Les Chalets de Philippe Chamonix (France)
Texts by Isabelle Fougère Photographs by Stéphane Frances / Only France
hen we left it behind us, the town was growing pink under the setting sun. Along the winding road, the big pine trees had finished dumping their snowy loads on the frozen asphalt. A right angle bend, and we start climbing to the Balcon du Lavancher, to the place known as “Alpage des Esserts”, at 1,260 meters altitude.
In the middle of nowhere, the gaze embracing the four points of the compass, we are overlooking the whole Chamonix valley: a unique panorama. Here, the Les Houches, La Flégère, and Brévent massifs. There, the summit of Les Drus. Behind us, there’s Argentière and its red Aiguilles, the Balme pass…
We donâ€™t spot right away the old sloping roofs, concealed under many centimeters of powdery snow. Nonetheless, there is a real hamlet here, perched on the mountainside. At the bottom of the valley, we can make out the town, its lights twinkling in the deep night.
The chalet opens in to a dining room and a sumptuously equipped kitchen, with a wood-burning stove full of the charm of the past. A “miller’s ladder” leads to the lounge, and then another and it’s the bedroom, with its large balcony opening towards the mountains, the woodwork warm and light, the big rustic bed bedecked with flannel sheets and down.
Philippe Courtines, the master of the house, is also the stage designer. Nothing was left to chance in the creation of this mountain hamlet, which is his life’s work. He attended to every detail, meticulously restored the walls, scoured flea markets for each piece of furnishing, each painting or decorative object, to make it a one of a kind place to stay.
The chalets and little farm buildings that make up the village have for the most part been brought in. Philippe Courtines unearthed them in the old villages lost on the mountaintops, sometimes bringing them back all in one piece by helicopter! He has thus made a veritable living museum of mountain architecture. Named Grandes Jorasses, Marmotton, Clarines, Barattes, Trolles, Cantates and Cabuche, like in fairy-
tales, the seven chalets sit on the edge of the forest. To fit them out according to his dreams Philippe Courtines called upon the best traditional craftspeople of the region. â€œTime has stopped here!â€? he loves to marvel, ever the old theatre impresario. He who once, twenty years ago, was one of the inevitable figures at the Cannes Film Festival and friend to many stars gave up everything to come settle at the foot of the Mont Blanc.
For this pressured Parisian, the discovery in 1983 of Le Lavancher set off an interior revolution. Searching for a house, he first purchased a tiny chalet here, very old and in a sorry state. Before restoring it, he buried himself in the historical archives, so as not to make any errors. The start of a love story: Philippe Courtines was overcome by an irrepressible passion for the life of the mountain dwellers, their traditions, their everyday objects, their cuisine, their furniture. “Finding the last and rare workers who carry on certain savoir-faires was a real treasure hunt”, he recounts. In the chalet, he had large planks of larch applied to the walls, in the traditional manner; ”tavaillons”
(little wood tiles) were hand cut and 17th century locks put back into working order. For the floor, Philippe Courtines bought light granite flagstone from a château in the Aoste Valley in Italy. On the furnishings side of it, luckily he has blended Moroccan tadelakt in with the prie-dieus and the wooden virgins. Around his restored chalet, the mountain man by adoption has set up several “mazots”, very old buildings that were used in the 17th century to store tools and sacks of grain. He quickly decided to welcome the upmarket public in the manner of a bed & breakfast. And he puts the same care into receiving them as he gave to the planning and building of his hamlet.
High-class toiletries, refined, custommade household linens: comfort on the level of the highest standards, with WiFi, steam bath and above all, an open-air Jacuzzi. The 2007 edition of the Michelin guide has, moreover, praised the “incomparable luxury” of the place. Upon request, the guests can enjoy a massage descending the slopes or private home cinema showings in a theatre dedicated to cinema. Each chalet, in its casing of snow, houses a dreamt of world, staged with taste. You slip right into it with pleasure and delight. In the baroque suite, a box bed awaits under a starry vault, with cherubs, satins, reds and golds. In the steam room, a heated mirror makes you
forget the wintry weather … Each house comes with a kitchen, but a chef remains at the disposal of the hamlet’s guests. Denis Flota, who got his experience at the Auberge de l’Ill d’Illhaeusern (three Michelin stars), can be called in with a catering service or for a
grand dinner. He’s inspired by “grandma’s cooking”, using the best produce of the region, in a healthy and energy-giving fashion. A treat that you just can’t pass up. At dinnertime, in the big dining room of the Trolles house, a story-
teller sometimes comes to recount the mountain legends by the fireside. He wears a big, black cape. In his disquieting voice, he softly reveals what hides in the moonlit glades and how strange travelers sometimes knock at the chalets’ doors. An extra bit of soul that
makes the difference. The refinement of the décor goes hand in hand with that of the conversations. Here, you encounter a tradition, a history, a culture. Chez Philippe Courtines, skiing is not an obligation. The man never
lacks ideas to fill the days. Why not a tour of the workshops of the best artisans in the Chamonix region? For lovers of the schuss, he advises and recommends excellent mountain guides. The hamlet is only a few kilometers from the departure point of the cable car for
the Aiguille du Midi and the legendary Vallée Blanch is also right nearby: the end of the famous hors-piste skiing of “La Pendant”, on the Domaine des Grands Montets. Don’t hesitate to share with your host your most wild wishes. You would like to meet a glaciolo-
gist or go on a dog-sled ride? Buy the wines of Savoy or hunt around the best antique dealers? Nothing seems impossible to the master of the occasion. Omnipresent, attentive, he will only abandon his guests to go work in the privacy of his apartments on the plans for his
next very own folly: the imminent installation of a biotope lake that will be heated in winter, and, above all, an old chapel in the heart of his dreamt of hamlet.