There's a church just a couple of blocks from the bustle of Chamonix's main pedestrian walkway. It's not unlike many of the other churches in Europe, which is to say it's constructed of stone and oak and gives the impression of being at once graceful and eternally sturdy. But to me, it's different than all the other churches in Europe, because last summer, on a warm July afternoon, I draped my body across its lawn and dozed, while my wife, Penny, and infant son, Finlay, played nearby.
There are many things to do in Chamonix-or in any European mountain town-in summer. You can buy a baguette and a round of cheese, stuff them in your daypack, pedal a rented mountain bike, and swerve through strolling pedestrians ("Excuse! Pardon! Merci! Excusez moi!") until you reach the town's outskirts, where paved road turns to dirt track and dirt track angles skyward. You can swing a golf club in the shadows of glacier-streaked peaks. Or, you can find an expanse of church grass with an unfettered view of Mont Blanc, lie back and watch the mountain until your eyelids grow heavy.
Of course, I didn't slumber through the entirety of our Chamonix stay. In fact, the very morning of my nap we made the short drive from our downtown hotel to the base of the Les Praz tram. It was already warm on the valley floor, and the blue sky provided the perfect backdrop to Mont Blanc's 15,771 feet of ice, rock, and snow. In such benign weather, the mountain looked gentle, welcoming, almost begging to be climbed (we didn't try, but every year about 2,000 people do, mostly in July and August).
The tram earned us a painless 2,500 feet, and we disembarked high above the village at a nexus of hiking trails that spider-webbed in every direction. Think Europeans are passionate about skiing? You should see them hike. They make trails like Americans make SUVs, and they use them, too, long after they're too old to read the label on a bottle of cabernet.
From the tram, we followed the signs for Lac Blanc. (Another great thing about European hiking trails: They're marked. Really, really well marked.) The trail was dry, knobby with rocks, and lined with wildflowers in shades of blue and purple. We climbed steadily for two hours, stopping frequently to turn our faces to the sun and the views of Mont Blanc, and once to let a group of three elderly French women poke and cluck at Finlay. Anyone who has visited France knows that the purported indifference toward Americans is exaggerated; factor in a chubby infant, and it's nonexistent.
At Lac Blanc (Lac is "lake," and Blanc is, well, you know what Blanc means, right?) we dipped our toes in the frigid water and climbed the well-worn steps to an alpine chalet, where we ate huge plates of egg, cheese, bread and wine baked together into the sort of casserole that would make the average American physician faint. The Europeans have a wonderful habit of building rustic chalet-restaurants in the most unlikely places, like clinging to the side of a mountain at 9,000 feet. But their zeal for hiking to these remote sites is such that these establishments seem to not just survive, but thrive.
The next morning we made for the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, driving a circuitous route through the mountains, past farms and through villages. (I couldn't help but notice that every village had a church; every church, an inviting green lawn). Three hours into our five-hour drive (which could have been cut in half on less-scenic highways), we made a pit stop in the tiny town of Chateau d'Oex, ate some chocolate in the park and continued on our way. Two hours later, we motored past the blue-green water of Lake Thun, one of the pair of lakes that give Interlaken its name.
Although Interlaken is the best-known town in the region, we blasted past its clogged downtown and wound through the valley that leads to the charming village of Grindelwald, which is ideally located at the base of the Eiger.
One of the most convenient aspeccts of this region is the Jungfrau-bahnen rail system, which runs over hills and through valleys, connecting the region's loose cluster of towns. For about $100, you can buy a pass, park your car and spend the next five days riding the rails. Better yet, use the train-as we did-to access the alpine meadow and forest hiking trails that run willy-nilly in the shadow of 13,000-foot peaks. Excellent maps are available at the tourism office and at many shops in town.
On one particularly memorable day, we boarded the train for the steep, three-mile climb to the Kleine Scheidegg station, then stepped onto a narrow ribbon of trail that meandered through fields of grazing cattle, all adorned with huge cowbells. When they moved in unison, they sounded like the world's biggest windchime.
Six hours later, sweaty, trail-dusted and wearily content, we were back in town. Penny and Fin went in search of food. And me? I was scanning the skyline, looking for the nearest steeple.
FLYING Geneva airport is centrally located and easy to get in and out of via train or car.
DRIVING Easycar.com rents cool little Mercedes hatchbacks, and has the best rates and service.
SLEEPING In Chamonix, Grindelwald or practically any alpine resort town, comfy lodging is easy to find. In Cham, we stayed at the centrally located Richemond Hotel (011-33-45-053-0885, richemond.fr), which is reasonably priced and has a sun-soaked terrace with great views of Mont Blanc. In Grindelwald, we bunked at the Hotel Caprice (011-41-33-854-3818, grindelwald.ch/caprice), where the "wellness oasis" offers soaking, steaming and a sauna.
GUIDING There's little need for a guide in either Chamonix or Grindelwald -unless, that is, you have a hankering to knock off Mont Blanc, the Eiger or any of the region's high-alpine summits. In that case, your best bet is to contact the regional tourism offices (011-33-45-053-2333, chamonix.com and 011-41-33-854 1212, grindelwald.ch, respectively).Ski Las Lenas, Argentina with Dave Swanwick and Kim Reichhelm. www.laslenasvacations.com/swany/swany_and_kim/