively so,” she said. “Their common ground is that they want to combine serious learning with sport and leisure, and we are proud to provide this for them.”
Insted was established in 1997 and its headquarters is a bright, modern building in the centre of Chamonix. At the start of the 2012 winter term, 30 students assemble, aged from 18 to 62, from countries including Britain, Sweden, Japan, USA, South Korea and Norway. Over a season, she expects around 80 students to have benefited from Insted’s language programmes, with 200 in the course of a year. But it’s not just about studying. At the initiation meeting, Linda tells us: “You are here to learn French, but also to explore the mountains and experience French culture.”
I ask her about Insted’s point of difference – after all, there is a wide choice of language courses in France. She laughs heartily: “Look around! The mountains! Here in Chamonix we have direct access to the most incredible terrain. In half a day, I can ski the Vall�e Blanche and be back for an afternoon class. Or I can study in the morning, have lunch, and then ski the piste anywhere in the valley. Students come to Insted for high-quality tuition and high-quality sport. We study hard and play hard.”
And so do I. That first day we undergo tests to establish our level of French and ascertain what each individual wants from the course. The majority are here for personal improvement, while others want to sit exams and achieve a recognised grading. Groups are defined and teachers allocated. My class numbers 11, with nine nationalities and three students who have studied here before. We are privileged to have Karine as our ‘prof’: she is gentle, funny and relaxed, speaks slowly until we tune in, starts conversationally and seamlessly moves on to grammar and structure. She is also a red-hot skier and mountaineer, which means that once she has corrected our pronunciation, she can advise us on the best off-piste runs.
Everyone’s looking up
Our days are simply divided. Classes run for three hours morning or afternoon on a rotating cycle so that some days we race for fresh tracks off the first lifts, and others involve relaxing afternoons in the sunshine. There’s plenty of time to explore the town, too: Chamonix has a pretty centre with pedestrian streets, fountains and the River Arve.It takes me a while to work out what’s so different about the town. Then I realise: everyone is looking up. Despite the beauty of pastel-painted buildings framed with delicate balconies, despite the enticing shops and welcoming bars, the instinct is to stare at the monumental natural offerings above and around the town.
The mountains and glaciers are always in a line of vision. Mont Blanc is framed by Belle �poque houses, the Br�vent ski slope is speared by a church spire, and the immense rock pyramid of Les Drus, its orange granite spliced with grey after a vast chunk fell off in September 2011, hovers above a hotel roof.
My apartment, organised by Insted, is high on the valley side, near the Br�vent cable car station. In the evening I see Les Drus and the ragged range across to the Aiguille du Midi scalded red with alpenglow, the lights of Chamonix flickering at their feet. D�me de Go�ter takes centre stage, pressed against the flanks of Mont Blanc. Walking to a morning class, I notice a new moon, white-gold, over its summit.
Pang of envy
It takes very little time to feel like a resident, not a tourist. The walk to Insted becomes familiar and I’m soon on nodding terms with shopkeepers and others using the same route. I feel a pang, too, that I’m here for such a short period, and envy the students who have opted for longer courses. They have bonded quickly, regardless of age, occupation or leisure differences. Those differences are marked: my class includes a banker, a businessman, students, a waitress, a worker on a ship who is taking advantage of a four-week off-duty rota to learn French and an oil engineer who is also an extreme skier and expert in crocheting hats.
We quickly develop regular haunts: Le Bistrot des Sports for coffee, Casa Valerio for pizza, and Monkey Bar for beer, burgers and music. Chamonix is well-equipped for visitors, with an impressive number of restaurants, museums and shops as part of its year-round appeal. Lovers of winter sports flock here from all over the world, yet somehow the French culture prevails. I have no problem finding people on whom to inflict my new-found grasp of grammar; indeed, one of Insted’s missions is to conduct lessons outside, as well as inside, the classrooms.
Not just classes, either – we are encouraged to mingle socially, to join local activity groups (yoga is popular) or set up our own. We are also introduced to Pelle Bagewitz, a mountain guide who works closely with Insted. At the start of our course he holds an evening seminar on avalanche and glacier awareness, and how to be safe in these extreme mountains. Later in the season he offers a weekend’s practical session. As he points out, there have been situations where Insted students have had more enthusiasm than skill on snow, and rescues from glaciers can be painful and expensive.
While many of us take advantage of the mountain guide services or try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, there is also time for more leisurely activities. A classic is to ride the little red train that climbs a cog railway from Chamonix to a platform above the Mer de Glace, to reach the Grand H�tel. Work on the Montenvers line started in 1905; previously, hotel visitors were carried up to the site, at an altitude of 1,913 metres, by mule or sedan chair.
We perch on wooden seats and press noses to the windows as the train rattles up and around the mountain. When we arrive, the view of the Mer de Glace and its attendant mountains silences even the noisiest passengers. Several people take the long drop to the glacier’s surface by gondola and then the 400 steps to visit the ice cave and ice sculptures, hewn from the frozen sea. The biggest glacier in France, its depth is reducing by three to four metres a year, and it remains a major magnet for sightseers and skiers.
Skiers, of course, are spoiled for choice. The off-piste terrain is immense and spectacular, and is best explored with a qualified mountain guide. The five separate, and distinctly different, piste areas are spread along the valley and linked by train and bus, offering something for all skill levels. I have enormous fun on the gentle, sun-soaked slopes of La Tour, at the head of the valley, and spend energetic hours at Les Grands Montets. This is the off-piste mecca of the area where it is possible to ski among ice-blue towers and the shadowed concavity of crevasses on the great Argenti�re glacier.
It is while I am down here, marvelling at the strange twists of nature, that I realise how exceptional this situation really is. One minute I am sitting in a warm classroom conjugating verbs; the next I am wearing five layers of clothing and an avalanche beacon, skiing a wonder of the Alpine world. This combination of studying and sport is a stroke of genius; each is given enough emphasis for you to make genuine progress without the risk of getting stale.
As I slide past another crevasse, I smile with satisfaction: I have been introduced to a new chapter in my relationship with France and have the inspiration, location and the language to take it even further.
Making the most of your stay in Chamonix
By road: Judy travelled with P&O Ferries (www.poferries.com, tel: 0871 664 21 21) and drove to Chamonix (eight to nine hours).
By air: The nearest airport is Geneva; transfers are available to Chamonix.
By rail: See Holiday Planner on page 88.
285 Rue des Allobroges
Tel: (Fr) 4 50 53 03 66
Courses for all levels, available all year. Winter (snowsport) term starts mid-January. Standard intensive course from two weeks (€480) to 15 weeks (€2,580). Insted can organise accommodation, discounted lift passes and sport insurance.
WHERE TO EAT
90 Rue Lyret
74400 Chamonix- Mont-Blanc
Tel: (Fr) 4 50 55 93 40
For authentic Italian pizza (they also run pizza schools).
Alan Peru Chamonix
Avenue l’Aiguille du Midi
74400 Chamonix- Mont-Blanc
Tel: (Fr) 4 50 53 16 04
For French-Asian fusion. Mains from €14.
151 Avenue l’Aiguille du Midi
74400 Chamonix- Mont-Blanc
Tel: (Fr) 4 50 53 57 64
For elegant, innovative food. Winter menu €85.
81 Place Edmond Desailloud
74400 Chamonix- Mont-Blanc
Tel: (Fr) 4 50 96 64 34
For beer, burgers and live music.